Andrew Derbidge is director and cellarmaster for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia, and he has followed the evolution of Australian whisky since the early years.
A whisky tragic who has been heavily involved in the industry for many years as an educator, presenter and writer, he joins me on this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast.
Some of his excellent writing is on his own website Whisky & Wisdom, which is where I happened across a really insightful article by Andrew about the evolution of Australian whisky and some of the growing pains the local industry is currently facing.
Andrew says that while in the past it was considered poor form to level any criticism at Australian distillers, the landscape has changed and substandard whisky must now be called out for what it is, if the local industry is to grow sustainably into the future.
Whisky & Wisdom recently released its second Glenfarclas exclusive bottling, Glenfarclas Edition Two, a ten year old single cask release bottled at its natural cask-strength of 59.8 per cent ABV. It is exclusive to Australia and you can purchase it here.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Australian whisky must strive for consistency and quality, says Andrew Derbidge: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Andrew Derbidge, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Great to be here. Thank you very much.
JAMES ATKINSON: ‘Trouble brewing for the Australian whisky industry.’ Maybe just give me the background. What inspired you to write that article?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Ooh, how long is your podcast? It might take a while. Look, I’ve been following the Australian whisky industry and been a big fan of it for a very long time. Let’s put a date to that. It probably goes back to 2003, which was the year of the first malt whisky convention, the Australian malt whisky convention held in Canberra.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That was the event that Bill Lark really made a splash at. He’d obviously been in the game for a while. He announced his presence to a hardcore group of Australian whisky enthusiasts as did David Baker. That was the very event that David Baker of Bakery Hill announced his presence and put out his very first release of three year old Australian whisky.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: I’ve followed it all passionately every since. Of course, over the journey things have picked up and what was once a very fledging industry now has quite a bit of skin and fabric to it. There are distilleries all over the place now whereas once upon a time it was a handful and everyone knew the players, there’s now loads. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself by having a guess at exactly the number of distilleries out there. I heard that later this year there’s going to be 50 in Tasmania alone.
JAMES ATKINSON: 180 nationwide. Distilleries, not whisky distilleries but 180 nationwide. When I heard that just a couple of weeks ago I was pretty floored actually.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: It blows you away, doesn’t it? It’s a great thing. Let’s not kid ourselves. It is a fantastic thing. Of course, what happens is because I was there … I don’t want to say at the start. As I was there in the early days I did see the benchmarks and what was some of the earlier results of some of these distilleries.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You grew with them as they went on their journey and they perfected their craft and you really saw their bottlings improve and their releases and a bit of age helped with that. You know, some of David Baker’s releases when they were three years old were nice but you knew they had more potential and then when he was able to release stock at eight, nine, 10 years old you really saw it come to fruition. That was fantastic being part of that journey.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Then in 2014 it was the fateful year Sullivans Cove won the big international award and suddenly this massive spotlight was shone on Australian whisky. By that stage there were a lot more players in the game.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The other thing we started to see by then … Sullivans Cove had a long history. They had been distilling for a long time. They could draw on casks that were 10, 12, 13, 14 years old. Everyone got this idea in their head of what was Australian whisky? This is what it tastes like, it has this flavour profile. Most of that was I guess the Tasmanian distilleries were what most people had access to. Starward had announced their presence as well.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: It was also about that stage that a lot of these very fledgling distilleries that were two years old or had stock that was two years old was being put on the market. In some of the circles I move in people were tasting the stuff and saying, “It’s whisky but it’s not that great.” Some of this whisky that was only two years old had been matured in small barrels that had been cooked out in the sun. It was very, very wood-driven and it was very hot.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: A few people were saying, “Do you know what? It’s great that we’ve got so many distilleries. It’s great that there’s a profile out there but it’s not all that fantastic to drink some of all this and it would be nicer if some distilleries maybe kept their head down below the parapet for a bit longer, let their stock get to greater ages, and bottle it when it was a bit more mature.
JAMES ATKINSON: These are single cask releases we’re talking about?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Most of them were. Absolutely. Yeah. As I say, it probably wasn’t widespread or being widely spoken but certainly in the circles I was moving in there was a growing undercurrent of not unrest but just comments and whispers saying, “This isn’t actually as great as it could be.”
ANDREW DERBIDGE: For a lot of the things that I went into in that article we started to look at why this was. It was hard to get good casks and good quality wood, a lot of the distilleries were under financial pressure to get back some needed revenue. They needed to bottle early and sell product just to get some funds coming back into their operations.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Then the other issue was some distilleries were battling with the elements. They were in geographic regions where the climate also had an impact on how their whisky would mature, how much they would lose to evaporation. A lot of the whiskies being produced were very wood-driven as opposed to being spirit-driven or barley-driven. There’s quite a few whiskies my colleagues and I were tasting coming out of Tasmania where really it was about the wood and the previous wine that the cask had held than it was about the spirit and the barley and the whisky.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: They were the things that inspired the article in the first place just to sort of address what maybe a lot of people were thinking but no one was saying out loud.
JAMES ATKINSON: You say in the article that you’re expecting there might be a market correction at some stage in the future. Maybe you could talk about that. Is that just to do with the fact that there are some bigger players taking a very different approach to whisky production?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That is certainly having an impact on things. That’s something I didn’t touch on just a moment ago and that is the reality that Australian whisky also had a reputation amongst Aussie consumers for being very expensive. You know, these distilleries were selling bottles of two year old, three year old whiskey for $300, $400, $500 price tags.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That’s fine. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do but it was creating a lot of undue talk and discomfort amongst consumers and you only had to read some of the comments on the whisky Facebook groups to see that a lot of consumers were getting pretty ticked off of some of the prices.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Now you can talk about value and justification and what’s expensive for one person is cheap for another and blah, blah, blah. That’s all fine. As some of the bigger players came in and were making their whisky more affordable that’s got to have a knock on effect.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Starward have been tremendous in that regard producing a spirit that’s affordable that you can get at your local bottle shop. Whilst it’s great that some distilleries can win an award and then off the back of that charge a premium for their products, that’s great, but there’s a lot of people out there in consumerville who go to their local bottle shop and they see they can pick up a bottle of 10, 12, 14, 15 year old Scotch whisky for under $100 and then they weren’t too happy about paying $200, $300, $400 for a bottle of two year old Australian whisky. That’s what’s driving that correction.
JAMES ATKINSON: Has it happened yet, though? You mentioned Archie Rose in your article. We don’t know yet what their pricing strategy is going to be.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That’s true. I think some of the movement has come from the Tasmanian distillers. I still look at Bakery Hill, which has just flown under the radar for so long. David is a wonderful, lovely, quiet man who just doesn’t shout from the rooftops as loudly as I wish he would shout sometimes. He’s got a great product.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Limeburners over in the west as well. Amazing, beautiful whisky coming out of the Iniquity brand in south Australia there. I think we’re already seeing that correction. I don’t think you’re necessarily seeing cheaper bottling suddenly online but what you are seeing and hearing now is the sentiment of consumers through social media and through whisky circles and anywhere there’s an opportunity for someone to pop up and say or express something it’s a sentiment that’s coming through more and more and the market will respond to that.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Look, to be quite frank, you can appreciate I got a lot of emails and text messages and feedback after publishing that article. It was overwhelmingly positive and supportive from a lot of players in the game. There were a lot of players who said, “Absolutely this is what’s needed” and there was some sense to it. There’s a groundswell I think that’s going to bring that through.
JAMES ATKINSON: Is the bottom line that you think that these micro distillers that are basing their business models around single cask releases that are in smaller format oak may not have the greatest future ahead of them? Unless they’re the ones that are happening to do it at a really high quality level.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You nailed it with that last point there. It’s about quality. For a lot of the distilleries who were putting out single cask releases the quality was so inconsistent. You’d buy a bottling from a cask and it was delicious and you’d go back and get their next cask and it was something else again. That consistency, that’s the C word.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Look, I’ll tell you what. I’ve travelled around the distilleries in Scotland many times and when you talk to the brewers and the distillers there the C word just comes out repeatedly. It’s consistency, consistency, consistency. It’s what they strive for.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: A lot of the Australian distillers putting out single cask bottlings were struggling to achieve that. If you can’t be confident in the quality of what you’re buying, if you go to distillery X, Y, Z and their first release is great and their second release is not and you’ve just burnt $250 you’re going to be a bit nervous going back the third time. That I think will be the case for some distillers. Others have kept the bar high and good on them. That’s fantastic.
JAMES ATKINSON: Can you make great whisky using 20 litre or 50 litre casks?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You can. I’ve tasted them. I was fortunate enough to taste a private bottling that came out of Old Kempton. It was bottled under Redlands at the time. It was from a 20 litre cask and it was beautiful. It was truly delicious. You can get it right.
JAMES ATKINSON: Can you do as good a job as you can with more time and 300 litres for example?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Look, at the end of the day there are volatiles in the spirit that need to be ironed out with time in the wood. There’s that magical sweet spot. It varies from distillery to distillery depending on the climate and where you are, the humidity and the heat, and the size of the barrel. Some casks will need a bit more time than others to iron out those volatiles and to get the flavour you’re after. That’s the skill.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The thing is every distillery will take time to find that out. It does take a couple of years of putting releases out, not just a couple of years of distilling and putting your spirit in it. You can’t start up, make your spirit, put it in the wood, take it out two years later and say, “Oh, we know what we’re doing now.” You need two, three, four years of that.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The distilleries that have been around for five, six, seven, eight years are now starting to hit that zone where they’ve released where their sweet spot is and they’re now putting out more consistent product. Some of those ones that are just hitting the two or three year period now are obviously still learning their trade and good on them. Let’s not criticise that and fault that. That’s all part of the process.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Years ago it was considered very unsporting to bag an Australian distiller. We were supposed to all pat them on the back and say, “Good on you. Fantastic. We love what you’re doing.”
ANDREW DERBIDGE: We do but we’ve also got to be a bit honest now and point out bad whisky where it exists and casks that didn’t quite hit the mark and I think that’s the challenge for some distillers. If you’ve put your spirit into a cask that didn’t work you’ve got to be brave enough to say, “You know what? Maybe I shouldn’t bottle that.”
JAMES ATKINSON: One of the other things you talked about in the piece was the homogeneity of production methodologies. Maybe you could talk about how that happened.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Well, that goes back to the success of Bill Lark in Tasmania. Bill, through hard work, hard yakka, and trial and experimentation finally found a means of production that gave him not just the consistency but it also allowed him to turn his production into a commercially viable venture that would sustain itself.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Bill is an incredibly generous guy. You can imagine everyone was knocking on his door and saying, “Can you give us a hand? Can you help us out? What are some tips?” He made himself available to most of the distilleries around Hobart and Tasmania.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Of course, when he hit on a winning formula it makes sense that a lot of the people who followed in his footsteps were going to borrow from that formula. That came down to the size and shape of the still, which Bill had engineered in a certain way to produce … A certain day’s production would fill up a 100 litre cask.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: As these distilleries were starting up they were all ordering and having commissioned the same size and type of still from the same still maker there, Peter Bailly of Knapp Lewer. Then filling into the same cask. There was a concern …
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Again, this was not my opinion. This was me collecting the thoughts of many who were voicing this opinion that a lot of whiskies from different distilleries around Tasmania were coming out with what was actually a pretty narrow flavour profile.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You know, when you read Scottish textbooks and literature on Scottish whiskey they all talk about how the size and shape of the stills has an amazing role on the character of the spirit they produce and the stills are all manufactured to different sizes and shapes to get that particular character and yet here we were in Australia with so many distilleries having the identical still in both its shape and size.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You had a lot of distilleries as a result producing fairly similar spirit and then all putting it into the same type of wood. You know, the ex-Australian port casks, a flavour of the month at many distilleries. Then, again, because so many of them are in Tasmania in the same climate their spirit at two, three, four, five years old had a similarity to it.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Call me sentimental but I would love to think that 20 years from now Australian whisky has its regions. I’d love to think that we’ll have our local equivalents of the Highlands and the Lowlands and Islay and Campbeltown styles.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: I cling to those regional labels in Scotch whisky and I’d love to think in 20 years that Australia will have something similar. There’s now actually a beautiful nest of distilleries in New South Wales with their own little sort of climate, micro-climate, that’s producing something. Tassie will always be Tassie and have its style. You’ve got something very unique happening in WA.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: As I said, the guys down in south Australia are doing their thing as well and Victoria. Starward have the funding to do lots of amazing things. We are going to see, and we’re seeing it, variety and different types of whiskies and styles. I’d hate for anyone to read that article and think it’s doom and gloom and pessimism but there are hurdles that need to be overcome for the industry to fire on all cylinders in the way that many of us would like to see it fire.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think there is any overarching Australian whisky style currently?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: I do. Well, I did maybe. I think 10, 15 years ago because the number of players was much smaller there was a similarity amongst them. If we’re going to be really general and pull out stereotypes here there was a eucalyptus note to a lot of it at the time. You know, eucalyptus is not something you find in American whiskies or Scotch whiskies or Japanese whiskies.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: There was that element there. Right now if you had to pigeonhole it, and I think pigeonholing is dangerous but if you had to, I think a lot of Australian whisky at the moment is wood-driven rather than spirit-driven.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: You can taste a lot of Australian whisky and it’s not immediately obvious it was distilled from barley because the wood really has come to dominate and for those distilleries and … Look, I guess there’s a good chunk of them in Tasmania that are cooking their casks out in a hot tin shed and really driving that wood interaction, that’s one of the contributing factors to that.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve heard it said that the wood contributes the majority of flavour to whisky. If you were to kind of look in Scotland at which regions or which styles do showcase the spirit a bit more what would you direct people to for those styles of whiskies?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The number that’s typically plucked out from the textbooks is that the cask contributes to about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the final flavour that we taste. I hate making comparisons between the Scotch and the Australian whisky industries. They’re two separate things and it’s very dangerous when you try and take a leaf out of one and insert it in the other. I don’t want to be accused of that.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: When you do look at what the Scots are doing the vast majority of their spirit is filled into ex-bourbon casks, which dare I say it is a more neutral, a less characteristic invasive wood, whereas the majority of Australian distilleries are filling theirs into ex-wine casks and so the wines, the ports, and the sherries, and now also Shiraz casks are suddenly flavour of the month, are imparting far more flavour and you’re getting a lot more of the characteristic of what was previously in the wood whereas for the Scotch distilleries that favour bourbon cask maturation it does allow that spirit to shine through a little bit more.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: In the context of what they’re doing, which of course is a longer maturation. Most Scotch whisky takes 10, 15 years to hit its straps. That’s really going to be the case for Australia. I think when you look at our climate and the heat and the rates of evaporation most Australian whisky is going to hit its straps at five to nine to 10 years. Again, depending on the size of the cask used.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: To answer your question, you can look at some of those classic Speysides; the Glenfiddichs of the world, the Glenlivets that just have that lovely barley note, the Speyside sweetness, and grassiness that a lot of people use as their benchmark for, “Well, this is what Scotch whiskey tastes like.” Of course, you then go onto the heavily sherried whiskies and Glenfarclas and Glendronach and Macallan and then the peated style beyond that.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: On that very note, I think it’s great now that we’re seeing some peated Australian whisky come through as well. That’s a good thing that also expands the spectrum of flavour in our own industry.
JAMES ATKINSON: What ultimately do you think will be the Australian whisky style of the future? Is it going to still be heavily reliant on these port casks? Does that make sense for distillers to keep using those?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Before we talk about port casks let’s just quickly look at what happened in the sherry industry. The reason why sherry casks became so popular and did such amazing things in the Scotch industry is because there was a surplus of it. Sherry was a hugely popular drink around the world. The casks were being shipped in bulk to the UK. There was a ready supply of them.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The biggest problem for those Scottish distilleries that favour sherry maturation is the sherry market doesn’t exist anymore. It’s far more expensive, almost prohibitively so, to source sherry casks the way they used to.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Now you’ve got to ask the same question here in Australia. Will Australia continue to produce the volume of port that it has in the past and therefore will port casks still be a readily available source for the whisky producers down the track? I don’t know the answer to that.
JAMES ATKINSON: There is still a perception among a lot of whiskey consumers that older is better. Is that something that Australian distillers are going to have to overcome to make people realise that we’re not going to be seeing, as you say, 10, 15, 20 year old releases as par for the course in this country.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: There’s probably two dimensions to that. It’s one thing to have a misguided belief that older is better but you’ve also got to benchmark what is old? That’s the biggest problem. Most people come into the category seeing the numbers that are typically displayed on Scotch whisky bottles and so they’re used to seeing 10, 12, 15 years old. That’s the benchmark they then bring when they then first enter the Australian scene.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: When they see that … Actually a lot of Australian whiskies don’t even have age statements on them for that very reasons. You know, you don’t really want to brag that it’s a two year old or a three year old or whatever. Those in the know start to appreciate over time and you’ve got to I guess enjoy Australian whisky over a period of time to come to understand and appreciate this but as we’ve touched on earlier a lot of those whiskies are hitting the spot at five, six, seven, eight years old.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Now in Australian terms that is old. An Aussie whisky that is eight to nine years old is a bloody old whisky. It comes back to that benchmark of what you’ve said. In the context of Scotch whiskies that seems young but that’s what we’ve got to throw out. That is the challenge for the Australian distillers. I feel sorry for them because their consumers simply don’t understand the product.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: America avoids this wonderfully. Everyone just accepts that bourbon is about right at four or five years old. You know, Jim Beam White Label is a four year old product. No one questions and says, “I wish this was eight, nine, 10 years old.” Now having said that the bourbon industry has started to age their products for longer and they have tried to take a leaf out of the Scotch whisky industry. I don’t feel we need to do this here in Australia.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The reality is there are going to be very few distilleries that can age their product through to 12, 13, 14 years old and still have something left in the barrel. Evaporation is going to hurt.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: The majority of stock we’re going to see, good quality drinking stock, I imagine will be in the four to 10 year old range. It’s up to all of us, the distilleries and the consumers and the whisky community in general, to educate and get out there and help people appreciate that the scale of age is different in this country.
JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned early on that what you’d really like to see is regional characters developing in Australia like they well truly have in Scotland. What needs to happen for that to occur?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Look, as I said, it’s probably a more sentimental wish than a realistic expectation. What you’ve got to start to see I suppose is consistent characteristics within one region.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Now we’ve got that already in Tasmania. A lot of people have commented that Tasmanian whisky, a lot of it starts to fit into a particular … I’ll use the word narrow. A slightly narrow profile.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: There are distilleries in New South Wales now that are inland that are now starting to have whisky come to three, four years old and they’re starting to show a similarity in style.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: I think as we slowly start to see consistency from the distilleries within their own bubble and then consistency in the flavour profile of what they produce within the rough region that they exist in people sooner or later are going to start to join the dots.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s your other wishlist for what the Australian whisky industry looks like in 20 or 30 years time say?
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Look, you’d like to think that it’s vibrant. You’d like to think that we’re no longer feeling we’ve got to compare ourselves to the rest of the world. When you talk to the distillers I don’t think any of them do. When you talk to the distillers very few of them are feeling they need to compete or compare with what’s being done in Scotland. We’re not trying to emulate them.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That’s the message I’ve been hearing for 15 years. When you talk to Patrick McGuire, David Baker, the Bill Larks, all those guys that have been in the game for a long time. Cameron Syme. They’re not trying to produce whisky that tastes like scotch. They’re trying to produce Australian whisky.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: That’s what we need to champion and celebrate. I’d love to think we get to a stage where people just go out for a whiskey and whether it’s Australian or Scotch or whatever you know you’re going to get a great product. When Australian whiskey stands up by itself and no longer needs to be defined or categorised as homegrown I think that will be a great point.
JAMES ATKINSON: It does need to become more accessible and affordable, though.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: It does and that will take time and scale. We need distilleries to get to certain scales where they can benefit from the economy of scale. That needs a whole set of things to happen. You know, funding and corporate backing goes a long way and Starward, again, being the poster child for that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. Well, I reckon we’ll leave it there. Andrew, thanks so much for joining me.
ANDREW DERBIDGE: Absolute pleasure.