John’s Tasmanian whiskey adventure

Following the purchase of a Tasmanian country home, John Ibrahim got a knock on the door from Australia’s Godfather of Whisky, Bill Lark. Knowing nothing about whisky and offering Bill a Johnny Walker, in 2022 John opened the doors to Callington Mill Distillery.

John Ibrahim arrived in Australia by ship from Lebanon at just four years old with his family. It was 1966, and his parents were desperate to escape the growing political and military unrest for a life in Sydney.

“When I was 15, I started working at the local petrol station to help my family out and support myself,” explains John. “I was a console operator and began learning the business from this age.”

At the time, Australian petrol stations were standalone entities or attached to mechanical workshops. With supermarkets typically closing by midday on Saturdays, John saw clear demand for a convenience store concept. He also saw potential for fast food restaurants to integrate as a one-stop shop. Meanwhile, he studied Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology.

“I purchased my first Mobil service station when I was 23 years,” says John. “I studied the McDonalds business model and adopted the principles to my service stations – I reconfigured my store layout and focused my planograms on high impulse sales showcasing only dominant brands –this helped increased my shop sales dramatically.”

John was the one of the first in Australia to integrate and align petrol stations with McDonalds and other fast-food companies such as Pizza Hut. In 1992 John won the tender to operate the Twin Caltex Service Station Complex on the M4 Motorway at Eastern Creek that went on to become the highest volume outlets in the Southern Hemisphere. From his humble 15-year-old beginnings, John soon developed a multi-million-dollar empire.

“Ultimately I was more motivated by leisure time, and business became a way to achieve this freedom,” describes John.

“I’ve always loved Tasmania so we used to come here as a family for holidays. I had other business interest ticking over too, including some subdivisions south of Hobart but mainly our trips were for pleasure.”

Looking to spend more time in the state, in November 2015 John purchased historic Dysart House in Kempton, about 40-minutes north of Hobart. His mission was to secure a country home where he could take his children, grow their own vegetables and have free roaming chickens.

“Unbeknown to me I’d beaten Bill Lark, director of Redlands Distillery to the sale,” laughs John. “Bill Lark and James Read then approached me for a lease over Dysart House to build a whisky distillery. We agreed on the terms and I also bought into the business. At the time I thought whisky was just a hobby and I wanted to have some fun. This changed when Bill Lark sent me a bottle of whisky. Upon tasting the whisky I was immediately transformed. I convinced my wife, who hates whisky, to taste it and she absolutely loved it. I knew then and there that something magical was going on in Tasmania.”

Bill and John became firm friends. Bill whisked John away to Scotland for two weeks to learn all about whisky. “He opened doors for us in all the major Scottish distilleries. After that trip I knew what Tasmania needed and I wanted to deliver a world class distillery for Tasmania. Tasmanian whisky was undergoing a revolution – and I wanted to be at the forefront of this revolution.”

It didn’t take long for John to fall for the nearby town of Oatlands, about an hour from Hobart. With more sandstone buildings than any village in the country, he knew it was the perfect place for Callington Mill Distillery.

“I fell in love with Oatlands – it’s charm, the historic windmill, the streetscape,” describes John, “we’ve restored the windmill to immaculate operating condition and have since developed video and audio interpretation for the historic precinct. It’s really brought the past alive including the story of John Vincent who built the Lincolnshire tower mill back in 1837. Interestingly, back then the mill was used to legally grind flour and illegally make whisky. Nearly 200 years later, we’re back making whisky there.”

The $14-million distillery is set to open in January 2022, powered by Tasmanian technology developed in partnership with local engineering firm Kolmark’s Mark Kolodziej. The team have also secured esteemed chef Jason Partridge, formerly of Frogmore Creek, and John is in the process of converting two properties into local accommodation. When the doors open, whisky will be ready.

“Three years ago we started making our whisky while we built the main distillery at Oatlands. I wanted to get a head start,” says John. “We knew the distillery would take some time to build so we wanted to have some whisky maturing at Oatlands in preparedness to opening our cellar door in January 2022. I love the whisky making process – it’s a balance of science, art and magic. Oatlands provides the perfect micro climate for every maturing cask. Fresh Highlands air and weather conditions provides the perfect cool climate to deliver a unique flavour profile.”

The Oatlands drawcard has supported 15 staff with a further 20 to join when the doors swing open. As part of the imminent Oatlands-based bottling facility, a further 20 will join the force, many from Oatlands and surrounds. Staff include master distillers, tour guides, hospitality staff and soon to be coopers for the cooperage in the pipeline to keep up with barrel demand.

“I barely drink any whisky – maybe a bottle a year but life for me now is whisky 24-7. Like Bill, in my time off I’ve been enjoying highland trout fishing. Bill didn’t just give me a rod, he made me one,” smiles John. “And these days I’m selling petrol stations to buy more barely. How Tasmania has changed me!”

Are you interested in making a move? Make it Tasmania.

Find out more about Callington Mill Distillery.

For information on starting a business in Tasmania look through our stories or visit Business Tasmania.