Dan Woolley is one of Australia’s most influential whisky ambassadors. A whisky collector and former bar owner, Woolley has worked with numerous whisky brands for well over a decade, training thousands of bartenders and educating droves of whisky fans in the process.
He got his start in bars and pubs, going on to open and manage multiple whisky venues in Sydney and Bryon Bay (he now resides just outside the latter). As a brand ambassador, he’s also worked for retailers and distributors like World of Whisky, but he’s best known for his role as the former national ambassador for Beam Suntory’s whisky brands. His obsession with whisky, particularly Laphroaig, had him working stints at distilleries around the world and then sharing what he’d learnt back in Australia.
‘From Australia, to Scotland (predominately Islay), to Kentucky, to Japan, New York, I have learnt so much from so many different people,’ Woolley says.
When his time as a brand ambassador came to an end last year, a new whisky project was always in the works. But instead of developing a mammoth venture befitting the scale of brands he’d previously represented – Laphroaig, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Yamazaki, to name a few – Woolley has created Highwayman, a range of limited independent bottlings with whisky sourced and matured from distilleries across Australia.
‘I don’t want to go volume. I don’t want to be a Laphroaig and sell in 46 countries around the world… And I don’t want to be a Starward, or Australian Whisky Holdings or Mackey. That’s not me. I want to create whisky that I love, and I want to share that love of whisky with people. That’s it. I’m not trying to take over the world.’
The Highwayman brand reflects this. ‘The brand is my life,’ Woolley says. ‘This is me in a bottle. Every single batch tells a story and is completely different. And every batch has made its way into Byron Bay on the highways of Australia to be aged, bottled and labelled by my own hands.’
Woolley has forged friendships with numerous international distillers and blenders, particularly John Campbell, Laphroaig’s respected master distiller. But he points to two Australian whisky figures as perhaps having had the most influence on him.
‘I’ve learnt so much from David Vitale [Starward founder]. The first masterclass David ever hosted, outside of his distillery, was at my first whisky bar in Byron Bay.’
‘But the person that I’ve learnt the most from, and has been the most influential, is Timothy ‘Wizard’ Duckett. He’s been the biggest influence for me, and you know, the quality of Heartwood speaks for itself.’
Like Duckett’s Heartwood whiskies, Highwayman’s upcoming batches, all cask strength, have frequently been re-racked and transferred to different casks to further mellow and refine the spirit. And while Highwayman whiskies display a similar richness and viscosity to Heartwood bottlings, one of the main points of departure is the use of ex-red wine casks (Duckett refuses to use these).
Dan and Billy-Jean Woolley. Supplied
The first Highwayman bottling began its life in three separate casks: two 20 litre apera casks and one 20 litre tawny cask. When each cask reached around two years in barrel, they were then married together and given an additional maturation in a 50 litre French oak ex-red wine cask that had received a ‘super’ heavy char. The coopering and heavy charring of these red wine barrels is an ongoing project with Andrew Young from SA Cooperage. Killara Distillery’s Kristy Lark and Craig Field from Craft Works Distillery are also working with them.
‘You know, we make some of the best wine on the face of the earth. Why are we looking to import barrels from other continents? Not only is it more expensive, it’s bad for the environment, and it has no relevance to Australia. Australian red wines, white wines, desert wines, muscats, tawnys, aperas, they’re some of the best in the world. So for me, I think it’s the future… And because we’re not shackled with rules and regulations that stipulate we must use certain types of barrels, certain types of oak, why the f..k not experiment?’
‘Why are we looking to import barrels from other continents? Not only is it more expensive, it’s bad for the environment, and it has no relevance to Australia. Australian red wines, white wines, desert wines, muscats, tawnys, aperas, they’re some of the best in the world. So for me, I think it’s the future.’
All of the first five Highwayman releases feature some ex-red wine maturation, while Woolley says he’s also filled around a dozen different cask types with spirit from NSW, Tasmanian and South Australian distilleries. Alongside this label, Woolley has been mashing, fermenting and distilling his own whisky at Lord Byron Distillery. He’s also planning to open his own distillery outside Byron Bay with wife Billie-Jean Woolley, who’s set to launch her own gin brand.
The distillery would add to the growing number of whisky, gin and rum producers in the area. The nearby Cape Byron Distillery is set to release its first whisky in the next 12 months, and Husk Distillers, producers of some of Australia’s best paddock-to-bottle rum, are also distilling the odd batch of whisky.
‘We’re doing about 240 litres a month, which is hardly anything, but it’ll give me the opportunity to have around 80-100 cask strength bottles a week,’ says Woolley.
‘Even when we move into the new distillery, I will never do more than 200 bottles a week. I want to make sure that I am over every single drop that goes into every single bottle. I nose and taste everything and I create every single drop. I don’t want to create substandard whisky.’
The first batch of Highwayman whisky will be available at midday April 27th, with four subsequent bottlings to be released in May, and additional whiskies to follow throughout the year.