Perth, the new frontier ... for Whiskey?
Australia has always been at the forefront of new world wine production, with Shiraz dominating the market and becoming an icon in the world of wines domestically and abroad. Spirits on the other hand hasn't really took off until now.
With a trendy pop culture of craft and artisanal beverages labelled as cool and hip, boutique distilleries are gaining traction and with the likes of Adelaide Hills distillery making headlines (Green Ant Gin), the Beverage Clique decided to do a little "down-under" exploration ourselves, somewhere closer to home.
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In the heart of Perth city, lies the much raved about urban distillery, Whipper Snapper. With a production volume of 30,000 litres per annum, Whipper Snapper is classed as a micro distillery (along side 60% of the rest of Australian Distilleries). Don't be fooled by the squeaky clean white façade on the outside. The deco within the distillery encompasses a rustic, grunge and hipster atmosphere, nothing short of character and personality. Much like its whiskies in fact!
Its flagship whiskey, Upshot, recently won the "Best Australian Corn" category at the World Whiskies Awards 2017 and we were really keen to find out what makes their whiskey so special.
Amidst his busy schedule, James (Jimmy) McKeown, The Master Distiller took some time off to answer a few burning questions for our fans out there. The interview took place in their private tasting room which added a touch of exclusivity to the session. With its dim lights and shady ambience, the place kinda felt like a WWII bunker, especially with rows of bottles lined up like ammunition, living up to its backstory of "the bomber".
The Beverage Clique : What was life like before becoming a distiller, your inspiration and the philosophy behind your whiskey?
Jimmy : I had a pretty diverse background from farming, to engineering and even stint in the wine industry. All those contributed to where I am now. Always had a passion for creating things and I feel as a distiller, the 2 biggest components would be the technical know-how, and the ability to be creative.
Chanced upon Tom Cooper, a pioneer in the whiskey industry in Colorado. He was my mentor and taught me the art of making whisky and how to do commercially. A gifted builder, he built his own distillery after retirement. That was really important for my development as a distiller because Tom built everything from scratch and that's what we have to do here. We need a broad range of skills , you need to be able to do everything! That's the main difference between a craft distiller and a big distiller (e.g. Jack Daniels). Best bit of advice from Tom, "Good whiskey takes time". Patience is key.
Culturally, Australia's a farming country, what we really wanna emphasize on is the special grains that we grow. There's access to a large variety of grains and we have been making whiskey from wheat, quinoa, different varieties of barley and corn. We also concentrate on our wood policies from our Upshot cask, Hungarian to various French oak. Our aim is produce styles of whiskey that's more approachable and is meant for everyone (not just the affluent).
The Beverage Clique : What would you say your whiskey is like, stylistically?
Jimmy : Think of our whiskies like a hybrid between Irish and Bourbon. Our aim's to do a lighter and more approachable style by taking time to clean it up a lot in the stills. We do malt our barleys (outsource malting) but a big portion of it is unmalted. Other production factors that differentiate us is our water source and climate (Mediterranean). We As you know, Quinoa is a big part of our production here and the variety we use is the Mandela variety. It is unique because you could give a Quinoa whiskey to the most highly trained connoisseur or a respectable Scottish distiller and they have never tasted anything like it before! It's really nutty and earthy, yet possess a clean and pure core.
Here at Whipper Snapper, we are revolutionising the notion of what whiskey has to be and that's the exciting thing. Our first batch of Quinoa whiskies was sold out in a couple of weeks!
The Beverage Clique : What's the most memorable dram you ever had?
Jimmy : On a whisky tour with my brother-in-law at Cragganmore Distillery (Speyside). Our guide was this really attractive Scottish lady and the tour pretty much went off script coz' we were quite hungover to begin with. The tasting took place in this magnificent paraphernalia room with medival deco and lots of old whiskies surrounding us. The tour was basically just us and we (with the guide) drank whisky together for ages. Tried to get her number, didn't happen unfortunately but still very memorable! The company and context truly made the whisky taste a lot better. *sheepish grin*
The Beverage Clique : Neat or On the Rocks?
Jimmy : That would depend. But usually .. one block of ice. Only because it gets a little warm around here and I like whiskies a tad colder. I know that's not the professional way of appreciating whiskey, but I do that at work enough and when I'm unwinding in a bar, I'm just drinking and enjoying it.
The Beverage Clique : Any plans to craft other forms of spirits?
Jimmy : It's always gonna be just whiskey. Probably explore other grains and with the Quinoa, I think we've got enough on our plate (Other variations and styles that are in the making, Big Love bolder which is a bolder style of Upshot, wheat whiskey, irish-style whiskey and a single malt whiskey). If there's anything else other than whiskey that we might produce, would probably be a craft beer!
The Beverage Clique : What's the future of Australian Whiskey?
Jimmy : Demand's rising, but we're pretty much still in the infancy stage. Everyone's still building their own identity and I think importantly for us, is not to try and replicate another country's style of whiskey too much. Building a unique style with provenance that is iconic to Australia is key. But we got a long way to go.
As far as collaborations go, we had a discussion with Cameron Syme (Founder of Limeburners Distillery) and he's pretty keen. Whether its to make a whiskey together or share barrels is yet to be seen, but it will be good for the industry as a whole.
The Beverage Clique : Where do you see yourself or your whiskies in 10 years time?
Jimmy : Hopefully relaxing on a beach, relaxing drinking whiskey somewhere!! *chuckle* On a serious note, I see us growing in size and perhaps expanding with exports.
The Beverage Clique : To round things off, a bonus question! Any tattoos that's whiskey related?
Jimmy : At the centre of my chest, I got a monogram of WSD and a biomechanical owl. The owl symbolises wisdom and the heart of the owl runs on whisky.
(How poetic! Sadly, he did not take off his shirt for a photo ... maybe next time)