14 June 2022

The journey from organic wheat to licorice, chocolate and whisky

| Chriss Buchan
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Man with Easter eggs

Neil Druce shows off some of his chocolate goodies. Photo: Chris Roe.

Neil Druce, proprietor of the now iconic Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory, thought back to where it all began.

“I just loaded up the car with bags of it and drove down the highway from Junee to Melbourne, stopping in towns and selling it,” he says with a smile.

But it really took seed in 1962 when Neil was just two years old. His dad Alan was busy farming his 3000 acres in Ardlethan and was disturbed to learn that surplus chemicals from World War 2 were being used in farming.

In response, he began farming organically with his sheep, cattle, oats and wheat.

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father and daughter eating at the Mill Cafe in Junee

Customers enjoy The Mill Room. Photo: Chriss Buchan.

After Neil’s schooling in Griffith, he did a stint back on the farm before accepting a scholarship to study in the US.

“I learned a bit, graduated then worked there which I enjoyed, but I always knew I would return,” he says.

“In 1985 I came back to Ardlethan and dad and I began working on the farm together.”

In the late 90s they began to mill their own wheat and Neil began looking for other products to sell besides flour.

“There was a mill building in Junee, which in days long gone had employed 25 people in the massive 9600 square feet multi-storey structure,” he explains.

“Production back then was up to 5.6 million bushels of flour a year.

“I found a recipe for traditional licorice in a confectionary book that was about 80 years old. A few years later we set up Green Grove Organics and started making licorice. In 1999 we produced our first large batch being hundreds of kilograms.

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“I knew I had to sell it, so I packed all 800 kgs of it into the car and went down the Hume Highway. I approached storekeepers and cafes.

“It was well-received as they thought with the licorice being old fashioned, it would prove to be popular and sought after.”

This proved to be true and Neil continued to expand the business, adding chocolate making and a cafe called The Mill Room in the factory.

“We were the first in the Southern Hemisphere to produce organic licorice and by 2003 we were one of only three making it,” he says with pride.

“Now we have 50 people working here and are open seven days a week.

“With the help of others within the community we have added a 30-car museum and upstairs, we have homewares and gifts.”

Food on shelves

The factory has expanded to sell more than just licorice. Photo: Chriss Buchan.

On weekends The Mill Room hosts live entertainment and for visitors, there’s the chance to get sticky fingers and enjoy the fun of chocolate freckle-making.

As part of the renovation of the historic building, Neil and his wife Carol have set up a residence on the upper level of the mill.

But despite his cosy spot looking over Junee, Neil is not about to take a break.

The team has been experimenting with other grains like spelt, which has proven successful for people with allergies.

“Our next project is to produce a gluten-free licorice,” Neil says.

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bridge

It’s worth a wander around the historic mill. Photo: Chriss Buchan.

They have also found another tasty application for their grains and have begun distilling whisky.

‘In 2010 we seized the opportunity to purchase a similar mill in Corowa, which is called Corowa Whisky and Distilling Co. My son Dean runs that one,” he says.

Recently Corowa Distilling Company was awarded Dan Murphy’s Best Australian Whisky and is now being supplied to 258 of the Dan Murphy outlets.

“Corowa is destined for expansion and also Junee,” Neil says.

“Our overall volume is overwhelming but we need the cash flow.

“We want to develop the gardens more at the Junee mill and we’re exploring a rooftop bar and a new flavour for the licorice.”

If you’re in the mood to sample Neil’s wares, Junee is just 30 minutes from Wagga and the team would welcome your visit to Junee Licorice & Chocolate Factory.

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