Let’s face it: the world of whisky would be intolerable if it wasn’t for its characters.
There’s entirely too much marketing spin, PR guff, brand ambassadors with plastic smiles and scripted spiels on their product, grossly inflated prices, and gone-in-a-second special editions. Unless you detach, it can be exhausting.
Taylor recently opined that, hey, guess what: whisky could and should also be fun. And it can be… if you meet the right people.
They are out there: the knowing bar manager who has seen it all, a distillery tour guide who makes you feel valued. Today I chat with one such prominent person in the Australian whisky scene: Graham Wright, proprietor of The Odd Whisky Coy. I’ve attended tastings hosted by Graham at the Elysian Whisky Bar in Melbourne and several things are clear:
- Graham’s passion for Cadenheads.
- Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of whisky and the business.
- Graham is a bloke who sees things for both how they could be and how they really are.
This review was inspired by a recent article on Dramface extolling the lost wonders of the Cadenheads Creations range. The message of the article was clear: these beauties were underappreciated in their time and are now gone forever… unless, of course, you happen to get lucky on the secondary market or find a bottle on a dusty bottle shop shelf in an out-of-the-way location.
After reading that, I thought “I really need to try and find something from the Creations series.” This took me on to the Odd Whisky Coy website, which I know is the Australian importer for Cadenheads. It must’ve been my lucky day because I found one variety from the range still available. Before I get to the review, let’s check in with Graham about his background and the state of the whisky industry in Australia.
Malt: How did you come to be involved in the whisky industry. Did you get your start in the UK or here in Australia? What led to the creation of the Odd Whisky Coy website?
Graham Wright: I blame it on my dad. He was an old navy lad and spirits – especially rum – was in his blood. But funnily enough, as he got older, he really did get a taste for single malts. So, I suppose that is where I started my interest. This would have been the late 1970s.
By the early 1980s, I was with a group of friends in Melbourne and whenever we were going to have a big bash, it was always celebrated with a glass or two of malt. The favourite of this group at the time was Linkwood. However, old favourites like Glenfarclas, Macallan, Lagavulin and Laphroaig would be bought out as well, especially if we had interstate visitors.
It was in this era that I went to my first malt whisky tasting in Melbourne. What surprised and amused me most was that the other tasters at this function were short, stocky men with ruddy faces and big blue noses. Must have been a fashion thing?
But what we didn’t know, was this was the beginning of the end of the famed “Scotch and soda” era. Although we loved the malts, our hearts and pockets were turning to wine, and the infamous whisky loch in Scotland was getting bigger and bigger.
So, while I was swimming in a rather large lake of wooded chardonnay, the Scotch industry was drowning and definitely not waving. And unbeknown to me, a man (who we shall meet a little later on) was closing down dozens of distilleries in Scotland. Evil times.
The 1980s rapidly turned into the early 1990s and after having a decent stint in Old Blighty, my partner and I (and yes, we are still together) came back to the recession “we had to have.” Worse than that, she was from Adelaide. So that’s where we ended up. There were no jobs, interest rates were enormous, but housing was cheap.
After much effort, I finally managed to get a job in a pub drive in and from there joined a very smart specialist wine chain called Baily & Baily. I was in heaven; high end local and imported wines with a small smattering of single malts.
I was given the job of managing the whisky portfolio. Unbeknownst to me, Adelaide at the time was the whisky capital of Australia, and Mr Martin Baily let me of my leash. With a lot of encouragement and training from an enigmatic chap by the name of Mr David Le Cornu, we slowly built Baily & Baily up to be the biggest retailer in the premium spirits market in Australia.
And to think that our United Distillers reps used to constantly badger us that we only need their classic six. A creation of the chap who closed all those distilleries. Even UDV couldn’t sell their new Rare Malts range. So, they gave us a deal. We sold them for $50 a bottle. Didn’t last long.
We (the company, that is) were also early adopters of the web and the internet-based newsletters. I suspect only The Whisky Exchange was ahead of us. The Nicks juggernaut had yet to get started. Orders via email; who would have thought?
But by the late 1990s the tide was turning for the whisky industry. It was on the rise. We began directly importing and tentatively started wholesaling, especially in Melbourne, especially with Nicks. Pernod Ricard was another company that didn’t know what do with one of their new malts, so they gave us the lot! Aberlour A’Bunadh Batch 6. It didn’t last long.
Times were good, sales were strong, and – as I boasted to my customers – “we are now in the new ‘Golden Age’ of distilling.” Amazingly, this enthusiasm continues to shine to this day.
Then in 2003 it all came to an end. The shops were sold to Woolworths. Nicks breathed a sigh of relief.
Malt: I have to say, the name of your site has always stood out for me. “The Odd Whisky Coy;” can you explain that?
Graham Wright: Thank you for the kind words. Well, Odd Whisky comes out of the second phase of my boozy career.
The shops were sold, but luckily enough I was approached by Oddbins Wine Auctions, with the grandiose title of Auctioneer and Valuer. That went on 14 years.
But what happened is that Mr Baily followed me. Along with my then business partner, we again started importing, wholesaling, and retailing malts.cAnd the name? A tie in with the auction company and style we wanted for the company. Just plain odd.
It was at this time that we became agents – via a very important and great friend of mine – for an obscure distillery: Springbank Distillers along with their sister company, Wm Cadenhead, an indie bottler of some note.
So, to bring you up to date: 14 years at Oddbins and The Odd Whisky Coy, and then in 2016, we sold Oddbins and I went alone. All by myself.
In the latter half of my time at Oddbins, a chap walked into my office with a new range of malts. His name was Mr. Mike Collings, closer of distilleries, creator of the Classic Six, UDV exec… and now out on his own.
Malt: So, into what niche does The Odd Whisky Coy fit in the Australian whisky market? The site isn’t as comprehensive in stock as others; what gap in the market does it fill?
Graham Wright: The original notion was to only sell products that no one else had, hence our hook-ups with the likes of Blackadder, Gordon Wright’s Alchemist brand, Berry Bros. & Rudd, Adelphi, and – in the early days – with Glengoyne. While at the same time, we were grey importing some famous brands that the big boys in town weren’t bringing in.
So – much like my brain – our list has always been a tad eclectic. But as is the nature of competition and healthy growth in the Australia market, we have to constantly change tack. And don’t forget, that during this time, the early to mid-2000s, the Australian malt buyers really detested indie bottlings. Obviously, that has changed now.
Malt: I’ve seen you present Cadenhead’s tastings here in Melbourne – your passion for this bottler is evident. What makes Cadenhead’s special to you?
Graham Wright: It’s such a great story! And with such variety. Fancy having a poet as your chief salesman. And then tragedy of the liquidation and great auction in the 1960s, only to be rescued by none other than the Mr Hedley Wright of JA Mitchell fame. Their malts over my time have really been a very consistent quality, over all these decades.
Obviously, due to my advanced dotage, I remember the bad old days when indie bottlers (and they know who they are) used to send rubbish to Australia. No wonder, Aussie imbibers avoided them like the plague. But Cadenhead remained consistently good.
Malt: Let’s discuss the Australian whisky industry. It’s been impossible for some time now to try to keep up with each new distillery popping up. What do you see as the strengths in the current situation and challenges?
Graham Wright: My head spins when I see, not only the number of distilleries in operation, but also the amount of those considering starting up a new distillery in the none too distant future. They all have some difficult challenges of not only making it, that’s the easy bit, but – more importantly to me – selling it. And in a very crowded market.
But it does look like a vast majority of them are going to be small, tourist-based operations, much like many wineries. A very small amount will get very big, and then there will be those in the middle. Like the wine industry, it is this last category that will struggle in an overcrowded market.
I could be wrong, as is my general state of affairs, but I think the market for whisky – especially single malts – is not growing that fast to cope with all those distilleries.
Plus, we must always remember that the Australian alcohol market is dominated by two major retailers and getting them to take on a more than hundred or so new startups is going to be very difficult. Obviously, there will be failures.
The strengths will be with those that can make a quality product, at an attractive price along with a point of difference. The challenges are numerous, but it always gets down to the ability to sell your product on a consistent basis, and to build a following.
Malt: What dram does Graham Wright reach for on a cold winter’s evening? If you were stuck on a desert island and could take three bottles from your personal collection, what would you take?
Graham Wright: That’s a really tough question for me, as I am cursed. I just need to try something new all the time.
But, here we go…
- Gillies Bottling Bowmore 1964 (I think) the one that coined the phrase “Black Bowmore”
- Malt Whisky Wholesalers Macallan 1975 25 year old, 1st bottling; happily be drowned in this one
- Aberlour A’Bunadh Batch 6, the malt that made my career
- And if I can indulge another please? Clynelish 14 year old, my holiday malt.
Thanks to Graham for taking the time to chat with me. I poured a dram and re-read his responses a few times. With a young family keeping me housebound most evenings, it’s about as close as I get these days to a relaxed chat in a low-lit bar!
The Creations series ran between 2013 to 2019 and featured small batch blends of both grain and malt whisky. There was a maximum of three casks used in each, ensuring the outturn of these releases was, indeed, small. The expected flavour profile was incorporated into the name of each release. The ABVs were determined by taste, so were not cask strength.
The bottle I am reviewing was released in conjunction with Cadenheads 175th anniversary in 2017. I am happy to crack the seal on this and dig in; very few bottles should sit on a shelf unopened for five years!
Cadenheads Creations 175th 18 Year Old Light Creamy Vanilla Blend – Review
Featuring whisky distilled in 1998. A vatting of two butts of the blended whisky. 44.6% ABV. Available Down Under from The Odd Whisky Coy for AUD $149.
Colour: Warm honey.
On the nose: So very smooth, but also shy (coy?). After reviewing quite a few heavily sherried whiskies recently this is a nice change. There are gingerbread cookies, icing sugar, and mashed corn. Then also honey on toasted buttered crumpets. The grain is forward in the blend and things feel passive. Green bananas and it’s grassy. Some pineapple just as I am about to take my first sip.
In the mouth: Once again the grain comes to the fore, ensuring there is vanilla and – let’s face it – this is light and creamy. Immediately some of the fruits from the nose such as the pineapple and then mango. I definitely get butterscotch, custard, scented candles and an overall pleasant sweetness. Some maple syrup and a thick slice of pecan pie. The finish is not particularly long, but the sweetness lingers in the mouth.
This is an eminently drinkable blend that does what is promised on the label. The Australian price is about as best as can be expected. This is a blend to be shared with friends new to whisky and which will offend nobody. Enjoy it in the bright sunshine. It’s no masterpiece, but Cadenheads knew what they were doing.
I am again reminded that whisky, at its finest, should be a social pursuit. The sharing of samples, meeting new friends at a tasting event, or in online forums. Leaving pleasant comments in the section below. After corresponding with Graham for this article I now feel another connection to that community. His site is by no means Australia’s most comprehensive for stock, but it operates in a niche similar to those off the beaten path bottle shops you might chance upon: a chance to find slightly odd bottles, or ones long since sold out at other retailers.
I guarantee wherever you are in the world, there will be a similar website. Go digging.