Queensland farmer Craig Spencer was tired of seeing how much produce was going to waste on the farms of his family-owned business.
The farms produce things like ginger, pineapple and various kinds of citrus, all of which come with a portion of waste that cannot be sold onto grocery or processing customers. But it was the waste from the sweet potato farm that bothered Spencer the most.
“There was nothing wrong with these sweet potatoes, but they were too big for the supermarket specification and too big for our processing contracts as well… that product would just be dumped or left in the ground,” Spencer explained.
So in 2018, Spencer and his team started to think about how to become more sustainable and tackle this problem, while also diversifying the business.
Being a vodka drinker and especially enjoying traditional vodka made from potatoes, Spencer started investigating the possibility of using the leftover sweet potato to create his own vodka.
“Historically, potatoes have made the best vodka. Today, a lot of vodka producers use cheaper raw ingredients like various grains and the like, because potatoes and sweet potatoes are an expensive commodity. But having the production of our own sweet potatoes, we had the ability to make it the traditional way, so that’s why we started on this kind of project,” Spencer said.
It took over two years of Spencer working with a range of distillers to finally perfect the premium end product, Spencers Vodka.
Not having a background in the liquor industry, Spencer had to overcome his fair share of challenges to get to this point. One of the biggest differences he found between the produce and liquor industries was the speed at which they move.
“Coming from a produce background, we’re dealing with something that’s alive when we’re harvesting it and it’s all about the urgency of getting it to the store in the quickest and most efficient manner you can. Whereas with liquor, there’s not that urgency,” Spencer said.
But despite the learning curve, Spencer is committed to staying in the liquor industry, with plans to move production of Spencers Vodka from a contract distillery to his own distillery which is currently in the works. There are further plans to expand the sustainable approach that is saving unsellable sweet potatoes to also save other leftover produce that is currently going to waste – for example, with ginger and pineapple liqueurs.
For now though, Spencers Vodka is focused on expanding its footprint in liquor stores and local bars. Described as being incredibly smooth, Spencers Vodka is aiming to compete with premium local and international brands already well established in the industry, and Spencer says it’s looking positive so far.
“Everyone that’s tried it has wanted to stock it and work with it, so that’s encouraging. We wanted to make a vodka that was different, that was special, that was premium… I think we’ve achieved something great,” Spencer said.