In Conversation with Two Whisky Weirdos
In honour of the very exciting Scotch Malt Whisky Society take over of the mezzanine bar at Archie Rose in May, and the world-first SMWS Blend Your Own Whisky Masterclass, Archie Rose Head of Hospitality Harriet Leigh sat down with SMWS Brand Ambassador Matt Bailey and Archie Rose Master Distiller Dave Withers to find out more about what brought these two bodies together. It turns out the answer was whisky.
Shall we start by discussing your bromance? How did you two meet? Was it love at first sight?
Dave: Our hands met over a bottle of Ardbeg
Matt: Yeah our hands both reached for a bottle of Ardbeg 10 at the same time and it was magical. No, I was working in the music industry.
Were you in a cool band?
Matt: I was NOT in a cool band. I was in a very terrible band. I’d heard about the Oak Barrel, but never been, and that’s where I met Dave. I came in to check out their spirit collection, I was a whisky collector, collector is not the right word, enthusiast is probably…
Weirdo? Whisky Weirdo?
Matt: Yeah, weirdo. And I had a chat with Dave at the Oak Barrel.
Dave: I think we were talking about Springbank, or Longrow Red.
Matt: Yeah, it was Longrow Red’s first edition – I hated it at the time and wanted to vent.
Dave: We became fast friends.
What do you think Dave’s influence on the SMWS has been?
Dave: I don’t think I like this line of questioning.
Matt: Dave was an early part of the tasting panel, and was a key part of shaping where whisky selection and proper appreciation was headed in the country, led by the SMWS. He, along with our Cellarmaster Andrew Derbidge, Murray Hassan, Anthony Cowie, Tony Chapman and others were key to creating and growing the culture of Australian whisky appreciation on a core level around the country.
Dave: The SMWS was one of the first proper tastings I’d ever been to. It was pretty influential. In those days it was a very different crowd assessing whisky in really such a considered way, it was amazing.
How do you think the crowd has changed?
Dave: It’s changed with the acceptance of whisky in the broader society. The kind of crew that was into whisky in those days [is different now]. Albeit it was expanding already. I think it’s more of a dynamic scene. It’s much more fluid, you don’t have to just be a boffin anymore. You can like whisky and like motorbikes or whatever else you’re into, it’s not just about whisky.
Matt, how else has the Society grown?
Matt: The numbers have certainly grown, but what’s interesting is how our members have changed. A few years ago it was quite blasphemous for us to bottle a Japanese whisky, or Irish whisky. Members would react with “that’s not a Scotch”. I remember the very first Society tasting I went to – I was there courtesy of a mutual friend of ours – Murray Hassan – who invited me along. I didn’t know what the Society was at the time and there was a society Kilchoman in the line-up – 129.3 or .2 or something like that, I thought it was outstanding, it was delicious, it was actually my first ever exposure to Kilchoman before I’d even tasted a core range bottling. I went along and remember sitting at the table at the RAC, and there were two older gentlemen sitting at the table with me, and they said “this isn’t real whisky”. They were used to their Macallans, their Glenfarclas’, I remember being a bit taken back at the time – I thought that was a bit narrow-minded and I was a bit put off by what they were saying. I didn’t purchase a bottle on the night. That’s really changed now. You don’t get that [sort of old-school thinking] at the Society anymore, and I think that’s really good. It’s a younger crowd. In fact, the Australian branch has the youngest members and the highest percentage of female members in the world.
That’s because you’re so dashing.
Matt: Well I’m not going to say no… but I think whatever the reason it’s exciting, and a true testament to the growth of whisky drinking and appreciation around the country, and something I don’t mind shouting from the rooftops!
What does it mean to be an ambassador for the Society?
Matt: This is something Dave and I have spoken about before. I don’t consider myself an ambassador for the Society – I consider myself an ambassador for the category, just like Dave is, for the growth of whisky in Australia. If someone says to me “Oh I only drink blended whisky or I only drink core range bottling” I will invite them to try something anyway, I won’t bash anyone else’s brand, but you should explore and try things. If someone says they enjoy whisky most in cocktails, then great – that’s how they enjoy it. We’re ambassadors for the category in that we create a scene around whisky that’s not just one brand.
Dave: In my opinion, Matt sums up what the modern ambassador is all about. He is proactive and speaks for an industry rather than one producer. Open, supportive and inclusive Matt is absolutely changing the way scotch whisky and whisky in general is seen in Australia. It helps having a great brand to work with, but it says a lot about a person that they can make a premium product speak to the masses. I have a lot of respect for what Matt has achieved. I think you have to be an advocate for openness and acceptance of whisky, for me whisky all comes down to sharing. The reason why they put it in a 700ml bottle is because it’s nearly impossible for you to drink it yourself in one sitting.
Dave: (laughs) The actual bottle itself means you have to share it, and that’s the whole point of being involved in the industry, sharing whisky, sharing good times.
Matt, why is Archie Rose your favourite brand?
Matt: I could tell by your cheeky smile; here comes a pearler. It’s one of my favourite places to be, that’s for sure, and one of the reasons is because of the people who are here.
When are we going to see a SMWS bottling of an Archie Rose cask?
Dave: Another pearler.
Matt: I love all these questions you’re making me answer.
Well, we are recording this…
Matt: No comment. I’m getting strong-armed…
You mentioned previously that you think of Archie Rose as a pioneering brand. Why is that?
Matt: The answer to that is Dave Withers.
Look you’re making him squirm.
Matt: I honestly do believe that. I’ve always thought that Dave’s advancement of whisky, even back in his days at the Oak Barrel – goes past just hosting events. It was education about the category. And I think he’s doing the same thing here at Archie Rose with his advancement of New Make and being able to experiment with things like the Horisumis, Rums, Kaiju. Not many distilleries in Australia are innovative, it drives me mental how many distillers are afraid to lay down proper quantity. A lot of the time this comes down to cash flow and all sorts of other issues associated with running a business, but it’s resulting in 50 litre casks everywhere and terrible 20 litre spirit. Put some substantial quantity down, and actually experiment with what you’re doing. If you don’t like your New Make; change it, if you don’t like your gin; change it. And change it until you create something that you want to drink. Make something for your own palate, and then after that it comes down to public and if they don’t like it you’ll get the sack. Jokes aside, what Dave and the team are doing at Archie Rose is paramount.
Dave: I think also there is a great parallel with what the SMWS is doing – you’ve got bottles from everywhere from Seattle to India, you’ve bottled cognacs, and you’ve also got some great value there. In my opinion, whisky drinkers can also benefit from drinking some of the great quality rums the Society are bringing out. And some of the cognacs have been top class as well. These categories are still in their times of innocence – there is real value there in these bottles. Innovation in all aspects of the spirits category is really important at this point in time.
Matt: Yeah we’ve bottled three-year-old Japanese grain, and 25-year-old rum and everything in between. We’re always trying to innovate within our own parameters as well and challenge our members’ palates with new experiences wherever and whenever we can.
What are you most looking forward to pouring at your incredible takeover of the upstairs bar at Archie Rose?
Matt: Uhhhhh, there are few bottles in the line-up which we’re planning to open, which I’m really excited about. One of them is a 30-year-old single cask from Dumbarton distillery which was demolished many years ago, which year it was demolished escapes my memory, any other boffins here know the year off the top of their head?
Shame on you both, you’re not the men I thought you were.
[Ed: for those who are wondering, Dumbarton closed in 2002]
Matt: I’m also really looking forward to our archive bottlings that we’re going to open. We’ve got a few things from the ’70s and ’80s that have been sitting in the warehouse since day one. There’s a ‘74 Ardbeg in there!
Dave: STOP IT. Are you opening a ‘74 Ardbeg?
Matt: I’m trying to convince them to let me. I’ve got to twist a few arms. We’ve got some rarities in there – an ’82 Glenrothes that is a 30.4, we’ve got 27 dot something which is a delicious looking Springbank cask. And we’ve also got some upcoming gems that no one has seen before which will be featured on the bar! In particular a 16 year-old sherry butt I just tasted last night, which is absolutely incredible.
I’m pretty excited about your co-hosted Blend Your Own Whisky class. Guests are going to use exclusively SMWS bottlings to make their own signature blended whisky. Some might say that was a little blasphemous… How do you feel about that?
Matt: I think it’s extremely blasphemous and extremely required.
Who is going to make the best blend out of the two of you?
Matt: IT’S ON!
Dave: I think a lot of SMWS members will not only find it blasphemous but also struggle with the idea of making a blended whisky. And I think that is something we have to get over, this idea that blended whiskies have to be this bottom shelf abomination.
Dave: Blending is a really hard thing to do well.
Matt: Look at what people like John Glaser at Compass Box are doing, they’re doing some great blends.
Dave: And some of those are top-quality whiskies. I’m excited for the class, I think it’s going to be great to use what are top shelf malts to make what could arguably be some great blended whiskies on the day.
I’m excited. Shall we make it a permanent pop-up?
Matt: Hehehehehe. PLEASE!
For more information on SMWS’s pop-up at Archie Rose from 3-5 May, see this link.