Tucked away along the Victoria – New South Wales border, over 300 kilometres north of Melbourne, is the iconic wine maker: Morris of Rutherglen.
I cannot profess to be a wine aficionado – in my household that title belongs to my wife – but I have at least heard of Morris. Best known for their fortified wines, Morris have been in operation for over 150 years, which is impressive by any international standard, least of all for our young nation.
My interest was seized when I read the news in June 2021 that Morris had entered the single malt whisky market with 2 debut releases – Australian Single Malt Signature Whisky and Australian Single Malt Muscat Barrel Whisky.
What grabbed my attention, moreover, was the price; depending on the retailer, around $95 for the Signature Releaseand $135 for the Muscat Barrel whisky, both in 700 ml bottles. Australian whisky is famous – infamous? – for inflated price points and devotion to 500 ml bottles. For an inaugural release, these seemed very reasonable.
There are certainly reasons Australian whisky is often expensive: our liquor taxes being among the highest in the world and the smaller scale of operation for some of these distilleries being but two. Ultimately, I am in charge of my own finances and am entitled to save a few bucks now and then.
The Signature release is bottled at 40% ABV, helping to keep its cost low; also, the financial backing of the Morris wine business must help relieve financial pressures. When I read that Morris had enlisted John McDougall, a Master Distiller (formerly of Balvenie, Laphroaig, and Springbank) to tutor Head Distiller Darren Peck; and the late Dr Jim Swan (of Kilchoman, Kavalan and Bowmore), I needed to know more.
Malt: Commencing a malt whisky distillery must be challenging both in terms of time and cost investment. Tell us about the very beginnings of the idea and the obstacles that Morris have faced in getting started?
Morris Whisky: Morris Whisky has been established at Morris of Rutherglen, which is also the home of the famed Morris Wines. Morris Wines is well known for its award-winning fortified wines, and are regarded as one the best fortified wine producers in the world.
The Morris of Rutherglen home actually already had the original still that was used to make fortified base spirit for Morris fortified wines, in its original place at the heart of the winery, installed in 1941. The still, Aurora, has been meticulously restored and named in recognition of the princess in Sleeping Beauty having been awoken after close to a century of slumber.
John Casella was the person behind the Morris Whisky vision. Casella Family Brands acquired Morris Winery in 2016 and realised the opportunity when he discovered the original spirits still that was at Morris of Rutherglen.
The library of rare, fortified barrels at Morris of Rutherglen, also leant to the opportunity, with Morris Whisky being finished in these fortified wine barrels that have housed some of the most distinctive and awarded fortified wines in the world.
Production commenced in 2016, and Morris brought on board highly regarded whisky experts, John McDougall (still continued in 2021 as Consultant Master Distiller) and Jim Swan (in 2016 until his passing).
Malt: It is fascinating that Morris recruited two icons of the whisky industry in the late Dr Jim Swan and John McDougall. Tell us about the role they have played in shaping the distillery, and how did Morris convinced them to come onboard?
Morris Whisky: Morris has worked with highly regarded whisky experts, one being John McDougall, one of the world’s most renowned whisky makers (who now consultants exclusively to Morris in Australia as Master Distiller), and the other being the late Dr Jim Swan, who is described as the ‘Einstein of whisky’ for his technical expertise.
Both were integral to designing a unique barrel maturation program, including barrel selection and providing the team with a special and unique barrel toasting regime. The selection of the fortified barrels by David Morris is also an extremely important part of the process, with the fortified notes extracted from these barrels assisting in building the flavour and complexity in the whisky.
MALT: At Malt we are always encouraged to hear that a distillery operation is using local ingredients. What can you tell us of the barley and yeast strains that are being used, and the fermentation times? Are all stages of distillation able to be done on site including malting?
Morris Whisky: The barley used in Morris Whisky production is 100% Australian sourced, malted in Australian maltsters and then brewed at the family-owned brewery. Morris is currently using 100% malted barley (but may look to try other grains in the future).
The water used is pure and filtered from the Snowy Mountains. We are using our original hybrid copper pot and column still which has been on site at Morris of Rutherglen since 1941, that has been carefully restored.
Maturation has taken place on-site in the purpose-built barrel house using ex-wine barrels that have been carefully restored by hand at the family cooperage to a specific method. Finishing also happens at the distillery in the barrelhouse in Morris of Rutherglen barrels which have produced world class fortified wines.
Malt: Talk to us about your onsite cooperage process. Are all barrels used from the Morris of Rutherglen fortified winemaking business, and what advantages do you think you have with the barrels that are used?
Morris Whisky: All our barrels are prepared by hand at our private cooperage in Yenda to a customised shaving and toasting method for optimal maturation, led by Cooper Anton Remkes.
The whisky spirit is matured in a combination of American and French oak, ex-Shiraz and Cabernet red wine barrels, carefully selected from family-owned wineries in the Barossa and Coonawarra regions.
The Signature Whisky is then finished in a combination of Morris fortified barrels, while the more premium Muscat Barrels Whisky is finished in rare Morris Muscat barrels, some of which have held the world’s most highly awarded fortified wine to create the unique and distinctive Morris Whisky flavour profile.
David Morris’ role in Morris Whisky has been identifying and hand-selecting the best Morris fortified wine barrels to perfectly finish the whisky. These fortified barrels are a huge advantage, as they have housed some of the most distinctive and awarded fortified wines in the world, with Morris Wines awarded the International Fortified Wine Producer of the Year by the IWSC in 2020.
The fortified notes extracted from these barrels assist in building the flavour and complexity in the whisky.
Malt: How were the decisions made around aging and finishing times in different casks? Did Morris feel any pressure to release to market or were you purely guided by the whisky?
Morris Whisky: The Signature Whisky has been matured for minimum 3 years, and then finished in a combination of fortified barrels and the Muscat Barrel Whisky has been matured for minimum 3 years, and finished in Muscat barrels which have held award winning Fortified Muscat wine.
Using the fortified barrels creates the maturity, depth and richness of flavour usually reserved for whiskies with extended ageing. The Rutherglen region has a climate of hot summer days and cool nights, that is ideal for barrel ageing exquisite fortified and whisky.
Malt: Those of us who count ourselves as whisky obsessed might be disappointed your Signature release is bottled at 40% ABV. Is this purely a commercial decision around pricing?
Morris Whisky: Morris Whisky has been well received by whisky drinkers, who are comfortable with an entry level Australian single malt with an ABV of 40% at the price point. We haven’t compromised any flavour for the ABV, with our Signature Whisky demonstrating complex, rich flavours and sitting in the market under $100.
Malt: If you could say Morris Whisky is aiming to be known for a “house style” what would that be?
Morris Whisky: Our vision for Morris – and in particular the Signature Whisky – was to create a premium high quality Australian single malt whisky with an approachable style and accessibly positioned, sitting just under the $100 price point.
MALT: I don’t need to tell you the Australian whisky market is competitive and getting even more crowded seemingly each month. Where do you see Morris whisky fitting in long term, and what releases can we expect coming in the next 12 months?
Morris Whisky: The challenge for Australian single malt whisky is that while there are so many great offerings, they tend to be priced at the higher end of the market making many inaccessible for the broader population of whisky enthusiasts.
As mentioned above, our Signature Whisky is a premium and high quality offering of Australian single malt sitting under the $100 price point ($95 RRP), which is a competitive offering and there is an opportunity to share some of the products with a bigger market.
At the moment our focus is perfecting our craft in whisky. Whilst the Australian whisky market is competitive, we know that we have all of the elements – including the ingredients, the barrels, and the original still – to make a unique and high quality Australian single malt with an amazing back story.
While the Signature and Muscat releases are our first step, over time we have a number of ideas to develop our offer further, which would include premium releases that can leverage the Morris family legacy further.
We are really excited about the ability to explore and experiment with our world-famous Morris barrels and fortified liquids. Morris are keen to keep it in house, experimenting with single barrels and barrel proof, interesting finishes such as Topaque, Australian grains & peat, and cask finishes (some over 100 years old).
Thanks to Hannah at Liquid Ideas for her assistance and the team at Morris for taking the time to answer these questions. I cannot wait to open a bottle and see what they have produced.
Morris Rutherglen Signature Single Malt Australian Whisky – Review
Colour: Deep gold; a golden sunset over desert sands
On the nose: I am getting oiled leather contrasted with green bark, time in the glass helps bring out candied orange peel and orange zest. Some celery stalks with fruit leather and alcohol soaked fruit mince. Earl Grey tea leaves. This speaks loudly given the low ABV, but I am nervous about what it has to say. There seems to be an immediate bitterness masking earthier notes below.
In the mouth: I am immediately a little disappointed with what seems a watery mouthfeel, but the finish is long and it does linger. There is plum pudding, balsamic vinegar, dried cranberries and cranberry sauce. The fortified wine finish dominates and I am reminded of chocolate tarts, gingerbread, caramel and nougat. This is clearly young spirit but has enough going for it to reach for another glass.
I am happy to admit I am not the target audience for this dram. I would love to try it at 43%, or heaven forbid, 46% ABV. Morris have crafted a solid and competitively priced entry level offering; I don’t think they’d argue too much with that characterisation.
If they want repeat business from this consumer, though, it’ll be with some of their works-in-progress. My fingers are crossed these initial releases are successful enough to embolden Morris – with the commendable technical expertise behind the scenes – to really flex their muscles in an expanded portfolio in future.
All prices in Australian dollars. Bottle photo from Mark; other photos courtesy of Morris.