Whether you are reading this in Worcestershire, Warsaw or Wyoming, stop for a minute and ask – what do you know about Western Australia? If the answer is “not a lot”, then let’s first go over some facts.
At 2.5 million square kilometres it is about 4 times the size of Texas, but with a population of around 2.6 million it has under one tenth of the population. Around 90% of that small population is crammed down into the southwest corner, making for some vast, empty, mineral rich spaces – the economy is driven by mining which, to some extent, props up the entire Australian economy.
At 5 hours flight to Sydney and 4 hours to Melbourne, your average West Australian is known to prefer to holiday in the closer and cheaper Bali. And for the last 18 or so months of the pandemic, Western Australia has maniacally pursued a zero Covid policy, meaning as I write this its borders are indefinitely shut to Victoria and New South Wales.
Western Australia is also my original home and most of my family still live there, though I have lived in Melbourne now for well over 10 years. Still, I feel reasonably qualified to say that WA is almost a different country, the people a different breed; in fact, with its ongoing COVID enforced isolation, jokes about WA finally seceding and becoming its own separate country fly thick and fast.
This enforced geographical isolation from a large portion of my family and formative stomping grounds occasionally sees me crave a dram from my birth state. We’ve discussed Limeburners twice before. There are other smaller boutique producers whose sales reach barely extends past their cellar door. Then there is Whipper Snapper Distillery, based right near the heart of Perth.
Founded in 2014, Whipper Snapper is that rare Australian whisk(e)y distillery that doesn’t focus on single malt. From the start, they’ve explored production across different grains available to them from Western Australian producers. Jimmy McKeown, Co-Founder, Head Distiller and Director at Whipper Snapper was happy to discuss further with Malt.
Malt: Can you tell Malt Review about who you guys are and how the distillery was started?
Jimmy McKeown: Yeah! Myself and my brother in-law Alasdair came from nothing but with a shared passion for drinking whiskey. I love tinkering and thought, “Well, why we don’t make it?” At that time there was only one other whisky distillery in Western Australia which focused on a more tradition Scotch style. Knowing this we set out on a journey to discover the world of whiskey making and eventually I fell in love with the more innovative way American whiskey can be made.
I eventually ended up in Colorado with a mentor who passed down many years of craft distilling experience. When we bravely established the distillery, we set out to be different. We wanted to focus on local grains and different styles and bring Australian whiskey to life.
Malt: Whipper Snapper? How was that chosen?
Jimmy McKeown: Young whipper snappers, that was a term used to describe us once while on our travels to discover the world of whisk(e)y. The common misconception that two young guys from Western Australia could pioneer new styles, plus make good whiskey in Australia, let alone even get off the ground was crazy to some. We relished the term and the naysayers. Young whipper snappers just suited us… although, not so young anymore.
Malt: I lived in and around Perth for years but can’t picture a distillery in East Perth. Tell us a bit about your location.
Jimmy McKeown: Originally, we looked where most people would expect a brewery or winery to be, Swan Valley, Margaret River region, but capital restraints and the fact we wanted to be a little different started to play a factor. One day we saw this beautiful red brick 1950s sawtooth warehouse on the fringes of the city. We fell in love; it just suited our brand. Plus, it has access to a new generation or whiskey drinkers.
Malt: From the earliest reports of your distillery, I remember hearing about grains. Can you tell us your achievements and different releases with using various grains?
Jimmy McKeown: We focus heavily on using different grains and only from WA. A majority comes from mates’ farms in the Wheatbelt region of WA, where I grew up!
I started with a corn whiskey – which is Upshot – which also spawned our Crazy Uncle moonshine. This style was a first for Australia and very heavily influenced by premium Bourbon. It was important for us as a brand to make our mark. While that makes up our core whiskey we started experimenting. We now make rye whiskey, barley whiskey, wheat whiskey, even quinoa whiskey! But, always focusing on quality. Numerous awards over the years have shown this.
One product we don’t make and have resisted is gin. Nothing against gin, but we wanted people to know we’re a whiskey distillery, and we do it well. We also like crafting from grain to bottle.
Malt: Tell Malt about the WA whisky distilling scene, any challenges with geographical isolation and where Whipper Snapper sits in the broader WA distillery picture?
Jimmy McKeown: Perth and WA in typically at the end of the queue, logistically speaking. On the other hand, our relative isolation is cool! More of this beautiful state to ourselves. Perth has a great climate for Australian whiskey making, with the obvious connection to world class grains in our backyard. Currently, there are only a handful of whiskey distillers in the state; we need more. As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Malt: Has COVID-19 impacted operations, and to what extent?
Jimmy McKeown: COVID has had its ups and downs. We’ve been fortunate to have great community support, but it did affect production in 2020. We were forced to make sanitiser, which now means there’s going to be a hole in available whiskey in years to come. Howeverm overall, we have done well and certainly can’t complain. Friends on the east coast have hurt more. It’s certainly made our business more resilient.
Malt: Your pricing has always seemed quite fair. Is that an ongoing goal of Whipper Snapper?
Jimmy McKeown: Yes absolutely, we can’t grow a whiskey industry and gain a broader demographic of consumer to the craft scene without reasonable pricing. Don’t get me wrong: good whiskey isn’t easy or cheap to make, and its difficult as a smaller producer. Economies of scale play a big factor, plus excise is a killer, but we are getting there, and we thank everyone who forks out for a bottle of Australian whiskey over imported. Cheers to that!
Malt: What might we see from Whipper Snapper in the next 5-10 years, or is it a case of wait and see?
Jimmy McKeown: Our rye, single malt, Irish barley style, plus barrel releases like Oloroso, PX sherry, Big Love whiskey and much, much more. Even a bigger distillery is on the cards to expand our experiences that we currently offer in Perth, which I must say we are well regarded for!
My sincere thanks to Jimmy for his time and insights. Reviewed today is Upshot Whiskey, Whipper Snapper’s flagship release and representative of their investment in grain. This is a rare (though not unheard of) bourbon style whiskey out of Australia, with a mash bill of 80% corn, 10% malted barley and 10% wheat. Available for under $100 from most retailers, including Whipper Snapper’s website, it also won’t set you back an arm and a leg. This one fits squarely among Australia’s new wave of budget whisky releases. I didn’t realise until my bottle arrived that these are single barrel releases. My bottle was generously provided by Whipper Snapper; per Malt’s editorial policy, this has no impact on scoring.
The Upshot page on Whipper Snapper’s website includes a cocktail suggestion, indicating perhaps the target audience for this product. However, cocktails are not my go and the spirit has to stand on its own two legs. I am no Taylor Cope, but let’s see how I go with my first bourbon-type whiskey for Malt.
Whipper Snapper Upshot Whiskey
Colour: Kalgoorlie Gold at dusk.
On the nose: Flowery, let’s say lavender, orange zest for sure. Vanilla, yes, but offset by spices including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and more fruits such as mango, apricots and fresh pineapple. Orange marmalade, a little oak letting its presence be known and overall a pleasing balance.
In the mouth: Very, very smooth and sweetly balanced. Perhaps the most immediate comparison that comes to mind is a Johnnie Walker grain forward blend, but I don’t mean that negatively. It takes a second mouthful for the waves of flavour to really arrive and now there is milk chocolate, orange and poppy seed cake with icing sugar and lemon drizzle. Then back with more fruits with the mango and pineapple and then sherbet and musk sticks. Creaming soda in the finish which is medium length.
Towards the end of my tasting session it hit me like a ton of bricks – this is whiskey to be enjoyed in the hot Australian – especially Perth – climate with a generous pour, a few cubes of ice and slice of orange. As Summer pokes its nose around the corner down here, I intend to keep a health portion of this bottle for exactly such a purpose.
In that regard then, this is a very clever release from Whipper Snapper, smartly priced and sure to do well with the right crowd. Whipper Snapper also do this release at 63% ABV and I may well try that next for a comparison; I’d like to try these same flavours with some real punch.
For a score, my best comparison is probably (via the budget Aussie whisky link above) the Starward Two-Fold that I rated a 7, or the Limeburner’s Dugite which I rated a 5. Both of those were at 40% ABV though. For my money, this slots in between the two.
Images courtesy of Whipper Snapper. Bottle photo author’s own.