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By Dave Withers, Master Distiller

Our Biggest Year of Whisky Yet: In Conversation with Dave Withers

In the early days at Archie Rose, we were known for our gins. Yet what many now know whisky is equally built into our DNA, with the first casks distilled and laid down when we opened in 2014. Our Founder Will Edwards once said, “whisky is without a doubt one of the most intensive projects and largest R&D commitments we’ve ever undertaken.” That’s because, as you will see, it takes time. Trial after trial, experimentation, and a considerable deal of patience.

So what’s on the cards for 2022? It’s set to be our biggest whisky year yet. With more than ten releases on the horizon, including two incredibly special whiskies made from native wood-smoked malts, we called on Archie Rose Master Distiller, Dave Withers, to take us back—from the initial vision, the hurdles of pioneering our first Australian smoked whisky to the final 1,521 bottles.

Yours to take home soon.

Could you tell us about the vision you had for Archie Rose’s debut into smoked whiskies— the Red Gum Smoked Single Malt and the Stringybark Smoked Single Malt?

We are really excited to be able to share our vision of what an Australian smoked malt can look like. Some of the greatest whiskies in the world are peated Scotch whiskies. Part of their power is they speak so intimately to the place they come from, and I felt very strongly that we should not try to imitate what is already being done well overseas. We are proudly an Australian distillery and wanted to celebrate the phenomenal raw materials right on our doorstep. The most logical step for us was to use native woods to smoke our malts. I like to think it’s the way that some distillers would have made their malt over a century ago.

How many years were they in the making?

It was a long project to be honest. I remember talking to Will in 2016 about my goal to replace Scottish peated malt with Australian wood smoked malt. Back then it was a pure pipe dream. There was just no one making smoked malt in Australia. I managed to get in touch with a maltster who was near retirement—he’d smoked Australian malt in 70s. We ran a trial batch with him but the smoke was so faint in the spirit that I thought the dream was dead. It wasn’t until we started speaking to Voyager in NSW that the idea got off the ground.

Keen to look into producing this type of malt with us, Voyager set up an experimental malting unit to smoke the malt. The experimental malting unit produced tiny quantities but it was enough malt for us to give a trial. The first two runs were only very lightly smokey. I have to admit, I was more than a bit worried at that point. Voyager had forked out for a fancy smoking unit and we were a long way off my vision of a uniquely Australian smokey whisky. But Stu and Brad at Voyager persisted. The third batch that came through was nice and smokey. I remember smelling the spirit coming off the still and being torn between getting teary and jumping for joy.

It is the third and fourth trials we ran that make up the two Trials & Exception releases we will be sharing with everyone in 2022.

Zooming out. For those new to the world of Archie Rose Whisky, could you briefly tell us about the Single Malt journey so far?

It has been both a long journey and one that has felt lightning fast. What makes our whisky unique is our focus on the grain. In our minds, it is the grain that is the most important part of any whisky. Most of our journey has been exploring how much flavour we can get out of the grain, and how we can celebrate the uniqueness of the malt. That led us down the path of looking at using roasted or highly kilned malt to develop flavour in the raw spirit (before aging). Part of the reason for pursuing such flavoursome malts is that we feel when the spirit goes into the cask for maturing it should already have a heap of character.

Most of our journey so far has required us to build our way towards a vision. For example, when we started out, many of the unique malts we wanted to use were either not created in Australia or were not widely known. We needed to work with maltsters and farmers to develop those malts. We now use 100% Australian grown grain, a feat we could not have possibly expected to achieve in 7 short years. It’s a tremendous achievement: the smoked malts are a great example of accessing malts that were not previously available.

What is smoked whisky? What makes it unique, in terms of the distilling and production techniques employed?

To make single malt whisky, the distiller needs to use malted barley rather than raw barley. Barley is a great source of sugar and flavour but when it is collected straight after harvest it is in a form that is not easy to make spirit out of. Accordingly, the maltster plays a trick on the barley by giving it water, stimulating growth leading to a biochemical change within the grain. This germination phase makes the grain’s starches available for the brewing process. At that stage, the slightly moist grain must be dried so it can be stored for a period of time. Traditionally this has been done by using dried peat, a traditional crofter fuel source made from sphagnum moss dug out of a peat bog. Peat bogs are abundant in remote areas of Scotland and thus have traditionally been a suitable fuel source for drying malt. When burnt, peat creates a large amount of smoke that clings to the malted barley. Through the whisky-making process, the smokey aroma persists resulting in a smoky spirit.

In our case, we have used native woods to smoke and dry the barley. These wood smokes lend a unique flavour and aroma to the final whisky.

You’ve managed to get your hands on one of 1,521 bottles of the Red Gum Smoked Single Malt Whisky and have just taken your first sip. What are you experiencing?

With a pronounced level of smoked notes, it is not a whisky for the faint of heart. The smoke profile is pretty unique. There are notes of smoked meats and bacon as well as a strong floral presence. I also find that it has a salty edge to it as well, which is really enticing.

Could you tell us more about the key ingredient in both releases: native red gum and stringybark — where did you source it from, and what makes it so special?

Using native woods to generate our unique smoky aroma was the dream when we first set out. As it turns out native woods give a robust and intensely flavoured smoke. On days where we are mashing a native wood smoked malt in the distillery, there is a pungent aroma of smoked meats and bacon. Aside from making the distillers hungry, the aroma has a fantastically unique personality that pervades the entire distillery. Having spoken to barbecue enthusiasts over the years, smoke from native woods is particularly prized for its pungency and distinctiveness. Accordingly, when making these whiskeys we wanted to lean into that singular personality and ensure that every glass of native wood smoked whisky offers the drinker a decidedly different experience to a smoked whisky produced in Scotland.

Describe both releases in two words.

Red Gum Smoked Single Malt Whisky: Intense and seductive. Stringybark Smoked Single Malt Whisky: Pretty yet powerful.

You’ve been distilling and laying down casks at Archie Rose since 2014. How have the whiskies — and the techniques you adopt — evolved since then?

In my opinion, distilling is a competition with yourself. Every day is an opportunity to make an even better spirit than the last. We have a constant feedback loop of innovation, taking stock of what's been produced and what could be refined. Our dedicated team relentlessly hunts down any improvements in quality. It is that pursuit of excellence that has led us to focus so heavily on innovation.

At our Rosebery distillery, we mashed and distilled our unique blend of six malts together. However, at our new distillery, we have been able to separate each malt out. What this means is that we mill, mash, ferment, distil and mature each malt separately. It’s a hell of a lot of work but we do it because it allows us to get the most out of the grain and really accentuate its key defining features. An example? Our base malt gives us a fantastically fruity spirit whereas our chocolate malt offers coffee and chocolate. We believe in celebrating the diversity of flavour that the grain can offer.

For all the collectors out there, should you be putting this away to age, drinking right now—or both?

Personally, I would hate to see this whisky get relegated to the collectors’ shelf. Both of the native wood smoked whiskies are fabulous drinkers right now. For me, I think this is the perfect whisky to share with friends. The flavours are complex but upfront, just begging for a catch-up with friends, letting the banter and good times roll.

Next up in April, we’ve got the Single Paddock Whisky Harvest 2018, which will be released alongside a new Lemon Scented Gum Gin. What can we expect?

The Lemon Scented Gum gin is a pretty serious drop with a huge juniper punch that sits alongside a whollup of native eucalyptus aromas. It is a very big gin that should really stand out in your gin and tonic.

The Single Paddock release is made from grain sourced from a single location and malted in a number of ways. In many ways, it reflects the land it came from and pays tribute to the personality that a site can give a spirit. In my opinion, it is Australian whisky’s answer to natural wine. It is a natural cask-strength whisky that has been semi-wild fermented and bottled without any filtration of any kind. In terms of flavour, it’s a stone-cold killer. A mix of some high octane citrus peel notes on the nose, with marzipan and cocoa nibs.

Want to be the first to get your hands on one of 1,521 bottles of Red Gum Smoked Single Malt Whisky? Sign up to the ballot to be notified via email.