How did two immigrants from Spain, with no background or interest in alcoholic spirits, end up owning a ghost town from a nineteenth century shale oil mine largely operated by Scottish immigrants and then quickly establish an award winning distillery nestled in a secluded and beautiful Southern Highlands valley?
It certainly wasn’t the plan in 2011 when Valero and Elisa Jimenez bought their Joadja property, less than half an hour from Berrima. In fact, the purchase itself wasn’t part of their plan.
“We fell in love with Joadja, the land and its heritage, in the early 2000s,” says Valero, who speaks quickly but clearly. “When we found out this property was for sale, we went to the auction in Sydney intending to introduce ourselves to the new owners so we could get permission to visit. At the end of the auction we were the silly buggers with our hand in the air.”
Remarkably, when they bought the 718 acre property just over a decade ago, the Jimenezes had no experience in making whisky or gin.
“We knew nothing at all. Zero. We didn’t even have an interest in spirits.”
Valero was born in Malaga and came to Australia as a six year old in 1972 when his parents decided to flee the Franco regime with their six children. Elisa was born in Jerez and her parents, with their seven children, moved to Australia in 1971 when she was 18 months old.
They met at Valero’s sister’s Sydney law practice in 1987. Elisa was 18 years old and it was her first day at her new job. Valero was a 21 year old student who had been babysitting his nephews and nieces before dropping them off to his sister. The attraction on both sides was immediate.
“The rest is history,” says Valero with a smile.
So how did they become award-winning distillers?
“Soon after we bought the property I contacted Bill Lark, the godfather of Australian whisky, because I thought he could recommend someone who might want to rent the space and operate the distillery. After a few minutes, Bill said: ‘Why don’t you make whisky yourself? If you can get access to Spanish sherry barrels then you are 90% of the way to making good whisky because they are the best barrels in the world for making whisky. The Scots have been using sherry barrels from where you were born for hundreds of years.’”
Valero learned that the sweetest sherries come from a grape variety known as Pedro Ximenez – “which is, of course, my surname.”
The fact that Scots had a long tradition of using Spanish sherry barrels to make whisky, and that Scottish immigrants had played a critical role in developing the shale oil industry in the valley that these Spaniards now owned, intrigued Valero. He and Elisa decided to give it a go.
“Bill said he would help me and things developed quickly from there,” says Valero. “I discovered the science subjects I had studied for my engineering degree – physics, chemistry and biology – were very relevant to making whisky. And I found I could be creative. Engineers are usually told exactly what to do and just make sure it stands up. With distilling, I discovered I had absolute freedom.”
Joadja Distillery is blessed with its own spring water and is one of only a few whisky distilleries in the world to grow its own barley.
“We sow and harvest our own barley. We don’t need to irrigate and we don’t use any chemicals at all – no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.”
The local spring water and home grown barley not only contribute to the distillery’s distinctive taste and “signature”, they were also important factors, along with the use of solar power, that saw Joadja Distillery being Highly Commended in the Sustainable Distillery category of the 2021 Icons of Whisky Awards.
“Our intention is to sustainably create and share authentic quality spirits that are true to the character, nature and heritage of Joadja Valley,” says Elisa.
Joadja Distillery’s whiskies and gins have won numerous awards over the four years since they have been available for sale and in 2019 they were approached by a representative of the current Governor of NSW, Margaret Beazley AC QC, to produce a special edition of gin to be an official gift of the State.
“When he gave me his card, I thought it was a prank,” says Valero, “but it wasn’t! Her Excellency has even been to visit us.”
The NSW Governor’s special gin includes traditional botanicals such as juniper, coriander, angelica root, cardamon pods and aniseed as well as native botanicals such as lemon myrtle, mountain pepper, strawberry gum, cinnamon myrtle and anise myrtle. In February this year, the Jimenezes were delighted to be told the Governor had gifted a bottle of their special gin to Queen Elizabeth II on her Platinum Jubilee.
Joadja Distillery also makes an Anis Liqueur and, very recently, has formed a partnership with Lion Nathan to produce Tilde, a raw vodka distilled from “wash” supplied by the White Rabbit Brewery while using the local spring water in the distillation process.
For the Jimenezes, their story is one of immigrant success.
“The Scots who came out here to mine the shale oil were immigrants. Whether you’re Scottish or Spanish or Chinese it doesn’t matter. We all have this common link, which is that we came looking for opportunities in a better place. The freedoms and the values we have in Australia are second to none.”
After significant disruption caused by COVID-19 restrictions, Joadja Distillery’s cellar door is now open again, however the historic site tours remain on hold. The one silver lining from the COVID-19 cloud is that they were able to upgrade some equipment. This means they are better placed to meet the growing demand for Joadja Distillery’s suite of spirits,
“We bought this as a family retreat with the plan to semi-retire,” Valero says. “But it hasn’t quite worked out that way!”
For more information visit www.joadjadistillery.com.au
Michael is the Gallery Manager at Michael Reid Southern Highlands, located less than half an hour from Joadja Distillery, and he is partial to the occasional dram of whisky.
Jodie, staff photographer across Michael Reid galleries, enjoyed a morning spent photographing Valero and Elisa on the grounds of the Joadja distillery.