Despite the relative infancy of Australia's whisky industry, a fine blend has developed between it and some of the best exponents of the drop's mother country, Scotland.
In whisky terms it doesn't get much more acclaimed than the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland's Speyside region. This is a place of industry and lore ... and the occasional spilled whisky cask. At William Grant & Sons, home of Glenfiddich, Grants and Balvenie among others, more whisky is spilled in a year than some Australian distilleries produce annually.
Whenever anyone asks 'Can we try your Scotch?' we very gently tell them it isn't Scotch.Mark Nicholson
Tradition is an essential ingredient here. You can taste it, see it, feel it, and smell it in the nineteenth-century grey stone buildings, the sweet copper-pot stills, leather-aproned coopers, and endless samples of whisky handed to the keen and curious.
Master of the malted universe
Brian Kinsman is just the sixth master blender in the history of William Grant & Sons. He is guardian of century-old whisky ledgers - or recipe books - and is ultimately responsible for an individual whisky's consistency.
Recently he's had a reason to shift his focus to Australia. Last year Kinsman created a Rare Cask Reserve that will be sold in Australia in 2015 - and the internationally acclaimed blender views the Scotch and Australian whisky industries as complementary.
"In Tasmania they are really focused on getting the distillation right and they are really focused on good quality whiskies. They are not trying to be Scotch: they are actually happily producing Australian whisky and I think that is fantastic," says Kinsman.
"The number one thing that is important for us as an industry and us as a company is that people are making good quality whisky."
On the shoulders of whisky giants
Mark Nicholson from Tasmania's Lark Distillery was a guest at Glenfiddich in July, 2014, and arrived bearing liquid gifts. "We have a long standing and very friendly relationship with William Grant & Sons," he says.
When Bill Lark, godfather of the modern Australian whisky industry, started the Lark Distillery some 22 years ago it was people at Grants and the broader Scottish industry that offered to help. "The generosity of people in this industry is staggering," says Nicholson.
Kinsman's point about Australians not making Scotch is an important one. "We stand on the shoulders of 600 years of whisky-making," says Hobart-based Nicholson [but] "whenever anyone asks 'Can we try your Scotch?' we very gently tell them it isn't Scotch; it is Tasmanian single malt whisky made in the Scottish tradition."
The difference is crucial to the complementary nature of the two industries, especially since devotees of whisky usually like to drink around. "We are in an industry where diversity is king and people love to discover," says Nicholson. "Any dedicated whisky drinker would have a cabinet with tens, if not hundreds, of whiskies from many different distilleries."
World of whisky
Kinsman views the new world of whisky as good for business. "If people are going to enjoy Australian whisky that will open up new markets for us. So long as everybody is producing quality I think it is a really positive move. I think the worst thing you can do is say 'I will only drink [one] sort of whisky'. It's about experimenting, about nosing and tasting and just being open minded. You might think you won't like [a particular whisky] but try it, maybe you will."
Crowds of people may have been unwittingly taking the master blender's advice, given it is boom times for the whisky industry. Sullivans Cove single malt's win at the World Whisky Awards in London in 2014 has been a boon for the Australian industry but Kinsman considers another reason for it, and the popularity of single malts in particular, is that people like to know the provenance of what they are drinking.
The trend is more readily associated with food, but Nicholson agrees. "Whether it's beef, beer or single malt, people like to know where it has come from," says Nicholson. "[And] people want to go beyond the product into the mystique of the producer. People love to know that Glenfiddich is made with water from the Robbie Dhu springs on the side of the hill behind the distillery."
Tradition and wisdom
Coppersmith Dennis McBain has worked at Glenfiddich some 56 years and has his own mystique. While he's mostly put down his mallets and spools, he still works part time, passing on wisdom to young coppersmiths and helping entertain visitors on tours of Glenfiddich.
McBain has been at the distillery long enough to remember the drams of whisky passed out three times a day by the managers to himself, his coppersmith mates and the other workers and wasn't thrilled when the whisky was cut from his salary package in the 1970s.
But he's savvy enough to have moved with the times. Perhaps Bill Lark or Nicholson could ask to borrow him, just a wee while, from Glenfiddich. A fella rich in Scotch history could blend perfectly with the fast growing Australian whisky industry.