Mezcal ethics, Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia goes local & more: News

In this final Drinks Adventures podcast news bulletin for Season Ten:

  • Mezcal boom raises sustainability issues;
  • A landmark moment for Australian whisky; and
  • Non-alcoholic beer brand Sobah launches crowdfunding campaign

This article is a podcast transcript. Listening provides the best experience! Click here to open the episode in your podcast player or press play in the media player below.

Melanie Symonds of Quiquiriqui Mezcal on sustainability issues

JAMES ATKINSON: The global popularity of mezcal is a double-edged sword for the Mexican communities who produce the spirit.

That’s according to Melanie Symonds, who spoke with Drinks Adventures about the origins of her brand Quiquiriqui Mezcal in our full-length episode this week.  

I asked Melanie separately for her thoughts on Constellation Brands’ recent acquisition of a stake in Dos Hombres – the artesenal mezcal brand started by “Breaking Bad” stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul – the latest in a groundswell of mezcal deals involving multinationals.

Dos Hombres Mezcal founders Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston

JAMES ATKINSON: You know normally when a big liquor brand buys a smaller brand, they’ve got these ambitions of being able to scale it and make more. Mezcal is supposed to be small batch, it’s supposed to be made in small amounts. So can you get your head around what’s happening with these deals?

MELANIE SYMONDS: I’ve said a few times. I’ve really seen the mezcal industry in Oaxaca and globally change so much in 10 years. I think my views as well have changed over those 10 years. If you’d have asked me this kind of a few 56 years ago, I would have been very adamant that mezcal can only be made by the one producer and doall these things, and anyone kind of trying to scale it up is disingenuous to kind of the true authenticity of mezcal. But then, on the flip side of that, you also have families and communities who you know they’re they’re poor and any opportunity for them to grow and become businessmen and women and to bring money into the you know, their family and the community employ people and create jobs. And then you know that filters onto the agave farmers. So I think to say that you should only ever make in tiny, small batches traditionally how it used to be. I kind of feel that’s very unfair to the people you know who are making it. And I talked to some producers who want to remain small and are very much kind of only interested in producing, you know, limited batches, kind of as they have been doing. But I also, you know, speak to and work with a family that say, ‘actually, we’ve been making this for generations. But it would be amazing to have our whole family employed by this would be amazing to, you know, be able to employ the village and create kind of, you know, money and kind of commerce in that village and have people coming to visit and stuff. So I think there’s a balance. The way that mezcal is traditionally made, that’s not really get any kind of the most out of an agave. You kind of have to start looking at technology and, you know, kind of other methods of extraction and etcetera so and then you end up in a place where you havediffusers and factories and some mezcals are made like that. Do I like it? No. Do I want to sell it?

Will I promote it? Absolutely not. But if you want mezcal to be sold around the world, then unfortunately, you’re gonna have to make a compromise. And you’re gonna have to allow a level of kind of industrialisation or allow certain people to go down that route if that’s what they want to do. I think you can do that responsibly. I don’t like the way it’s been done. I don’t think some brands have done that.

JAMES ATKINSON: Symonds says there are a multitude of ethical and environmental concerns posed by the way some brands are currently doing business in Oaxaca.  

MELANIE SYMONDS: Can you turn around and say that all the workers are being paid fairly? Can you turn around and say you’re paying the right price for your agaves if you’re not growing them? And 99% of mezcal brands are not growing their own agaves, they’re buying them. You know, I live in Oaxaca part-time. I’m really lucky to work with a family who really care about all these issues. We have responsibility practices. We have an agave nursery. So we reseed. We replant. We work with the local colleges to invite them in to run kind of courses on how to replant a garden and try and get kind of, you know, the younger community interested in replanting because that’s really the focus has to be on. How can we kind of create enough agave and grow enough agave for this increasing demand to make mezcal. And the runoff from mezcal production is another area that’s a big issue. There’s I think, over 200 palenques in Matatlán, the village and the surrounding area. And to my knowledge, only two of those people have a vinasses disposal unit. So, vinasses is a really acidic runoff that you get from making mezcal, and everyone is putting vinasses back into the water that’s  change the Ph level. But to build a vinasses disposal unit, which is like a composter, is really expensive. Quiquiriqui kind of got bigger and the family bought another palenque, they were able to afford to make a vinasses disposal unit. and I think there’s only two that them, and one other person, to my knowledge and to their knowledge, has an vinasses disposal in Matatlán. So what’s happening with all these other brands that are kind of, you know, putting pictures of all these, you know, naked people in a garden fields and talking about one love and sustainability and having an agave party, it’s like, That’s great. That looks really nice for the market. But how are you disposing of your runoff?

Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling Australian whisky

JAMES ATKINSON: The Australian branch of the world’s leading whisky club, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, has announced the upcoming release of two new bottlings from an undisclosed Australian distillery.

The single cask releases from a distillery codenamed 148 follow the release of the society’s debut Australian bottling from Sydney-based distillery 147 earlier this year.

National ambassador Matt Bailey says it’s a landmark event for the club, which – as its name would suggest – has to date largely focused its attentions on Scotch whisky.

MATT BAILEY: It’s true. We’ve bottled whisky outside of Scotland for some time though, it’s not really a new thing for us to be exploring international whiskeys. The name would suggest that we only bottle Scotch whisky, which is incorrect. I mean, it was it was even as early as the beginning of the 90s, when we first bottled an Irish whiskey. Of course, members were outraged then, and there were stories of members tearing up their membership cards and not wanting to be a part of it anymore because my beloved Scotch Malt Whisky Society was bottling Irish whiskey. And that was back in the 1991, somewhere around there. And then we bottled some American whiskeys and Japanese whiskies. Indian whiskeys, Swedish and onwards we’ve been. And then in 2021 we finally released an Australian whisky, which was 147.1 Jacaranda Jam, which was hugely well received and sold out in a number of seconds online. And now, this month, we’re going to be looking at the next the next iteration in that evolution, I guess.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society 148.1 Apera For Everyone
Scotch Malt Whisky Society 148.1 Apera For Everyone

JAMES ATKINSON: And do you guys talk on the record about who the distilleries actually are?

MATT BAILEY: I mean, we give hints big enough to drive a car through them. We can say that Distillery 148 is a Port Melbourne-based distillery that was founded by David Vitale many years ago, so we don’t try to hide it. We just tend not to talk about the distillery names for a couple of reasons. One is because we want members to experience the flavour of that whisky, taking any sort of preconceived notions about what it should taste like, what that house style is that we’re so removed from in many ways, and keep the focus on flavour rather than brand. And the second reason we keep the coding system at the society is because we’re then not competing with those distilleries that we’re sourcing this great spirit from with their own brand. These distilleries sometimes spend millions of dollars a year on branding and on marketing their distillery. If we’re able to then source great spirit and not compete against them, we’re just sort of providing a small number of casks here and there, direct to our membership, then that’s all that matters.

JAMES ATKINSON: The backlash that you mentioned before with the Irish whiskey releases, I guess the world of whisky has just changed so much since then hasn’t it? And I guess it would probably be remiss of the society to ignore what’s happening on its own home turf in Australia.

MATT BAILEY: Absolutely. And it seems like there’s a lot going on in Australian whisky. I’d say it’s had some growing pains, especially in the last five or six years. It’s absolutely exploded in the number of distilleries, but also the quality has been changing, and I think it’s been getting progressively better. We’ve looked at Australian whisky a number of times over the years, in fact, over the last two decades of the branch, there’s been discussions about Australian whisky. This is not a new thing for us, but it always came down to the quality wasn’t quite there or the price didn’t make sense and the output wasn’t really viable. If you’re talking with a distillery where they might push out 12,000 litres a year and we go in saying, ‘Can we buy 1000 litres or something and put them in some casks?’ That’s a huge chunk of their output. Why would they sell it to us when they can barely keep up with their own demand? The combination of factors came along that it made sense for us to properly re-explore it in the last couple of years, and now we’ve seen the results of that this year. We pay less attention to regionality and even country. I find regionality in Scotch whisky to be almost a null point these days. If you have peated Speysiders and unpeated Islay whiskies. I mean, what do the regions really mean in terms of flavour anymore? The regions mean even less sometimes when it comes to international whisky. I could probably pour most people a Japanese or a Scotch whiskey side by side, and they wouldn’t be able to spot the difference.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so this is going to be an ongoing thing? We’re going to see bottlings from other distilleries coming out over the next month and years?

MATT BAILEY: Yes, yes, we are. There might be a little bit of a gap between these next couple of releases and the ones after because we need some time. Of course, you can’t cheat the maturation process and we need some time in cask for a few that we’re working on at the moment. And we’re working with a number of distilleries around Australia, which is really exciting. With these casks as well, we’ve picked them out with the team. We basically had free reign of the warehouse to pick out what we wanted rather than sort of, ‘here’s the cask that you can bottle from us’. It’s a big an honour for us to bottle that distillery as it is for them to be bottled by us. Because by being bottled by the iconic Scotch Malt Whisky Society and being known by members internationally, is a huge boon for them in their core range as well. So it works both ways, and it’s a huge boon for us because we can say we’ve allocated a code – 148 – to this distillery and we can work with them in the future on sourcing some incredible spirits and bottling them, and it’s all in the pursuit of flavour. That’s all we care about.

JAMES ATKINSON: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia members will be able to purchase cask 148.1 on Friday October 1, with 148.2 to follow in early 2022.

And remember you can catch the society’s cellarmaster Andrew Derbidge discussing Australian whisky in Season Two of the Drinks Adventures podcast.

Sobah Beverages launches equity crowdfunding on Birchal

Sobah, the indigenous-owned non-alcoholic beer brand, has launched an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Founded in 2017 by Gamilaroi man and psychologist, Dr Clinton Schultz, and his wife Lozen McDiarmid, Sobah – that’s spelt SOBAH – has to date contract produced its beers, all of which are brewed or infused with Australian native botanicals.

In a recent webinar, Schultz and McDiarmid tabled the company’s plans to build its own brewery – and, if enough funds are raised – a café and gallery, along with event and wellness spaces.

DR CLINTON SCHULTZ: I come from pretty damn humble beginnings. I’ve always wanted to look at avenues that help people who don’t have a lot of spare money actually enter different sectors. And this is a perfect opportunity for us to be able to get people on our journey with us who have supported us for a long time, who may not have a lot of spare cash. That’s the main reason for me is I want it to be open and accessible to anybody who wants to be a part of the continuing Sobah journey.

JAMES ATKINSON: Schultz says equity crowdfunding will also enable Sobah to remain a First Nations owned company.

DR CLINTON SCHULTZ: The best way for Lozen and I to ensure that is for us to maintain at least 51 per cent of the company. This is about it being First Nations-owned and First Nations-driven and really being able to support and give back two First Nations causes, while obviously being a profitable company. We want to be able to show that you can be a profitable company and do it in a really ethical way that allows you to give back and do some good.

JAMES ATKINSON: Further details on the campaign are available on the Birchal website.

That’s it for Season Ten of the Drinks Adventures podcast. Thank you as always for listening and for all your support.

I need to take a short breather and get organised for Season 11. I’ll be back with you again very soon.

More:
NED Whisky distiller plants 216,000 agave plants
Julio Bermejo, creator Tommy’s Margarita cocktail: S4E8
Morris Whisky, a major force in Australian single malt: S10E4

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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