When Nathan and Felicity Cowan discovered a dilapidated cordial factory and brewery for sale in Beechworth in 2017, they knew they’d found their new calling. With a shared passion for history, the Melbourne couple had been looking for a regional move to start a family, and when they saw the potential in the dusty old brewery, they sold their St Kilda home and headed north. “It was full of a couple of hundred pigeons but when you went in, you could just tell it had so much potential and deserved to be better. So we purchased it – it was so surreal but exciting,” Nathan laughs. “We knew it was going to be a lifetime passion and something we could put all our energy and passion into.”
Once producing iconic drinks like raspberry vinegar cordial and some 5000 litres of beer a day for thirsty miners from the Victorian goldfields, the building was begging to serve the locals of Beechworth again. “Our first employee was a local historian who tracked down original artefacts and brewer’s diaries and recipes,” Nathan recalls. “The building sits on a natural spring with a 150-year-old well dug by goldminers, which continues to provide the water for every beverage made on site.”
With the help of winery and distillery architect Edward Billson, who happens to be the great great grandson of the site’s original founder George Billson, the building has now been lovingly restored. The comprehensive drinking and dining experience includes a vibrant tap room, speakeasy bar, beer garden, and of course, the famous soda bar, where your choice of cordial can be turned into a soda, spider or milkshake to sip on. “The tap room is focused on beer and hot meals,” Nathan says. “Underground, where they originally barrelled and aged the beer, we now have a little speakeasy, which is a cool place for a cocktail and a grazing platter from the local region.”
Once you’ve had your fill, wander the streets of Australia’s ‘best preserved mining town’, take a nature walk around Woolshed Falls, or hit up one of the renowned local mountain biking tracks.
Now hiring 170 locals, Billson’s remains part of the Beechworth fabric, offering visitors as much insight into local history as the beverage craft. “There are not a lot of 150-year-old buildings that you can explore every nook and cranny of. We make everything there, so you can see the distillery and brewery in action and chat to the brewers and distillers,” Nathan says. “The first thing you do when you walk in is try some of our products, whether you like cordial, gin, cocktail bitters or beer. There’s always a lot of nostalgia for our recipes – a lot of people find sarsaparilla or brewed ginger or raspberry or portello remind them of their childhood. It’s really fun helping customers find the flavour that really resonates with them.”
Get to know the range of Billson’s products available at Vintage Cellars, starting with these great buys.
Billson’s George’s Dry Gin
Named after the visionary Billson’s founder, George, this bottle is crafted using Billson’s own alpine spring water and 11 local botanicals, including juniper, coriander and finger lime. “It’s pretty versatile and tastes delicious with tonic water or in a special cocktail,” Nathan says. “It won a gold medal at the Australian gin awards.”
When one of the Billsons bartenders ran out of coffee liqueurs for espresso martinis, he got creative with the cafe’s cold drip coffee tower, and customers couldn’t get enough. “Everyone loved it so much that we started bottling it and selling it,” Nathan says. “It’s really delicious to sip straight, or pour over ice-cream.”
Billsons’s Vodka Mixed Drinks
If you can’t take your seat at the soda bar in Beechworth, the next best thing is bringing home these colourful and convenient cans filled with Billson’s triple-distilled vodka and classics from the soda range. Choose your flavour from Portello, Fruit Tangle, Passionfruit and Creamy Soda.