October Outturn 2023 Article, Unfiltered #86 Preview
By Chris Middleton
“Those who said it couldn’t be done were so dull” — Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills
This story began forty years ago: Pip Hills in Edinburgh, a whisky anorak, started a specialist malt whisky distribution and retail business, and Simon Seward in Melbourne, a fellow entrepreneur and recent owner of Victoria’s leading whisky and wine distribution company.
1983 was the momentous year for whisky and their two new business escapades. Pip Hills led the formation of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith. The same year, another co-founder of the Society and close friend of Hills’, the Edinburgh University historian Ian Duffield returned from his PhD sabbatical in Sydney, where he discovered well-established wine societies similar to British organisations selling exclusively chosen vintages to members from specially selected wineries.
Starting the world’s first malt whisky society was a novel and unique concept, purchasing individual casks of promising whisky chosen from distilleries without attribution, bottled as a non-chilled filtered liquid at cask strength, then marketed as one-off cask releases with engaging and approachable communications, conducting educational events selling directly to Society members. Even bottling at cask strength was an unorthodox offer as only one distillery since the Great War marketed a cask strength expression. Meanwhile, three and a half kilometres south of Leith, the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), whisky leviathan, was completing plans to launch the first single malt series, Malt Whisky Cellar, in early 1984. The Scotch industry was stirring, and the sleepy malt whisky dragon was awakening.
1983, Simon Seward set up a new Melbourne liquor venture after selling his family’s wholesale business, Taylor Ferguson, to Anglo-Thai Inchcape in 1979. The same year, across Port Philip Bay from Melbourne, United Distillers Limited (UDL) ceased whisky production at their Corio distillery in 1983, moving whisky operations to their Nuriootpa distillery until the early 1990s. W. A. Gilbey’s had stopped whisky distilling at their Moorabbin distillery in Melbourne three years earlier when the global whisky industry hit its nadir. 1983: Scotch held an 80% volume share in Australia, serving an older franchise of drinkers, as North American whisky rapidly rose to 15% market share, commandeering 18 to 24-year-old entry-level drinkers.
The balance of whisky sales was the running down of Australian stocks of Corio, Bond 7, and Four Seasons, plus some languishing Irish and the recent arrival of Japanese whisky. Jim Beam Australia was preparing the launch of the world’s first branded premix whisky in a can that would soon transform Australia’s whisky-drinking habits with Ready-to-Drink formats. 1983: Scotch malt whisky in Australia sold less than 18,000 9L cases (0.7% of total whisky), compared to 2020 at around 250,000 cases (6% of total whisky, excluding RTDs), from over two dozen countries, including 125 Australian brands, from some of the over 200 distilleries (of over 600 nano to large distilleries) producing a whisky in their spirits portfolio.
You can read the full essay, Two Men, in October Unfiltered #86. The full article is a prelude to a new series of essays, Australian Whisky Chronicles, by Chris Middleton, published in future editions of Unfiltered from October. This will be an odyssey through the past, present and future of whisky production and consumption in Australia. Spotlighting some domestic whisky distilleries during the past two hundred years — key people who contributed to the industry — major determinants that affected both manufacturing and drinking — and changing consumer habits, whisky styles and competitive brands that have made whisky the leading spirit in Australia since the late 1870s.
Chris Middleton is a long-standing Society member with an international career in whisky, a writer on spirits history, production and trends, and a founder of STARWARD.
This article is featured in October 2023 Outturn — bottles will be available to purchase on Friday the 6th of October at midday AEDT exclusively to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not a member? Click here to learn more about the world’s most colourful whisky club.