Mixing whisky is a bizarrely divisive topic. For many, drinking whisky in a highball or a cocktail is natural and normal: it’s the predominate way whisky is consumed around the world, it’s been that way for centuries, and the creativity that bartenders and producers are now bringing to whisky cocktails is helping to welcome new audiences to the spirit.
For others, add anything to whisky, even a touch of water, and you’re an amateur, an heretic and ‘true’ connoisseurs will smite you down with scorn.
In Australia, we have a curious relationship with mixing whisky. When working behind the bar, the biggest point of anxiety for customers I encounter is around the ‘correct’ way to drink whisky (like there’s a manual you need to read). Can I add ice or water? Can I add cola or dry?
It’s such an odd disconnect to observe, because for the majority of Australians, whisky is a mixed drink. It either comes in handy pre-mixed cans with sweet, carbonated fizzy stuff or in a glass with cola or dry – serves that make perfect sense considering our climate.
Starward’s Two-Fold in a highball
Australian whisky, on the other hand, doesn’t fit neatly into that equation. Currently, the vast majority of Australian whiskies on the market are designed to be consumed neat. They’re high-quality, expensive, particularly in the international context, and often intensely flavoured thanks to rapid maturation in ex-wine casks – not the most ideal style for mixing.
But with another hot summer on the way, how should consumers and producers approach Australian whisky in the warmer months?
Should we throw that lovely single malt, rye or corn whisky into a cocktail? Should we lengthen it with soda, ginger ale, cola, even tonic? Or should we just sit there in 40 degree heat and sip our potent apera and tawny matured whiskies and grin and bear it?
Fred Siggins has one of the best skill sets to respond to these questions. He recently finished a highly successful four year stint as Sullivans Cove’s strategy manager. He’s also a consultant, drinks writer, educator and an award-winning bartender, most notably at Melbourne’s Black Pearl.
During his time with Sullivans, Siggins actively promoted opportunities to get Sullivans Cove whisky into cocktails – quite an achievement, considering the price and rarity of the whiskies.
‘You want to find a way to engage with people,’ says Siggins. ‘And one of the nice things about being a producer is, yes, it’s very valuable whisky, but as a distillery, we can still find a way to put it into cocktails and have a bit of fun with it.’
The Frankie’s Cove cocktail with Sullivans Cove at Melbourne’s Bad Frankie
But Siggins adds that it depends on the distillery. ‘There’s so many different approaches here in Australia right now. You’ve got a lot of distilleries really pushing the craft whisky angle, and aiming to produce small batch, high price, high-quality, not easy to come by whisky. For those guys, cocktails are not going to be a part of their story.’
Sebastian Raeburn, the renowned bartender and cocktail historian turned distiller, offers further insight. Raeburn is now the head distiller of Ned Whisky – a brand that’s aimed squarely at Australia’s legion of Bourbon and coke fans. The mixability and accessibility of Ned Whisky is something Raeburn is particularly proud of. But that accessibility has been arrived at through scale and enormous financial backing.
Sebastian Raeburn making a Ned Whisky old fashioned – Supplied
‘I’ve gone through most of the classic American whiskey cocktails with Ned, and it works great,’ says Raeburn. ‘But the biggest thing we’ve found is that scale is what defines cost. So even though we are putting a product out there that’s around $55 a bottle on shelf, the batch care and attention through the production cycle is no less than the single malts that are out there at $150 a bottle. But the difference for us is that we’re laying down 70 barrels a fortnight, rather than six.’
For Cameron Syme, Great Southern Distilling’s founder, it’s the same story. Syme launched Dugite Whiskey earlier in the year, following Whipper Snapper’s Upshot corn whiskey into the sub-$100 space. Syme says that Dugite, a grain whisky he specifically designed for mixing, was only possible thanks to the economies of scale Great Southern has achieved with their larger Tiger Snake Distillery in Porongurup.
‘The Dugite really is a quaffing whisky,’ says Syme. ‘It’s not going to be smack you in the mouth with flavour like some of our other whiskies, particularly our ryes and heavily peated whiskies. It works really well with dry ginger ale and in classic cocktails.’
Dugite Whiskey – Supplied
But as many Australian distillers are now finding out, once you get these whiskies to market, the real work begins. The $40-$100 zone is the most competitive in whisky, and dominated with brands owned by large multinationals. Getting whisky into the hands of bartenders and consumers in that space is one of the biggest challenges in spirits.
Sam Bygrave, the publisher of Boothby and former editor of Australian Bartender magazine, says that while he’s starting to see more Australian whisky on pour in bars and cocktails around the country, there’s still a long way to go.
‘A lot of people are going for Australian whiskies now. People know their brands, and even know the more obscure brands as well. We’re seeing it a lot more on back bars, but I don’t see heaps of Australian whisky on cocktail lists, aside from Starward cocktails here and there, because they really push that angle,’ says Bygrave.
‘The biggest thing is price. People still drink on price. I think a lot of people will buy Australian if they can. But there’s no bartender who’s going to put a higher end Australian whisky in a cocktail when they can do it for a lot cheaper with a Scotch or Bourbon. They still need to make money at the end of the day. People aren’t going to pay $32 for a whisky sour just because it has an Australian whisky in it.’
Starward whisky sour
Siggins agrees. ‘The pressure from the other side is that all the international whiskies being used are a part of huge portfolios. So Diageo, Bacardi, William Grant & Sons, Pernod, they can offer you an entire rail of spirits and just throw money at you. And we’ve seen the deals. It’s $20,000 and $30,000 and we’ll print your menus for you, we’ll train all your staff. All the stuff that as a small business owner is pretty hard to pass up on.’
Despite the complexities, some of the world’s largest and most successful drinks companies are looking to get consumers mixing with Australian whisky. The market here, especially with Australia’s obsession with pre-mixed booze, means the potential for growth is enormous.
Fever-Tree, the British producer of premium mixers that’s taken the drinks world by storm in the last ten years, are now setting set their sights on whisky in Australia.
Trish Brew, Fever-Tree’s Australian brand ambassador, explains why.
‘Whisky is one of the world’s biggest spirit categories, so of course Fever-Tree are looking to convince consumers that if you’re going to add a mixer to your whisky then you should pay attention to the component that makes up three quarters of the drink.’
Fever-Tree are on a mission to convert whisky and cola drinkers to ginger ale and ginger beer, a strategy that was on show at their Ultimate Highball Bar at Sydney’s recent Whisk(e)y on The Rocks festival.
‘Ginger works so well with whisky,’ says Brew. ‘We put flavours in our ginger mixers which go so well with barrel-aged products in general. So Starward Two-Fold with Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale, absolute banger. So easy and you don’t have to think about it – a really good drink in two ingredients. And for something a little more serious, take the Archie Rose Rye Malt Whisky. I love that with Fever-Tree Smoky Ginger Ale. It’s complex, it’s rich, it’s fierce – delightful.’
‘The biggest thing is price. People still drink on price. I think a lot of people will buy Australian if they can. But there’s no bartender who’s going to put a higher end Australian whisky in a cocktail when they can do it for a lot cheaper with a Scotch or Bourbon.’ – Sam Bygrave
More sessionable, low ABV serves like the simple highballs Brew suggests are where the broader drinks industry is trending. You can see it in the growth of seltzers and premium pre-mixed cans and cocktails. Again, Starward are leading that charge, with their award-winning bottled cocktail range. While Archie Rose, The Aussie Tipple Company and Curatif are also looking to bottle and can pre-mix Australian spirits and whiskies.
Clearly, there’s a huge consumer base out there interested in drinking Australian whisky in more affordable, relaxed and refreshing ways. But whether Australian producers want to enter what is a highly competitive and resource-intensive game is another question entirely.
Fred Siggins is hoping that more local producers give it a crack. ‘There needs to be more Starward Two-Fold, there needs to be more Ned Whisky, there needs to be more Archie Rose and The Gospel… If you can make something that is commensurate in quality and complexity to Glenfiddich 12 with a unique Australian character to it, then you’re bang on the money.’