Innovation in Whisky

By James Henderson

Whisky, like all spirit categories, grape varietals, coffee roasts and indeed, life, continues to evolve. It can surprise, delight and even confuse the most discerning of tipplers.

Cameron Pirret was a guest of ours in 2017 – on Episode 9 of The Hospopreneurs Podcast – while behind the bar at the late, Seymour’s Cocktails and Oysters. Their Irish Coffees were known to be the best around at the time.

He’s now the Brand Ambassador for The Exchange (NSW) and back for a comment on what’s happening in whisky in 2019 – and quite possibly where we might evolve…

  • What defines a good whisky? 

Personal preference is king! There are no bad whiskys, (in theory) just different whiskys. For me it’s about distillery characteristics and maturation flavour. A ‘good’ whisky hits all the notes, both pleasing and challenging everyone – balancing simplicity and complexity.

  • How do you feel about wood chips in the ageing process? 

Not a fan! Don’t get me wrong if you use staves or pieces of oak during the maturation, that’s a different story. There are some amazing whiskys that use barrel maturation and oak pieces in conjunction to great effect though (ie: Makers 46).

If you’re trying to replace the barrels altogether you’re living in a pipe dream. Oak chips surrounded by liquid won’t breath and therefore will have one dimensional flavour. Barrels breath, hence Angel Share.

Without getting too technical, this increases some of the chemical processes that take place during maturation, acidification, esterification, ect. The result, and it’s what I alluded to in what makes a whisky good – you get a softer less dominating maturation that vastly increases complexity.

  • In your opinion, does older mean better?

Age is a good indicator of certain characteristics of a whisky and indeed I like it as an indicator and I don’t think it should be completely done away with. But on the whole, older does not mean better. It’s just one piece of a large and ever-evolving  puzzle.

Older does mean more expensive for those who choose to follow it blindly.

  • Who’s changing the game in whisky today? Why is that?

The game is changing at two ends – distillation & maturation.

Distillation – this is happening with the younger guys in the new and emerging regions. They are fiddling with grains, malting types, cut points and still shapes and sizes. The best examples here are Archie Rose (Sydney) and Westward (Portland).

Maturation – happening with the ‘big boys’ – the distilleries that have 200+ years of history. They are not in a hurry to alter their distillery characteristic too much and nor should they be.

But because of sheer production volume, their maturation and blending techniques go to another level. They have access to many types of barrels and quantities to blend.

We are currently doing some amazing things at Laphroiag and Bowmore, with regards to maturation – but I dare say if you ask any of the large distilleries across the world, they’ll also have something new cooking.

  • Who will brands be looking to for inspiration tomorrow? 

Its always the same, Consumers and Trade.

Vote with your feet, whatever we are drinking is what the distilleries are going to make. That’s why it’s important for us to continually (without being pushy about it) educate our customers. Sure, brands will push into new areas but they aren’t going to ignore global drinking trends.

For example, while Japanese whisky is super popular at the moment, many large blenders are finishing their whiskys in Japanese mizunara casks.

Now I guarantee that simply finishing a blended whisky in mizunara, does nothing to impart flavours unique to the native Japanese oak because Mizunara takes at least 15 years to impart flavour.

You can by an expensive Mizunara cask finished whisky if you want, but it won’t taste like mizunara. This could be considered innovation, but it’s fuelled by global trends, not the pursuit of quality.  

  • What will come to define Australian whisky? 

Price, if we don’t sort out our ridiculous excise tax.

Look, there are so many characteristics to Australian whisky – malt-forward, wine cask finished and more – but I cant say what will end up being the defining characteristic. I’m just excited and happy to be along for the ride.

  • Where can innovators learn from traditionalists?

Through seeing that consistency is king.

We all love to try interesting things for sure, however, you need to develop an identity.

It was inconsistency that lead to the rise of blended whisky around the world and distiller consistency that has bought it back to single malts. The new, independent bottlers need to respect that.

Just because something is different, doesn’t make it good – and if something is on every back bar in the world, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

  • How do you stay on the pulse of whisky trends?

James, you’ve spent enough late nights with me in whisky bars to know it’s all trial and error with trends.

But to stay on the pulse, read, taste and listen to everyone’s opinion and expression.

At the end of the day though, have conviction – it’s ultimately about the love affair you have with the liquid in your glass. 


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