Drams Down Under: meet some key players in the Australian whisky scene

Drams Down Under: meet some key players in the Australian whisky scene

Whether it's spirit distilled at home or abroad, whisky is thriving in Australia. Mark meets some of the key characters who have been leading the charge.

People | 07 Jun 2021 | Issue 175 | By Mark Gambino

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If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that community is the cornerstone of humanity. This applies ten-fold to the intrepid souls of the Australian whisky community. Despite geographic isolation and the youthful heritage of the contemporary wave of distillers, the popularity of whisky in Australia has risen dramatically over the past decade – thanks in large part to a passionate sharing of knowledge and wisdom from the category’s early pioneers. Across the whisky scene, from distilleries and dedicated bars, to whisky societies and the media, locally distilled whisky is finding its way into the hands of a younger audience for whom discovery and new experiences are king.

Considering Australian weather conditions below the 37th parallel south are similar to parts of Scotland, it is no surprise that expats who settled in the nation’s southernmost state, Tasmania, found the conditions more than favourable for distilling and maturation. While some drinkers may turn up their nose at any bottle devoid of an age statement, the many awards garnered by Australian whiskies speak for themselves.

With distilleries now popping up across the country, the chance of discovering a new favourite whisky improves with every barrel tapped. Read on to meet just a handful of the people making an impact on the Australian whisky community today.

Bill Lark, Founder, Lark Distillery

Bill Lark, founder of Lark Distillery

For Bill Lark, what started as musing about whisky around the campfire would quickly turn into his life’s calling. The local hotelier soon found himself on a path of discovery: learning about distillation from Scottish expats who had settled in Tasmania and eagerly planning his own boutique distillery – a two-litre still on his kitchen table. Considering the terroir in Tasmania is comparable to the climes of Scotland, the largest influence on his whisky was already taken care of.

Except there was one problem: the law prohibiting the operation of craft distilleries. With a little petitioning, a lot of passion and the enthusing of a federal minister, Lark soon saw the law repealed and Tasmania’s historic whisky industry was born. Within a few years, liqueurs made by Bill and his wife, Lyn, had become so popular that the distillery required a larger property to meet increasing demand. Lark’s whiskies soon garnered numerous awards and accolades and put Tasmania firmly on the whisky map.

These days, Lark is considered the godfather of Australian whisky, with many in the local industry benefitting from his decades of research and experience distilling a range of spirits. Chances are, if you’re drinking an Australian whisky, a little of Lark’s wisdom has gone into it.

Cameron Syme, Founder, Great Southern Distilling Company

Cameron Syme, founder of Great Southern Distilling Company

Passion for distilling is a trait that has always bubbled beneath the surface for Cameron Syme. Growing up hearing tales of Scottish relatives who used the reward money from turning in their own illicit stills to the authorities to fund the building of new ones, Syme knew in his heart that his early career in accounting and law would eventually make way for his true calling: whisky.

After founding the Great Southern Distilling Company, in Western Australia’s Great Southern region, in 2004 (a time when craft gin was booming around the world), Syme released Australia’s first ever barrel-aged gin made from local botanicals: Ginnifer Gin. However, being Australia’s first craft gin distillery on the mainland was not enough. Only four years later, Syme’s heritage took form in the company’s first bottle of Limeburners single malt whisky. Year on year, the company’s Limeburners expressions, along with its mixed grain and sour mash whiskey, Tiger Snake, grew in popularity and notability. Under Syme’s watchful eye, the company’s now-famous whiskies and gins have garnered some 130 awards around the globe and placed the Great Southern region firmly in the minds of whisky aficionados. There’s no doubt about it, it beats pushing numbers around all day.

Brooke Hayman and Julian White, Co-Founders, Whisky and Alement

Brooke Hayman, co-founder of Whisky and Alement

History is punctuated by brave explorers who set off to follow their dreams, little realising their endeavours would one day inspire the world. This is the case for partners Brooke Hayman and Julian White, who founded one of Australia’s first dedicated whisky bars: Whisky and Alement. More than 11 years ago, Hayman and White realised expensive bar prices and outdated perceptions prevented a younger generation of drinkers from exploring the vibrant world of whisky: namely, them. Their fathers and grandfathers drank it, but you’d rarely find a younger person who had the finances to support a dram of top-shelf whisky. So began their journey to create a whisky bar that set realistic prices, shared their wisdom and welcomed all.

Education became the backbone of the W+A experience, not just for drinkers but staff as well. The team was one of the first in Australia to journey south, to Tasmania, to learn about distilling from Bill Lark at his distillery. This, along with the bar’s partnerships with whisky societies and boutique distillers, ensures new whisky discovery is a core part of every visit. With 10 new whiskies added to the bar each week, every visit promises to be an experience on par with your first.

Patrick Maguire, Senior Distiller, Sullivans Cove Distillery

Patrick Maguire, senior distiller at Sullivan"s Cove Distillery

It’s believed that many of the inhabitants of Tasmania – around 70 per cent –are descended from colonial convicts. If this is true, you can consider Patrick Maguire the charming rogue found at the core of many Australian legends, stealing the hearts of whisky lovers across the nation. After spending his early years touring Scottish distilleries (his wife is also Scottish) the only thing Maguire could see in his future was a career distilling whisky in Tasmania. A friend and business partner of Bill Lark, it was only a matter of time before he was asked on board to help shape the company’s whisky.

Maguire took over distillation at Sullivans Cove in 1999 and literally turned the company around. Under the senior distiller’s watchful eye and wise tastebuds, the distillery’s French oak single cask single malt whisky won the award for World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt from the World Whiskies Awards in 2019. To say that this feat
brought Australian whisky to the world’s attention would truly be a very large understatement.

These days, Maguire is an advocate for the Tasmanian Whisky and Spirits Association, which he founded with Bill Lark, an organisation focussed on promoting the state’s whisky to the rest of Australia and beyond.

Dave Withers, Master Distiller, Archie Rose

Dave Withers, master distiller at Archie Rose

Scoring the award for World’s Best Rye at the World Whiskies Awards in 2020, within six years of establishing a distillery, might seem like a mighty feat, but it’s one Dave Withers achieved. He credits this success to staying true to a core belief: that grain is the fundamental ingredient in whisky. “Whisky starts its life in the field, not the distillery, and a successful fermentation, distillation or maturation is only as good as the malt you start with,” said Withers.

To handcraft the signature flavour profile of the company’s Rye Malt whisky, Withers has chosen a selection of local grains, all malted to his specifications, along with heritage strains grown exclusively for Archie Rose. The seven-malt mash is then produced in a custom-made mash filter setup designed by the distillery’s founder, Will Edwards, and Withers. According to them, this device ensures that the characterful flavour of the mash is transferred through to the distillation process to inform the whisky’s distinctive flavour profile.

Withers has also retrofitted the distillery’s copper pot whisky stills with custom features to give the distillers the ability to control and accentuate flavours during distillation. By controlling every step in production in this way, Withers can maintain the malt’s flavour integrity throughout the production process and deliver a whisky as unique as its core ingredients.

Kristy Booth-Lark, Owner Manager Distiller, Killara Distillery

Kirsty Booth-Lark of Killara Distillery

What began as a family job working behind the counter of her parent’s distillery cellar door, at Lark Distillery, has become a 20-year-plus devotion to all things whisky for Kristy Booth-Lark. The daughter of Bill Lark, Kristy dived into the world of distillery production and management at a young age, moving through the roles of general manager and head distiller by her early 20s. Under the skilful hand of her mother, Lyn, Booth-Lark learned the finesse of gin and liqueur production, while her father ordained her into the world of whisky. Together, they infused their offspring with their passion for the craft along the way. By the early 2010s, Booth-Lark was running the family business and already earning awards.

Then, in 2013, fate gave her the opportunity to forge her own path when Lark Distillery passed into the hands of investors and she founded her own company, Killara Distillery, which was the first to be fully owned and operated by a woman, and a second-generation distiller at that. Such is her hands-on approach, that you’ll find Booth-Lark’s handwriting on every bottle of the distillery’s single cask single malt whisky. To top off this accomplishment, she also started the Australian Women in Distilling Association (AWDA) and has become a staunch advocate for change within the historically male-dominated industry.

Wesley Eate, Owner, Helvetica bar

Helvetica Bar in Australia

In the course of the last five years, new liquor laws in Western Australia have encouraged a proliferation of boutique bars to fuel a European style, late-night drinking culture. At the forefront of this wave is Wesley Eate, owner of Perth’s only dedicated whisky bar: Helvetica. On any given night, the award-winning bar boasts up to 500 different whiskies from around the world, with staff intent on introducing drinkers to what could soon be their new favourite whisky. Wesley’s focus is to offer people with any level of experience something to explore, with tasting classes for beginners through to seasoned connoisseurs.

A highlight of the Helvetica experience is a selection of small batch whiskies that would usually be only available from a distillery’s cellar door. Drop in on the right evening and you may even be able to sample a rare drop from a now-closed distillery. When he’s not pouring drams, he is the president of The Small Bar Association of Western Australia, which promotes small bar culture and public awareness. Through his dedication to this endeavour and his studious approach to whisky discovery for Helvetica drinkers, Wesley has fast become an icon of the whisky bar scene of Australia.

James Atkinson, Creator, Drinks Adventures podcast

James Atkinson, founder of the Drinks Adventures Podcast

With a pedigree in high-profile lifestyle and drinks culture publications, there can be no better person from which to learn the finer arts of drinking whisky than seasoned Australian journalist James Atkinson. Like many converts to international whisky, Atkinson is aware that it’s not essential to have crystal-clear running spring water bursting forth on site or a grain farm on the grounds of the distillery to produce great whisky. The breadth of distilleries in Australia that embrace local suppliers and modern ingredients is testament to this.

Above all, Atkinson is keen to introduce audiences to local distilleries that will define the future of Australian whisky production through their innovative approach to distillation and maturation, especially those with the drive to make distinctive spirits that are not trying to be Scotch. There’s certainly no shortage of entrepreneurs of this ilk in Australia. To this end, in 2018 Atkinson created the Drinks Adventures podcast. Focused on the Australian alcohol industry, with the occasional look at imported products, each episode delves into the production and culture of alcohol. Mixing interviews with industry figures and Atkinson’s own commentary, each episode serves up a chance to discover new whisky and gain a better appreciation of how it’s made.

Emily and Bertie Cason, Co-Founders, The Whisky Club

Bertie and Emily Cason, co-founders of The Whisky Club Australia.

The rise of subscription alcohol clubs has opened up a whole new world for whisky drinkers who can now access top booze on a regular basis, regardless of their geography. The Whisky Club is one such service. Having grown swiftly in just a few years, the club now delivers unique whiskies to tens of thousands of Australian subscribers every month. Co-founded by Emily and Bertie Cason – her, the former associate publisher of The Drinks Business, and him, once commercial manager of the same publication and, later, marketing manager for Sullivans Cove – it’s fitting that the duo also chose to found the club on Australia’s ‘whisky isle’, Tasmania.

According to Emily, the bibulous pair has a simple aim: “To be the biggest community of whisky lovers, all enjoying and celebrating life with the same drams at the same time each month, in the company of those who made it.” To achieve this, the Casons plumbed their comprehensive network of relationships with distilleries large and small, all of which now supply the club with exclusive bottlings for members only and participate in regular tasting events to encourage community engagement. The club also connects subscribers with whisky ‘clubhouses’ (bars) wherever they travel, ensuring that members are never far from a welcoming dram.

David Vitale, Founder, Starward Whisky

David Vitale, founder of Starward Whisky

While some distillers may consider the angel’s share lost to Melbourne’s famous ‘four seasons in one day’ weather too much to bear, Starward Whisky founder David Vitale thinks it creates a whisky as unique as the city’s climate. After spending too many years drinking expensive whisky in a suit, Vitale saw an opportunity to give a wider demographic access to great whisky while exploring alternatives to single malt Scotch and the ubiquitous blends that had hitherto dominated the whisky scene. He also realised local weather conditions, resources and distilling talent in Melbourne could come together to create a perfect storm within which to create a new type of distillery: one that demystifies and democratises whisky for all. Thus, Starward Whisky was born.

Since then, the company’s range of single malts – as well as its double-grain whisky, Two-Fold – have made their way to back bars around the world. Neat, on ice, mixed or in cocktails, Vitale does not dictate how whisky should be drunk; he simply wants drinkers to enjoy Starward’s spirits any way they please. Through Starward Special Projects, Vitale also explores innovative flavours and finishes, such as a recent tawny cask release or The Seafarer – a collaboration with Cunard Line, who carried a barrique cask of Starward single malt whisky on the aft deck of the luxury cruise ship Queen Elizabeth for 12 months.
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