Archie Rose whisky innovation with distiller Dave Withers: S3E7

Archie Rose whisky continues to challenge accepted production practices, much like its other weird and wonderful products such as ArchieMite, the buttered toast spirit.

In this episode of the podcast, master distiller Dave Withers joins us to discuss the company’s ambitious plans for both rye whisky and single malt whisky.

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Australian whisky to date has been dominated by single barrel, single malt releases aged in ex-wine casks.

With the first two Archie Rose whisky releases, Chocolate Rye Malt and Rye Malt Whisky, Archie Rose has made it abundantly clear that it won’t be following these conventions.

Will Edwards and Dave Withers of Archie Rose whisky distillery
Will Edwards and Dave Withers of Archie Rose Distilling Company

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

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Master distiller Dave Withers: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Dave Withers, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

DAVE WITHERS: Thanks for having me.

JAMES ATKINSON: And unfortunately, Will was unable to make it today, so it’s just going to be you and I having a chat about Archie Rose whisky. Specifically about the distilling side of things perhaps, rather than the way that Archie Rose was founded and the business side of things. Why do you think that there has been so little innovation with malt? We’ve heard the scotch industry talk so much about cask finishing and the impacts that that can have on flavour, but really not malt so much.

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting one. I think all of the industries, both the malt growers and you know, whisky producers have really been focusing on the yield and efficiencies a lot. And I think that really there’s just been no category, there’s been no line item on the spreadsheet for flavour. And I think that having to try and change that, to actually get growers and breeders and so on, as well as the maltsters to understand the implications of flavour is quite complex. But there are guys doing it and I think that it is starting to change now a little bit in the industry, that people understand that where something comes from and also the variety and how that’s been treated can have a big impact on flavour. For me I think the sort of experience that I talk about is you know, being in Australia during harvest. You know, standing in the field were sort of the iconic Australian influences. You know the red ochre dirt, that really sort of 40-degree heat, eucalyptus trees, big blue sky and just trying to reconcile that with you know, malt or grain that would be harvested in Europe with the wet, rainy, sort of cold conditions. You know whether that’s Canada or France or Scotland. For me it just doesn’t make any sense that we would expect those grains to behave exactly the same. There’s just nothing about that circumstance that’s the same in how it’s grown, treated or even processed.

JAMES ATKINSON: The statistics you always hear in the Scottish textbooks I think, is something along the lines of you know, 60 or 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the cask. The amount of time you guys are spending on malts obviously you don’t agree with that?

DAVE WITHERS: No I don’t, I think the cask obviously plays a really important role and that’s undeniable. And I think that this idea that no one was really paying attention to the grain and to me it didn’t make any sense that people wouldn’t understand that the most important ingredient, the most important raw ingredient for making whisky is ultimately going to give you the most impact of flavour. Otherwise, what’s the difference between whisky and rum if all we’re after is the sugar? You can get that a lot easier by just going ahead and using sugar. But obviously we know that rum and whisky don’t taste anything like each other. So the malt has such an important part to play and it’s up to us to celebrate that and put that, make that a priority. In Australia we have to understand how we produce whisky you know, that we’re not going to be ageing whisky for 30 years because the angel’s share and just the maturation climate is not kind of conducive for that. So the way I look at it is that as soon as that spirit hits that cask, the clock is ticking. And that means that the spirit has to (a) have a lot of flavour, but also be quite clean when it comes into the cask so it doesn’t need that really long maturation time to sort of be cleaned up. And I think that’s a really important thing for Australian producers to understand, we shouldn’t be following the model of the US or the UK. We should be finding our own road forward. What we really want to do is take Australian whisky drinkers and international whisky drinkers on the same journey that we’ve been on in production. There’s just a two-and-a-half, three or more-year delay between when we sort of laid things down and when it’s coming out. But essentially you know, some of the things we’re going to see coming up is a real focus on what it is to be an Australian whisky producer. And I think that that’s such an important thing to celebrate, otherwise why are we making whisky in Australia? We should just pack up and do it all in Scotland, right. So yeah, I think that that’s going to be a continuing sort of program and exploration for us. We’ve got red gum casks in the bar, we’ve got about 16 of them. I think we’ve got about eight on display in the actual bar itself. We don’t have to have really long ageing times. So we can be quite innovative and sort of come to market a little bit earlier than sort of our UK counterparts. Provided that we do that knowingly and with a lot of technical expertise, we can manufacture amazing spirits.

JAMES ATKINSON: What do you think Australian whisky is going to look like in a decade’s time? Do you think there is already any overarching style that we can say is uniquely Australian?

DAVE WITHERS: What we’re seeing now from the Australian industry I think is going to need to change. I put ourselves in this bucket as well, but a lot of sort of smaller casks. You know, we only use 100 litre, but I know there’s a lot of people that use a lot smaller. We have a lot of 200 litre casks in storage at the moment, as we expand our production the vast majority of production is going to be going into 2, 3 and 500 litre casks for sort of more longer ageing.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are the advantages for people who don’t understand the way maturation works, by going to larger cask formats?

DAVE WITHERS: You just get a better balance of cask to spirit in my opinion and there is an opportunity in that to sort of take a bit longer in maturation. So I think that that’s an important thing, that oak doesn’t necessarily make up for the spirit quality itself. There needs to be a really strong balance between what’s actually gone into the cask and the cask itself. That’s the consuming journey for us that we’re wanting to focus on those larger format casks. And you know, we’re really blessed in Australia, not so much with the rye whisky but our single malts when they come out. You’ll be able to see some amazing ex-fortified sherry casks. Everyone in Scotland fights over the supply in Spain, we’ve got it right here on our doorstep and an amazing heritage and history of that style of wine production as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: But whisky producers have been favouring other styles of wine casks?

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah definitely tawny and wine casks I think are very much in vogue. Everyone’s been leading towards the tawny and now there is some scarcity around those and certainly I think the wine cask is taking preference there. I think that there is a finite resource there as well, but it does make sense to make use of them.

JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned the red gums just then, which is interesting. I don’t know whether that’s common knowledge that you have those at Archie Rose whisky. Have they been filled with spirit as well?

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah, yeah so they actually come out of McWilliam’s Winery and you know, my dad worked at McWilliam’s for many years so I remember sort of growing up hearing about how in the old days they really didn’t have access to European and American oak, so in some cases they would use native oaks. In New South Wales there was a very small number of New South Wales red gums that were used to make casks and we actually managed to get hold of a very small allocation of those. It really plays into that nice thing. It was filled with sherry in the 1930s and really used for sherry production for 80 plus years and then being able to; they’re actually coopered down in Tassie, but being able to bring them back to New South Wales and fill them with New South Wales spirit made from a lot of New South Wales grains was a really nice thing. I think they’re definitely going to be a different flavour profile when they come out, but it’s a good bit of fun. And we have the flexibility in Australia to do that. The legislation says ‘wood, not oak’ so we can put it in red gum and still call it whisky after two years.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so when you’re putting it in those barrels, are you trying to get that red gum flavour or are you hoping to get the sherry flavour, or do you not really know what you’re trying to get out of it?

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah look, I think it’s a bit of a combination of the sherry and red gum. I wouldn’t rule out that we might have to do some oak finishing, to sort of make sure it’s not too weird. But certainly, at this stage we’ve basically done a first-fill red gum cask and we’ll sort of see how that comes out, yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve also made some rum I believe, you released a virgin cane spirit so I would be very surprised if there’s not going to be an aged rum that we can actually call rum coming out at some point?

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah, look we’re really open about that. It’s in the bar, we’ve got a lot of our rum casks. I’m a big lover of rum. Before I got into whisky it was really rum that was my thing and I think that again, I think it comes back to the history of Sydney and Australia that we should celebrate rum. Everyone assumes, you know, that it’s a Queensland thing and rum kind of has you know, not the greatest reputation in Australia. But really there are some fantastic rums out there, there’s some really quality minor producers out there as well. And I think we would really like to focus on celebrating that Sydney and Australian story a little bit. So definitely we’ve got some molasses rum coming up. We need to be educating consumers that we are a spirits nation, forget beer, forget wine. Before there were grapes in Australia, before there was refrigeration for beer, we were a spirits nation. It’s part of cultural identity, you know. In Sydney there’s so many landmarks that are built around the licenses to distribute spirits, the ownership of houses like Juniper Hall in Paddington, from James Underwood. One of the first legal licenses in Australia. The celebration of history is such an important ingredient in what it is to be an Australian distillery and I think we need to play that forward and educate consumers about that. And it’s only from understanding the history that we have with distilling, that we can really say how we’re being innovative, how we’re progressing and how we’re pushing forward. If you don’t have a line in the sand to describe the past, how can you see how far you’ve come?

Archie Rose vegemite spirit

JAMES ATKINSON: One of your more bizarre projects recently was Archie Mite, the buttered toast spirit. What was the reaction to that and can we expect to see anymore of your crazy distillations coming into the market?

DAVE WITHERS: The reaction was mixed, as expected. Look it was a bit of fun. I think that what really started out as this idea that we could just distil anything sort of evolved into something that we felt we could actually put in a bottle and sell. So I have done some other pretty crazy things as well. I distilled a meat pie. I quite liked it. I was in the minority of likers.

JAMES ATKINSON: How do you distil a meat pie? Like, what do you have to do to the pie first to be able to get it into the still?

DAVE WITHERS: So we distilled the different components. So the sort of the gravy and meat, and the sort of pastry. I meant to do the tomato sauce as well and kind of break it down and sort of deconstruction of a meat pie style, but I didn’t do the tomato sauce. I think tomato sauce would be pretty good actually.

Six Malt New Make

JAMES ATKINSON: The six-malt new-make has been on the market for a while and so I assume that’s going to be the base for the single malt whisky, which we’re going to see in the New Year?

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah it’s very similar, so we really wanted to put the six-malt out and just sort of raise a bit of awareness about what we were sort of doing. And really we were sort of giving out tasters of our six-malt to a lot of industry folk and the reaction we had was really strong and a lot of people were sort of saying we should just put it in a bottle. So we thought hey, why not. We’ll do a limited release. It’s a weird product but it does really well in some surprising cocktails, like a [inaudible] is amazing. We’re not going to be doing it again, we’ve had a bit of fun with it. Really it’s just a prelude or a kind of you know, a sign of things to come with the actual finished whisky.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what was the thought process that went into creating this interesting malt bill for the Archie Rose whisky? Once again, you obviously didn’t want to just make a conventional single malt whisky?

Archie Rose distillery’s whisky plans

DAVE WITHERS: Well we started out making very convention single malt whisky and I think that the most important question that we had to ask in those early days was why? Why are we using this yeast, why are we using this barley, why are we distilling it this way? If we think we can do better, why not? And so what we basically started with was a whole bunch of trials and looking at how malt could impact flavour. And very subtle changes had profound differences, so we looked how far we could push that and take that. And really where we ended up with was a broad spectrum of different flavour profiles that could be created by these malts. And we’ve distilled some pretty interesting stuff, so traditionally I suppose malt is a two-row variety for brewing or distilling. We’ve done six-row varieties which are enormous, sort of cattle feed. And they act very differently but give you very different flavours as well. So it’s that sort of stuff where you know, we’re so used to being so focused on these very small part of what malt can do for whisky or beer, or what have you. But there’s a massive amount of stuff out there, that just is waiting to sort of be delved into and explored.

Archie Rose Botany

JAMES ATKINSON: We mentioned it in passing before, but tell me about what’s happening with the Botany distillery? Obviously a massive investment by Archie Rose whisky, a huge facility there. Is that just going to be making you know, your volume products? What’s going to happen with the two sites?

DAVE WITHERS: Essentially where we are now is a pretty manual sort of place and it’s great, I mean you really have a good solid feel and touch for making things. But it is a very small scale and it’s very difficult to scale things up in that style of production. So as we’re moving to the larger site, we are putting in a little bit more process control. But there is a lot more innovation and again, I’m going to have to be careful and not tell you too much. But there are certainly some world firsts in that set up and there are definitely you know, some pretty innovative and progressive bits of technology in mashing, distillation and fermentation. The gin set up as well is going to be highly innovative and is one of only a couple of its type. And certainly, I don’t think anyone has the exact set up we have there for those, for those stills. So it’s going to be a pretty amazing project. So yeah, it will make our core range production, but we’ve built so much flexibility in it. And pairing that with the process control, means that we would be silly not to take advantage of the scale and also the ability and flexibility of the kit, to do some really cool and innovative stuff. So it’s really not going to be that place is just doing our sort of, you know, core range stuff and that’s fine. It’s just hammering out the volume. It will continue to be a tool for innovating and progressing the industry and what we’re doing. Rosebery though will be a dedicated R&D site and it’s really going to be a giant sandbox for the distillers. So it’s our ability to say hey, you know what, let’s make grappa today.

JAMES ATKINSON: Let’s distil a meat pie.

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah, exactly. So and that’s I suppose the thing that we’re most excited about. We’ve got guys from amazing backgrounds and you know, letting people have a crack at different things and celebrate distilling in its entirety. It’s such an important part of Archie Rose, that it’s great to have a dedicated site where we can do that.

JAMES ATKINSON: Your first Archie Rose whisky release sold out in you know, seemed like a matter of minutes. Were you surprised by the level of interest in the new products?

DAVE WITHERS: I wasn’t. I think there’s been a lot of hype and excitement about it for quite a few years. I’m really excited to get to the next stage, which isn’t the first batch but actually taking second, third, fourth and all of the other batches, to all of the whisky drinkers in Australia and really sharing our passion. Because it’s very easy to sell out of batch one, but really for us I think and for me, the exciting part is about continuing the conversation and bringing people on the journey as the Archie Rose whisky products and limited releases sort of come to market.

JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic Dave, well I look forward to tasting them as they do come out in the coming years.

DAVE WITHERS: Yeah, look forward to pouring it for you.

JAMES ATKINSON: Thanks for joining me on the podcast.

DAVE WITHERS: Thanks for having me.

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Author: James Atkinson

Journalist specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®.

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