Eight Australian whisky innovators shaping the industry Down Under

Eight Australian whisky innovators shaping the industry Down Under

Australia’s whisky scene has evolved considerably over the past decade — meet some key players who are helping to further the success of Australian whisky and its unique cocktail culture

Interview | 28 Mar 2024 | Issue 197 | By Gabrielle Nicole Pharms

  • Share to:

The popularity of Australian whisky has dramatically increased worldwide over the last 10 years. Despite the country’s geographical remoteness and the whisky’s relative youth, Australian producers are tapping into their country’s unique terroir and lenient regulations to promote novelty and creative freedom within the category.

 

It is a landscape that Darren Peck at Morris Whisky knows well. “Australia’s appetite for innovation and forging a new path puts us in great stead for producing unique and flavoursome whisky for the world to enjoy. This predisposition, coupled with the role that location and climate play in defining the overall style of Australian whisky, are interesting facets that I think we as producers are cognisant of understanding, as well as critics, trade, and whisky enthusiasts.”

 

Here, Whisky Magazine spotlights six industry pros setting the tone for Australia’s thriving and ever-evolving whisky scene.

 

 


 

Sam Egerton — general manager, Stadia and Merivale new venues

Merivale Group is one of Australia’s most influential hospitality companies, owning more than 100 restaurants, bars, pubs, and hotels nationwide, most in greater Sydney. For bar and spirits maven Sam Egerton, working as the group bars manager of Merivale was “the most rewarding” part of his career. “During my time, I worked closely with some incredible people, some who still work with us and some who have gone on to do incredible things for our industry. While it was a full-on job at the best of times, the opportunity to be the steward of so many peoples’ journey is something I found incredibly rewarding,” Egerton says.

 

Since Egerton has lived in Australia since the mid-00s, he’s observed the astonishing development of cocktail culture Down Under, especially in Sydney. He says, “What was once a frou-frou sugar-laden menu of flavoured Martinis has now evolved to an incredibly complex range of diverse venues that caters to every taste.” Furthermore, Egerton finds exhilaration in the vibrant emergence of the Aussie whisky scene. “While it’s not the first time Australia has taken a run at making whisky, this is a new era with so many exciting producers with great pedigree coming across from the established powerhouses.”

 

Darren Peck — head distiller, Morris Whisky

Darren Peck is a spirits industry veteran of more than 25 years who has worked on numerous international projects, most notably with Diageo. Peck was made head distiller of the new Morris Whisky project after his employer, Casella Family Brands, purchased Morris Wines, one of Australia’s most significant heritage wineries, from drinks conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 2016. With fortified wine sales plummeting, Casella executed a plan to add a whisky distillery to the Morris site. Its flagship whiskies, Signature and Muscat Barrel, were released in June 2021.

 

Working with fifth-generation chief winemaker David Morris, Peck uses a combination of French and American oak casks sourced from family-owned wineries in the Barossa and Coonawarra regions of South Australia.

 

“I get to do what I love every day in one of the most beautiful parts of the world — and be a part of something that I truly believe is helping mould the future of Australian whisky as we know it,” Peck says. “Not only do I have an original 1930s copper pot still and some of the best fortified wine barrels in the world on-site at the distillery, but I also have everything else within the family business at my fingertips, including a brewery, cooperage, maturation barrel supply, and finishing barrels. It feels a lot like being a kid in a candy shop.”

 

Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen

Carlie Dyer — blender and production distiller, Starward

In 2015, Carlie Dyer took on the role of vintage laboratory assistant at the legacy winery Casella Family Brands, followed by three years as laboratory manager at De Bortoli Wines. Her move from wine to whisky came in 2018 when she joined the Starward Whisky team. As many of the distillery’s expressions are matured in ex-wine casks, the skills she acquired from the wine industry have served the company well.

 

“I love that Starward and our founder, David Vitale, have always been about breaking boundaries and being innovative. So, naturally, my job involves a lot of creativity, which keeps things interesting and exciting,” Dyer says. “I love our story and brand conception that evolved from craft beer into making craft whisky.”

 

In the five years Dyer has worked at Starward, she has witnessed the Australian whisky scene blossom. “We have been one of the biggest players in Australia for a while, so it's really exciting to see the whisky category grow and products emerging from other distilleries. The spirits industry in Australia is really friendly, and everyone supports one another.”

 

Brooke Hayman — co-owner, Whisky and Alement

Partners Brooke Hayman and Julian White founded Whisky and Alement, one of Australia’s first dedicated whisky bars, intending to create an atmosphere rooted in inclusivity and a shared appreciation for whisky. The same welcoming and supportive spirit Hayman received from the whisky community more than a decade ago when launching the venue remains at the core of the Australian bar scene. Hayman says, “Australia has really embraced whisky as a vehicle for building community, friendships, and having a laugh. Continuing to embrace the Australian larrikin attitude and mateship, we don't take anything too seriously.”

 

Beyond gaining a wealth of whisky knowledge, Hayman takes pride in what she’s learned about the bar’s patrons: the art of honest communication and genuine personal interest. “I've had the opportunity to travel extensively and meet hundreds of inspiring people around the world. I love sharing the experiences customers crave. You can learn history and taste in time, but understanding how to make a variety of different guests feel welcome through conversation is as important.”

 

Matt Bailey — Australia branch director, Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Matt Bailey, national ambassador and director of the Australia branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), has what he’s described as “the best job in the world”. For eight years, Bailey has helped cement SMWS’ reputation as an educational and inspirational force within the Aussie whisky industry. “I get to meet members, educate and entertain on whisky, host presentations, grow marketing strategies, build a community, and taste hundreds if not thousands of new whiskies every year while travelling the world,” he says. “What more could you ask?”

 

Over the last decade, Bailey has also had the unique privilege of observing the evolution of distillation processes in Australia. “I think some of the most exciting aspects that we're starting to see here is distillers and bottlers really paying a lot more attention to the grain and yeast varieties being used,” Bailey says. “A lot of attention around the wood and cask and maturation has been the guiding force for most for a long time now, but when you start innovating with wild yeasts, native grains, and other elements of your raw goods, you get some amazing results.”

 

Part of Bailey’s keen insight is the ability to foresee what’s next in whisky within the Australian market. Despite the challenges of the volatile economy, he’s seeing “people buying less, but buying better” with more premium purchases and deeper personalisation in spirits. He’s noticed consumers reaching for something Australia made at a similar or equal price point to their international counterparts. He adds, “The Aussie whisky industry still has a long way to go, but it's an exciting future for whisky here overall.”

 

Credit: Natalie Mendham

Heather Tillott — distillery manager, Sullivans Cove

Winemaker-turned-distillery manager Heather Tillott joined Sullivans Cove nearly 10 years ago, utilising her wine experience to benefit the whisky world and garnering recognition for the brand on the global stage. The company has earned more than 50 awards during her tenure, including World’s Best Single Malt in the 2014 World Whiskies Awards, and she herself was named Distillery Manager of the Year in the 2024 Icons of Whisky.

 

Tillott humbly credits Sullivans Cove’s small but mighty team (approximately 25 staff members) for their continued success. “The thing I enjoy most as a distillery manager is the creative process of a team. Good spirits are made by people who believe in what they are doing, exercise careful consideration and patience, and put their soul into it,” says Tillott. “The greatest [spirits], perhaps, are made by people who harmoniously do so together. This, with good ingredients and process, creates true harmony and soul in the glass.”

 

Tillott is keenly following the trend of exploring terroir in whisky. “We speak of terroir, particularly in grape and agave spirits, and I believe it to be very real in grain spirits also,” she says. “The conversation is in its infancy, and one well worth listening to and being part of, as it looks to provide many opportunities around how we create and market whisky into the future.”

 

Dave Withers — master distiller, Archie Rose Distilling Co

Every master distiller has a signature style based on what they believe is the secret behind a wonderfully made whisky. For Archie Rose Distilling Co’s master distiller, Dave Withers, it is all about the grain. “I love being able to make whisky that celebrates being Australian. We make our whisky in such a unique way by distilling each one of our malts in our whisky individually. That means that last year we made over 13 different types of whisky, all guided by the difference in flavour from the grain!” Withers exclaims. “This process adds a lot of complexity to the process, but the layering of flavour we can produce in the finished whisky is great. It is that coming together of all the intricate and complex facets into one final product that I love most.”

 

Withers also appreciates the many raw ingredients Aussie whisky makers have at their fingertips — from grain to fortified wines. “Australia is one of the largest malt producers in the world, and that gives us distillers access to some really unique flavours. In fact, we make a virtue of this by celebrating the grain. We want the drinker to be able to taste the uniqueness of the grain in the final whisky,” he says. “We also have access to fantastic Australian casks such as those used to mature Australian fortified wines like tawny and Apera. These can be used in place of sherry or port casks and give a distinctly local twist to the personality of the whisky.”

 

Julie Otter — co-founder and director, Otter Craft Distilling

Outside of sharing similar DNA, Eduard and Julie Otter, the brother and sister duo behind the award-winning Otter Craft Distilling (OCD), are from different worlds. Eduard’s extensive hospitality background includes working behind bars, managing them, and taking on key roles at the global wine and spirits megacompany Pernod Ricard. Eduard had a passionate appreciation for whisky, from the spirit’s flavour to its tradition, and this interest compelled him to experiment with making his own whisky under his garage in a 70-litre column still. 

 

Julie, meanwhile, flexed her marketing and brand management prowess as an executive for several fashion and beauty companies, including MAC Cosmetics, Jeanswest, and Sass & Bide — operating with the latter company as CEO from December 2014 to May 2016. In 2015, Eduard, with his lengthy spirits industry background, and Julie, with her 20-plus years of successful brand building, decided to combine their strengths and start OCD. 

 

They took OCD to market in 2019, launching their single malt whisky and vodka portfolio — and boom! Covid-19 hit Australia. However, this challenging time encouraged the siblings to continue building the brand as a unit. Since then, Julie says her “appreciation for whiskey has grown enormously” along with her understanding of the wider whisky community. “Being part of every single element that goes into creating our finished spirit — and knowing it all starts from a single paddock in the Riverina in New South Wales, where we source our single malt barley from a fifth-generation farmer — is incredible... I love that every element of what my brother distills and what we create together as a brand reflects and encompasses everything important to us.” 

Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One