The pioneers of Australia’s malt whisky appreciation community

“The whisky appreciation scene and the whisky enthusiasts’ community is booming.”

Captain Obvious, 2016.

For anyone who’s climbed aboard the hurtling whisky juggernaut in the last three or four years, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was always this way.  Here, in Australia, we have brand ambassadors flying around the country and presenting whiskies to established fan bases and new audiences.  We have multiple whisky bars operating in the capital cities and out in the suburbs.  We have countless whisky clubs that meet regularly.  We have online whisky clubs and groups that exist in various Facebook spheres.  We have a selection of 40 to 50 different whiskies to choose from in the supermarket chain retailers.  We have online whisky stores that ship the latest and greatest releases to your doorstep.  We have whisky expos in each of the capital cities.  We have distilleries opening up or establishing all across the country.   I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  We ain’t never had it this good before.

But it wasn’t always this way.   Hard as it might seem to believe, there was a time when life for the Australian whisky enthusiast was the polar opposite.   Imagine being a whisky fan in the mid-1970’s when less than a handful of single malt brands were available.  Imagine going into a bottle shop in the late 1990’s and having a selection of no more than six different bottlings to select from.      Imagine no whisky bars.   Imagine no online whisky resources or communications.  In fact, imagine no internet.

It was in those seemingly primitive times that the first pioneers and members of the whisky enthusiasts’ community of Australia set out trying to (a) source malt whisky, (b) share their enthusiasm with other people, and (c) gather together a community of like-minded souls around them.

Today, we have rock star whisky brand ambassadors; we have celebrity distillers and blenders; and we have renowned whisky authors.   These people have big names and big followings.  Their names are in bright lights; they’re all over social media; we know who they are.  Their legend lives on.

Yet it occurred to me recently that there was once a pioneering mob of people before them who blazed a trail and laid the foundations of this now-vibrant whisky-loving community.  Who were they?  What did they do?  Why do we owe them a debt of gratitude?  Before their names are forgotten, before their stories go untold, let us acknowledge and shine a light on these pioneers of malt whisky appreciation in Australia:

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Robin Spratt

Glenfiddich is credited with having launched the first commercially marketed single malt in 1963, and by the early 1970’s, Glenfiddich and one or two other single malt brands were available in Australia to most consumers.  Of course, other single malt bottlings were available in Scotland, but in Australia only an enlightened few were aware of the single malt category.  How could they get their hands on any bottles?   Enter, Robin Spratt.  Robin may not necessarily have started any whisky clubs or led countless tastings but he was, from 1970 until 1977, Australia’s only specialist importer of rare malt whiskies.   Robin set up Spey Traders Pty Ltd and was responsible for bringing in the likes of Macallan, Jura, Longmorn, Tamnavulin, Glen Grant, Glenfarclas and Bruichladdich, amongst others!  Robin advertised his wares in the Sydney Morning Herald, catching the eye of a few keen malt drinkers who would later go on to form The Gillies Club, Australia.

Spey Traders
A flyer for Spey Traders from the 1970’s

Robin eventually sold Spey Traders in 1977 and re-located inland.  It is interesting to note that a number of extremely now-rare bottlings imported by Robin into Australia in the early 1970’s continue to appear at international auctions these days, including a 1950 vintage Macallan which was sold by McTears in 2013.

Macallan bottling
A Macallan imported into Australia in the 1970’s that sold at auction in 2013.

Norman Case

The late Norman Case, who sadly passed away in 2014 at the age of 79, is undeniably the Godfather of the Australian whisky appreciation scene.  Norman ran a regular suburban bottle shop just outside of Wollongong in NSW.  In the mid-1970’s, one of his regular customers, Dr Peter Boon, walked in and asked for a whisky he’d seen overseas by the name of Highland Park.  The brand was unknown to Norman, who made enquiries via his supply chain.  It turned out that the whisky in question was a fancy pure malt.  At that time in Australia, single malt whisky (or pure malt, as it was also commonly referred to) was relatively unknown, a category represented in Australia’s mainstream retailers only by the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet.  (Notwithstanding the small and rare imports coming in from Robin Spratt).

Ever the gentleman and keen to please his customers, Norman sought out the required bottling, and – with one thing leading to another over the next year – Norman eventually established Whisky Imports, Wollongong, which became the leading specialist malt whisky importation business in the country.   Norman picked up where Spey Traders left off, and he went on to become the importer and distributor for brands such as Gordon & MacPhail, Bowmore and Glenfarclas in the late 1970’s, amongst many, many others.

Norman, along with the aforementioned Dr Peter Boon, were to become the foundation stones of The Gillies Club – Australia, with Norman becoming Cask Procurer of what is believed to be the world’s oldest single malt appreciation club, which they established in February 1977 with some like-minded souls in Wollongong.  Purchasing whole casks, importing them into Australia, and bottling the contents at cask strength for the enjoyment of the Club’s members, he was actually ahead of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which commenced similar activities in the late 1970’s and syndicated as such in 1983. Norman was also responsible for the original “Black Bowmore”, an insanely dark Gillies Club bottling of 1964 sherry-cask Bowmore, bottled in 1981, that inspired the now legendary official Black Bowmore.   (Brian Morrison, of Morrison Bowmore, was an official member of The Gillies Club, hence the connection and how the name passed from an Australian whisky club to one of the most highly treasured and sought-after official bottlings around today).

Norman’s knowledge, expertise, and palate for malt whisky knew no peer, and in 1981 he became one of the earliest whisky writers and authors of the modern era, co-writing the tremendous book “Scotch Whisky – the Single Malts” years before Michael Jackson or Jim Murray appeared on the scene.  And, in his spare time, he organised the odd whisky tour to Scotland!

Case book
Norman Case’s book – Scotch Whisky, The Single Malts

Norman sold his bottle shop business in 2002 and “officially” retired, although his efforts in growing our community of whisky enthusiasts continued for years to come.  When The Scotch Malt Whisky Society commenced operations in Australia in 2002, Norman became the local “State Manager” for Wollongong – a small, satellite city chapter that often outpunched the activities of some of the Society’s other capital city chapters.  He was also a foundation member of the MWSoA and attendee at the first Australian Malt Whisky Convention in 2003.

When he went to the big distillery in the sky in 2014, glowing tributes flowed in from around the country and from overseas, including from his old friends Jim McEwan (Bowmore/Bruichladdich), John Grant (Glenfarclas), and Brian Morrison (Morrison Bowmore).   Norman will be remembered for many things but, above all else, he was a true gentleman.

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David Le Cornu

David Le Cornu had a hand in many firsts for malt whisky in Australia.  A South Australian man, he was a publican in the 1980’s and established the Earl of Zetland hotel as the first specialist malt whisky bar in Adelaide – and most probably Australia, for that matter.  He became the first importer for the William Cadenheads brand and in the 1990’s the whisky bar at the Earl of Zetland had over 360 malts available for tasting!  (An unbelievable number, considering the industry at that time).  The Earl of Zetland became the home to three of Adelaide’s whisky clubs that all started in 1985 and met there until December 1995, when the hotel was demolished.

David was a founding member of the “Free Settlers” (the Adelaide branch of The Gillies Club, Australia) and was arguably Australia’s first independent bottler, importing and bottling many stellar whiskies under his own Laird’s Club brand.  These bottlings remain legendary, including the unbelievably good Bowmore 21yo, two Macallan 25yo’s, and a Longmorn 33yo.  David was also one of the driving forces behind establishing and running the National Malt Whisky Championship (aka Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship), which was held for the first time at the Earl of Zetland in 1989.

His influence remains to this day, with Adelaide enjoying a strong suburban whisky club scene, and his Laird’s Club bottlings being highly sought after by collectors, or drawing exceptional praise when popped and enjoyed!

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Graham Wright

By the early 2000’s, interest in malt whisky was gaining serious traction.  Some of the brands now had part-time or full-time brand ambassadors employed, but the main retail outlets that sold whisky had slim portfolios and were only selling the main big labels.  If you were a keen whisky enthusiast, and you’d exhausted or purchased all 10 of the whiskies available at your local Vintage Cellars, where could you turn to?

The answer was independent bottle shop chain Baily & Baily in Adelaide, with whisky procurer and distributor Graham Wright at the helm of their flagship store, St Georges Cellars.  Graham single-handedly turned Baily & Baily into THE destination and outlet for exotic and special whiskies that the main chains weren’t importing.   Under Graham’s management, Baily & Baily effectively became Australia’s first online whisky resource:  With the internet and email now well and truly part of everyone’s daily modus operandi, whisky lovers from all over the country would subscribe to Graham’s newsletters and wait with bated breath for news of each latest shipment and the treasure chest of whiskies that each new catalogue would contain.

By this stage, courtesy of both the internet and the widespread circulation of Michael Jackson’s 5th Edition of the Malt Whisky Companion, we would see all these wonderful new releases and expressions available in Scotland, and yet despair at the sparse selections available at our local retail outlets.  Graham Wright was the shining beacon and the saviour of many, importing and making available a tremendous range of brands, distilleries, independent bottlers, and expressions that would otherwise never have been seen in Australia.

When Baily & Baily eventually sold to Woolworths, Graham jumped ship also, and went on to set up The Odd Whisky Coy.   It was business as usual, again bringing in otherwise-unavailable whiskies.  Today, TOWC continues in this role, and continues to the be main importer and distributor for a host of smaller brands and distilleries.  He also supplies many of the on-premise venues with rare and fascinating stock, so if you’ve been to a whisky bar lately and tried a dram of something special that you can’t find at your local bottle-shop, chances are you should thank Graham for the opportunity.

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John Rourke and Andre Tammes

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society effectively started in Edinburgh in the late 1970’s and syndicated as a true Society in 1983.  In the 1990’s, the Society had started to form new international branches in other countries around the world, but it would be some time until successful inroads were made in Australia.  In 2002, John Rourke and Andre Tammes combined forces and established the Australian branch of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

John Rourke, a retired architect, was a well-versed gourmet and came from a strong food and wine background, including years at the helm of the Escoffier Society and the Wine & Food Society.  Andre Tammes was one of the first members of the Society back in Edinburgh in the early 1980’s, and was a former Director and shareholder of the Scottish organisation.  It was slow going at first, commencing in Sydney and then setting up local chapters in each of the capital cities.   One of the key features of the Australian branch of the Society (compared to the other international branches) is that John & Andre set it up and operated it as a club first, and a provider of whiskies second.

At the time of the Society’s launch here, single cask, non-chillfiltered cask-strength whisky was virtually unknown in Australia.  It was the SMWS that corrupted so many palates in Australia, introducing enthusiasts to the joys of cask-strength whisky and suddenly making 40% or 43% whisky seem less interesting. (Whilst independent bottlings such as G&M’s Connoisseurs’ Choice range and DL’s Old Malt Cask range were available through Baily & Baily at that time, they were neither cask-strength, nor single cask bottlings).  The Society also set up the first truly national program of tasting events and whisky education evenings that were open to the public (as well as, obviously, tastings for its members).   The Society’s locally-produced quarterly newsletter also became a significant publication in the mid-to-late 2000’s, and contained a wealth of information and whisky articles for budding whisky enthusiasts.  The Society became a vehicle and outlet for many of the major brands, collaborating with joint tastings and product launches for many of the distilleries.  (Fun fact: Johnnie Walker Green Label was effectively launched in Australia through the Society in 2005!).

Today, the Society continues to grow in Australia and has an established network of Partner Bars around the country, as well as being the custodian of the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship, which it has nurtured since 2008.  It also continues to offer Australian whisky drinkers the largest and widest range of cask-strength, non-chillfiltered, single cask whisky.   And all thanks to two men, Andre & John, who flew around the country in 2002 & 2003 to establish and set up Australia’s first true, public, national whisky club.

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Craig Daniels

An Adelaide man, Craig was at the forefront of the whisky community that was gathering online in the early 2000’s.  (Anyone remember PLOWED?)  Craig was active on many forums, forming relationships that would have far-reaching impact.

In late 2002, Craig collected a strong committee around him to form the Malt Whisky Society of Australia, an organisation of which he has remained as head & Chairperson ever since.  The MWSoA was responsible for organising and delivering the first Australian Malt Whisky Convention, held in Canberra in 2003.   An amazing three-day event that included an incredible whisky expo on the Friday afternoon (the first of its kind in Australia, and a forerunner to the Whisky Live-style expos known today), the 2003 Convention was also the vehicle that first recognised Bill Lark’s pioneering work, and also saw the official launch of David Baker’s first “Bakery Hill” bottlings.   The MWSoA also pulled in some heavyweights, attracting the likes of both Dr Bill Lumsden and writer Jim Murray (before his first Whisky Bible was published) to the event, as well as Ronnie Cox and Derek Hancock.

CD&JM
Craig Daniels & Jim Murray presenting one of the masterclasses at the 2003 Malt Whisky Convention.

The MWSoA became a champion of the fledgling Australian whisky industry, promoting the profile and efforts of the early distillers operating at that time.  Under Craig’s watch, the MWSoA also set up Australia’s first whisky awards, a major undertaking and judging process that sought to recognise the best commercially available whiskies available to consumers in Australia.

Craig became Australia’s first (and only) certified Malt Maniac, and was a judge for several years in the annual Malt Maniacs Awards, one of the few whisky awards taken seriously by consumers.  Like so many of us in the industry at that time, he wore several hats, and in 2004 he also took on the role for two years as the South Australian State Manager for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, organising and hosting the early tasting events for the SMWS in Adelaide.

With Craig continuing at the helm of the MWSoA, he (with the assistance of his committee) turned the Australian Malt Whisky Convention into a biennial event, which was repeated in Sydney in 2005 and Melbourne in 2007.  (The 2009 Convention was organised for Hobart, although the impact of the GFC led to its cancellation).  The Convention returned in Adelaide in 2013.   Whilst Australian whisky drinkers today probably take the likes of Whisky Live, Whisky Show, and Whisky Fair for granted, it is worth noting that no such vehicle, franchise, or industry support existed for the MWSoA, and Craig’s efforts in organising exceptionally good whisky expos for the three-day Conventions in 2003, 2005, and 2007 deserve particular recognition and applause.

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Andrew Derbidge

No, I’m not so arrogant & self-opinionated to include myself here.  However, in researching this article, gathering facts and info, and submitting drafts to colleagues for accuracy and fact checking, many came back & asked why I wasn’t “on the list”. I certainly had no intention of being included here, however, Bruce Ferrier, a long time whisky colleague and chum, protested loudly enough and subsequently penned and submitted the following on my behalf.  Aw, shucks… 

Andrew’s single malt story goes back to 1993, but it was in 2001 that he started an active role in spreading the whisky gospel, stepping in impromptu to host a Macallan tasting for Vintage Cellars when the national Brand Ambassador was unable to make the event.  One thing led to another and Andrew was suddenly presenting whisky tastings for many different brands, bottle shops and organisations.  And if there wasn’t a tasting event on in a particular month, he’d simply organise one himself – even hiring out a local community hall and inviting folks to attend!  Andrew participated in pretty much every whisky organisation in the land and every event in Sydney, volunteering in any capacity to be involved and to promote single malt whisky to others.  He created and presented whisky events for the public that didn’t exist in Australia in those days, including the first “Whiskies of the World” tasting events in 2004 that showcased whiskies from Scotland, Australia, America, Ireland, and Japan.  He was accepted into the Macquarie (Sydney) branch of The Gillies Club in 2003, becoming its Laird in 2015.

Andrew was a foundation member of both the SMWS in 2002 and the MWSoA in 2003, quickly becoming an active participant in both, and also writing for their respective newsletters, Feints & Foreshots for the MWSoA, and almost single-handedly writing the giant newsletters for the SMWS four times a year – easily the most informative and comprehensive whisky resource available in Australia at that time.  His writing efforts continued, penning educational pieces designed to de-mystify the confusing world of single malt Scotch, contributing to a host of hardcopy publications and periodicals.  In 2005, he won Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine’s “Best New Spirit’s Writer” Award, and later wrote for Whisky Magazine in the UK, as well as the short-lived but excellent “Tumbler” magazine, Australia’s first and only hardcopy periodical dedicated to malt whisky.

2005 also saw Andrew take on a formal role with The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, becoming a Director and the Society’s whisky manager that year, both roles he continues with today – despite a full-time career running a consulting structural engineering business!  Andrew became the consummate whisky host and presenter, hosting hundreds of tasting events – not just for the SMWS but still “outsourcing” himself to the major labels, retailers, and countless private events.  His tastings became legendary, known not just for the incredible knowledge and education he bestowed on his audiences, but for being laced with humour and entertainment.   Such was the quality and nature of the tastings he delivered, it did not go unnoticed that by the late 2000’s, nearly every brand ambassador and brand development manager for the major labels was being sent to his events to get their training.   He flew all over the country, presenting tastings and masterclasses in every capital city, putting new twists and raising the bar on how tasting events were typically run in Australia up to that time.

With Andrew driving the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s whisky imports, tasting programs, and literature & publications, the Society grew its national membership numbers tenfold.  Via the SMWS, Andrew personally curated, organised and hosted multiple whisky tours to Scotland, taking groups of Aussies across to experience the ultimate in whisky holidays; and he was single-handedly responsible for resurrecting the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship under the SMWS’ banner in 2008 after it had lain dormant for six years.

Educating others about whisky and growing the whisky community was his chief passion, and since 2010 he has been the specialist whisky lecturer for the prestigious WSET course in NSW.  And whilst a relatively recent pursuit, having only kicked off in 2014, his blog Whisky & Wisdom continues to be a major outlet and widely-read resource for thought-provoking articles, opinion pieces, and distillery-feature write-ups that both educate and entertain.

 

John Gagen & Peter Johnston

What do you do when there are no whisky clubs or regular whisky events taking place in your local city?  You start it all yourself.  John Gagen was instrumental in founding the Queensland Malt Whisky Society in 1996.  That, in itself, is a worthy enough feat, but bonus points are awarded for the far reaching legacy this would have.

John worked tirelessly to set up a club system and to provide a platform for Brisbane’s whisky enthusiasts to meet every month.  10 years later, by 2006, the QMWS had become a “federation”, incorporating four separate Septs across the Brisbane metro area.   The QMWS was thus the vehicle that spread whisky appreciation and knowledge throughout Brisbane and beyond, eventually leading to the organisation holding its own Whisky Expo show – again, years before the Whisky Live-style events we know today.   Each Sept of the QMWS became a further extension of John’s work, with John personally establishing and nurturing each new Sept.   20 years after the first initial meeting, today John’s QMWS has seven Septs throughout Queensland, including as far north as Townsville.   John also showed great support for the Australian whisky industry, organising whisky tours to Tasmania to visit the distilleries.

John was joined in his efforts in Queensland by Peter Johnston.  Peter (PJ to his mates) had been a keen whisky drinker since the mid 1960’s, and was introduced to single malt via a cask-strength Laphroaig in 1970.  Peter joined the QMWS in 2000 and was the club’s Gauger for many years, culminating in him becoming Laird of the QMWS in 2016.  Again, like so many of us in the industry, he wore multiple hats:  PJ was also a foundation member of the MWSoA, going on to be its Membership Officer for several years and playing a role in organising the 2007 and 2013 Malt Whisky Conventions.  In 2004, he took on the role of Queensland State Manager for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, hosting and presenting tasting events from the Gold Coast to Brisbane to Rockhampton for 10 years until handing over the reins at the end of 2014.  His other venture, In High Spirits, sees him continuing to host and present whisky tastings across Brisbane and beyond.

{Update: John Gagen sadly passed away in September of 2017 but – as mentioned above – left an incredible legacy of a thriving whisky community in Brisbane}

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Honourable Mentions

Peter Boon & David Oliver for their roles in the early days of The Gillies Club; indeed all of the early Gillies who established the club and saw it grow to have branches in other states are worthy of mention.  Peter Duly who, in the 1990’s, transformed an old wine wholesaler (Curcier Adet) into one of the first single malt specialist stores in Sydney.   Franz Scheurer for being perhaps Australia’s first whisky blogger in the early-2000’s, and for his pioneering, tireless, and far-reaching work across the country curating and hosting whisky dinners and the art of matching food to whisky since 2003.  Oh, and not to mention for establishing the Australian chapter of the Islay Whisky Club in 2005.   Shane Kalloglian for playing a huge role in curating some of the most amazing whisky tastings and events in Sydney and beyond between 2005 and 2009, as well as setting up Premium Scotch Imports and providing us all with drams of Springbank!  Bruce Ferrier for being front and centre at so many events; promoting whisky across so many platforms; and lending his media skills.  Richard Stewart (together with Tim Duckett & Bill Lark) for establishing the Tasmanian Whisky Appreciation Society (TWAS) and driving a strong club scene in Hobart.  Michael Mote & Stephen Harbour for their respective work in Melbourne in establishing whisky clubs.  Jenny Forrest, Phil Maguire, and Chris Barnes for the many tastings they organised & hosted for the SMWS in Adelaide, Canberra, and Melbourne respectively.    Matthew Fergusson-Stewart for effectively starting the West Australian chapter of the SMWS in Perth in 2007 and laying the foundations for what is now a massive local scene, not to mention going on more recently to being a founder of the Dram Full group on Facebook.  Ken Bromfield & Doug van Tienen for introducing Whisky Live to Australia in 2009.


Any such list is, of course, subjective and non-exhaustive, and there are no doubt plenty of other pioneers who worked hard in the cities and rural areas for the benefit of others – all back in the days when the community was small and industry support was non-existent.  I apologise to anyone I’ve inadvertently overlooked.

What is remarkable about the above list of people is that, for the most part, their work, efforts, and achievements were all undertaken as just a hobby or passion.   Scotland didn’t come knocking or fund their activities; their labours did not earn them a pay check; everything they did was purely out of a deep-seated love for malt whisky and a desire to share that love with others.   That you may not have heard of most of these names is testament to the fact that they spread the whisky gospel out of genuine passion and love, rather than for a place in the limelight.

The Keepers of the Quaich seek to recognise those that have advanced the cause of the Scotch whisky industry; one cannot help but notice that the organisation is quick these days to award membership to those in retail who simply sell whisky for their job and income.  I argue that each of the aforementioned individuals warrant inclusion amongst the Keepers’ ranks, as they have not only advanced Scotland’s interests across this big, brown land, but they did it all off the sweat of their own brow, funding their own efforts, and out of a pure love for the cratur.

Cheers, AD

In preparing this article, I am indebted to David Oliver, Peter Johnston,  Craig Daniels, and Bruce Ferrier, who corroborated stories and facts I’d heard over the years, plus filled in a few blanks for me.

 

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Author: AD

I’m a whisky host, writer, presenter, educator, taster, critic & all-round malt tragic! Also Director & Cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @whiskyandwisdom and also on Twitter @SMWS_Australia

One thought on “The pioneers of Australia’s malt whisky appreciation community”

  1. Thank you for the article in September 2016 it was very interesting. Although there was a part of the article that may be a bit wrong with the dates regarding the 1950 Macallan being imported in the 1970’s this particular bottle was bottled in 1981 and would have been imported in the early 1981/2/3 as thats about when i bought a bottle of it. Best regards from John

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