From sound waves to all-Australian grains, Melbourne-based Ned Whisky is using innovation and determination to take on the big names of American whiskey.
It was an offhand remark that led to the creation of Australia’s very own Ned Whisky. “One of the heads of liquor retailing in Australia observed that there wasn’t a local brand taking on the likes of Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s,” says co-founder Drew Fairchild. “That presented a real opportunity.”
Ned Whisky has grown exponentially since Melbourne-based Top Shelf International launched the brand on January 26 in 2015 with a ready-to-drink pre-mixed whisky and cola. The company now boasts the largest single holding of maturing whisky in the country while retaining complete control of its production capacity.
Taking on those big-name multinationals from scratch is embodied in the Ned Whisky name – “That daring spirit is core to what we do,” says Drew of the reference to one of Australia’s most famous Neds, bushranger Ned Kelly (also a Victorian). Adds Top Shelf’s master distiller Sebastian Reaburn: “What we take from Ned, he was someone who was innovative, bold and he stood up to power.” For Drew, the success of Ned is a pleasing bellwether for the Australian spirits industry and Australian whisky brands. “We wanted a great Australian spirit… and there’s no doubt Australian spirits have arrived,” says Drew, who grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Ferntree Gully, which he describes as ‘the Bourbon Belt’. “It’s the rising tide – the more people drinking and enjoying Australian spirits the better.”
Eight years after that fortuitous conversation about taking on the big names, Ned Whisky can be found nationally, with a high-quality range in bottle and can format. And, as Drew notes, it’s now ready to take on the world. “We want to have a crack at the big players and there’s no reason we can’t,” says Drew, who works with Sebastian on innovations including sound waves in the ageing process to develop distinctly Australian flavours. “Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey don’t have a monopoly on Australian barbecues.”
We caught up with master distiller Sebastian to get the lowdown on the past, present and exciting future of Ned Whisky.
I love that Australian whisky makers are not bound by history
We’re allowed to innovate and do things differently and with Ned we try to take the best of Scotland and America and make something with Australian grains that is truly delicious. It’s the world’s only lautered corn [a process that separates the corn mash and grain] whisky. We start our life as bourbon then brew like a single malt and distil it like both the Scottish and Americans to come up with a classic sour mash. [A whisky that uses a “mash” of grain and water from a previous distillation.] We use Australian grains – all of the flavour starts there at the farm – and new American oak. Every single barrel of Ned is tasted and assessed to decide when it’s ready to go. In terms of flavour profile, it’s that little bit dryer and more structured than some of the big players out of America but if you love American whiskey, you’re going to love Ned.
We started with the aim to innovate the best Australian whisky and haven’t stopped
We have lots of small trials running in the background, from oxidation – pumping air through barrels as they age – to trialling lots of different oak, whether it’s American, European, French wine casks, stuff out of Italy. Last year we released Sounds of Bathurst, which was based on good peer-reviewed literature that sound waves increase maturation of whisky. We’re not crazy! Working with Kelly Grove Racing, we played the engine noise to it and took samples before and after, and the transformation was incredible. We’re doing it again this year.
We’re not trying to tell people how to drink their whisky
What tastes delicious is our north star, so drink it however you like. The only thing I’d say is if you’re mixing it with cola or dry, have a little sip neat and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s there to be consumed, not getting dusty on a shelf. We’ve got some incredibly loyal customers who met Ned through the cans and now drink it neat with just a drop of water. That means we’re on the right track.
It’s a real privilege being able to trial an idea and taste what no one else has ever done
Sometimes it takes three years before you taste it, so there’s a lot of anticipation. To look at the history of whisky and say, ‘Let’s try this’, and have someone else find it on a shelf somewhere and put it in their glass… it’s a great feeling.
Anyone wanting to get into distilling should know that, sadly, the majority of the job is not tasting whisky
It’s managing tonnes of grain coming in and out, managing suppliers, ensuring there are enough barrels, having enough staff. We’ve certainly seen people come to the industry with a very romantic notion of what it is but ultimately, you’re going to be in work boots and high vis, a lot of time with pumps, a lot of time with forklifts and a lot of time cleaning. We joke that distilling is fundamentally about moving liquid from A to B. Don’t spill it, record it, make really good notes, and make sure you put it in the right tank.
We put five whiskies into the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards last year and got five medals – two gold and three silver
What makes that even better is that we’re not at a price point some of the other whiskies are, yet we’re head-to-head with them. We try to make sure each batch is a little better and a little better.