AUSTRALIA 20TH ANNIVERSARY
Three cheers for SMWS Australia
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Australian branch is celebrating two decades of changing the local whisky landscape, developing an exceptional community and, of course, full-flavoured single cask, cask-strength whisky, as Adam Ioannidis writes
I was quite literally in prep at the time, the beginning of my primary school years, when John Rourke and Andre Tammes got together and decided that it was time for SMWS Australia to happen. Andre was member 126 of the Society and eventually became part of the board in ’95 before retiring and moving to Sydney two years later. John was a longstanding member of the Society and an Aussie who was looking to move back down under. It was the SMWS managing director at the time, Richard Gordon, who put the two in touch.
In November 2002 the Australian branch was inaugurated by three tastings over three consecutive weeks at The Royal Automobile Club in Sydney, where guests were introduced to a type of whisky they had little experience with.
ABOVE: SMWS Australia originals John Rourke, Andre Tammes and Andrew Derbidge
In Australia, single malt was not as readily available back then as it is now, and single cask whisky at cask strength, no less, was an even rarer beast. The question that was repeated towards the end of these tastings, was: “Would you buy something like this?”
The answer to that question does not need to be stated, as 20 years later the Australian branch is alive and thriving. What few may know, however, is that 2002 was not Australia’s first brush with the Society; in 1996 the SMWS toured the capital states of Australia, first exposing us to the wonderful flavours hidden within the green bottles. It was the leftover stock from these tastings that was used for the 2002 tasting in Sydney.
PICTURED: members celebrate a dram at the 20th anniversary party
ABOVE: Andrew Derbidge at an early tasting event
20 YEARS OF CHANGING THE WHISKY LANDSCAPE
The last two decades have seen much growth for the branch and the whisky scene in Australia. What started as essentially a side project for these two Society members and enthusiasts has now flourished into an immensely passionate, living community. There was much outsourcing in the early days, and all the stock arrived in the country via airfreight — not a cheap medium.
As the club grew, though, so too did the team and the need for in-house machinations. There’s not a single member today in Australia who doesn’t know the names Andrew Derbidge, Suzy Tawse and Matt Bailey — the latter two of which are some of the branch’s few full-time staffers (Matt now being the branch director, having held the position of national ambassador for many years prior). In 2020 the branch joined the UK arm of the Society, ushering in a new epoch for the branch.
Through all of this the minds of thousands of whisky enthusiasts, amateurs, connoisseurs and flavour hunters were changed in such an immense way — thanks to the passion of our ambassadors, distinguished partner bars (of which there are now 15 in Australia), and the incredible bottlings that offer such unique and unparalleled flavours.
Unique experiences have always been one of the main factors that set the Society apart, and SMWS Australia is no different with a variety of unconventional tastings taking place over the years. Things like single cask cruises and train rides, hand-crafted chocolate pairings tailored by local artisans and creating your own tasting notes.
Beyond the physical, in-person events, however, the online experience is unequalled. The SMWS Australia Facebook group is a joyous and impassioned community where members and friends come together to share their thoughts, provide recommendations, and simply enjoy good whisky — it’s everything the Society embodies.
While this has always been present in one form or another, as our branch has grown, so too has technology and the way we use it, allowing us to set the stage. But it’s the members, who have been steadily growing in number each year over the last two decades, that make that community — our members are the community.
ABOVE: Brooke Hayman and Julian White from long-standing SMWS partner bar Whisky + Alement in Melbourne
PICTURED: SMWS partner bar, The Captain’s Balcony in Sydney
RAISING A GLASS
Preparations to celebrate our 20th anniversary began shortly after our 15th anniversary — we wanted a 20-year-old sherried whisky to be bottled for the occasion, so Andrew and Matt began tasting casks almost immediately after festivities had ended. Dozens of casks were sampled and Cask No. 11.42 was selected — one that would eventually be titled 20(0) not out!
However, because this cask only yielded 152 bottles (hardly enough to satisfy the thirst of our branch’s numbers) — two more casks were selected: Cask No. 26.185: Solo ice cream spiders, and Cask No. 10.225: Servo surf ‘n’ turf. These casks were available individually, as well as in a custom handmade Tasmanian Huon pine three-cask boxed set, of which there were only 30 made.
Of course, cocktail parties, formal dinners and expertly paired lunches were hosted across the country for members and friends. State ambassadors dove into the history of the Australian branch and guests were given the opportunity to taste the three anniversary casks.
It’s been an incredible 20 years, and though my journey with the Society has just begun, I have every bit of confidence that the next 20 years will be even more extraordinary.