How do you become a whisky writer? What makes great whisky writing?
Whisky writer: it’s the kind of gig you’ll find described as an ‘enviable job’ and a role not many people get to do professionally. The Melbourne-based Luke McCarthy is one of the few who do.
McCarthy also has an interesting beat — one that is only going to become more important in the coming years: Australian whisky.
He’s one of the few writers focused full time on the topic, and as he points out in the interview below, the industry is booming. There’s between 80 and 100 distilleries making whisky right now and that number is expected to grow quickly.
Thankfully, McCarthy — who also a bartender and spirits judge — is showing us a way of navigating this new whisky landscape. His site, Oz Whisky Review, is well-placed to be the go-to resource for information and reviews on the Australian whisky scene.
He also — quite literally — wrote the book on Australian spirits, The Australian Spirits Guide.
So how did McCarthy get this gig? Lightly edited and condensed for clarity, below McCarthy tells us what it takes to be a whisky writer, what he thinks makes great whisky writing, and his approach to writing tasting notes?
Luke McCarthy — what’s the job you do?
I suppose booze writing and publishing is primarily the job these days. I mostly focus on whisky with Oz Whisky Review; I do a lot of spirits judging as well for various competitions and a bit of consulting as well on the side. You will still find me behind the bar a couple nights a week, I’m working at Buck Mulligan’s at the moment, a little whisky bar and bookshop down here in Melbourne, which has been fantastic — I got into that following the first Covid breakdown because I was getting a little bit batty just writing all week and not seeing anyone. It’s a great way to get back out into the world and Buck’s is a really great space.
And then doing some writing for various publications in Australia and overseas as well.
How long have you been at the writing side of things?
Yeah, the writing side of things pre-dates my booze stuff. I was interested in and started writing when I was in my teens quite a bit, and then studied writing at the University of Melbourne, did a bachelor of writing and literature there. When I came out of that I was travelling around a fair bit and contributing to some v very interesting publications on, you know, poetry mainly, ding books and the odd travel piece here and there.
And then I entered into the booze world properly. I’d done some pretty average bartending, in some pretty average spaces when I was younger, and I started working at Chez Regine in 2012, the forerunner to Whisky & Alement.
At that stage I started writing the odd piece about whisky and spirits and some of the travel we were doing as a bar, and individually myself. And then in 2014 I became the booze columnist for Fairfax Media, for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and everything progressed from there.
Pretty much the last two years, since I started Oz Whisky Review, there’s just so much work to do on that subject, I’m trying to turn it into a large resource.
How many distilleries are making whisky in Australia?
There’s between 80 and 100 at the moment, and some reports would suggest it could be upwards of 120, 130 who are actually making whisky at the moment. There’s about 70-plus that have released whisky, and that’s a list that I’m constantly updating. It was 60 last year, and now we’re definitely over 70 who have released their own, distinct whiskies, and we’re not talking brands of whisky that you often find in Ireland or the United States, they’re distilleries that have put out their own product to market.
There’s now a huge number of distilleries making whisky. That’s more than most of the major countries, that’s more than Ireland for instance.
Are there many writers writing about Australian whisky?
There’s a few, I suppose there aren’t very many who are dedicated to it in a professional capacity. I try to bring the experience that I have run writing for large professional journalism and spirits publications in to what I do with Oz Whisky Review.
You’ve got James Atkinson doing some great stuff with his podcast and website Drinks Adventures, he sometimes covers Australian whisky; Max Allen has done an amazing job in the last decade turning his experience with wine and turning his purview into spirits, whisky as well. You see him writing about that for some of the majors.
And then you have people in and around the whisky industry who occasionally chime in with pieces. So Andrew Derbidge does a great job — there are people doing it.
It’s a question that people put to me: why are you writing about just Australian whisky? It’s such a big landscape. My background’s in Scottish whisky, it’s one of my real passions, it’s what I got started with. But whether it’s literature or any other subject, I’ve always been interested in what we make and create here in Australia.
I was always fascinated by Australian poetry and Australian literature, that’s what really got me started. I remember when I first started at Chez Regine, at the end of the shift we used to get a knock-off [drink], Brooke Hayman the owner asked me, what do I want to try? I’d come across Australian whisky before but I couldn’t remember specifically tasting them; if I had, I was probably absolutely fershnickered when I did.
The first one I can consciously remember sitting down at tasting was Sullivan’s Cove French Oak; from there it just made sense to me that if we’re making whisky here, I want to know about it. And not only that, I want to know a lot about it, because it’s where I’m from, and I want to know about those whiskies.
What makes good whisky writing?
I think very simply, vision, clarity, and knowing what the point of your writing is and who you’re communicating with. That’s really crucial. I suppose it depends on which level of whisky writing we’re talking about, are we talking about the people who populate social media feeds with very simple updates and writings about what they’re discovering? Are we talking about professional whisky writers and what separates the good from the great?
I think in a more professional context, good whisky writing comes from a point of experience, from people who know their subject, know how to discuss it, and are interested in getting at the truth. There’s a lot of regurgitation and marketing and bullshit mythologising in whisky, and in spirits and booze more generally — and the best whisky writing cuts through that, and shines a light on who are the people doing great things and producing great whisky, and presents a more nuanced look at all that.
I really love whisky writing that gets at something deeper than the liquid itself. It connects to something that’s a bit more universal and essential, and not just arseholey about how the stuff is made and how it tastes.
What’s your approach to writing tasting notes? Because there are some tasting notes that can be useful and there are some which go a bit beyond that and are maybe a bit more a reflection of the writer than it’s about maybe trying to help someone.
Definitely. What you’ve just said there gets to the core of tasting notes and whether they are meant to be useful, or whether or not they’re more about the writer trying to show off their expertise. So I think a lot of it depends on who you’re writing for and what the purpose of the tasting note is. In a spirits comp setting, your notes are simple, they’re sharp, focused on flaws and positives, because your readers in that sense are distillers. They’re after critical analysis and feedback, and nothing really flowery.
When you think about other publications or notes that I’m writing, I definitely put my audience first and I try to put myself in those shoes. A lot of it, and I try to think back to the Australian Spirits Guide, the book, when I sat down to write the tasting notes for that book, I actually thought about what would I say to people from behind the bar. Working with a thousand whiskies at Whisky & Alement, it was really important to be able to be concise and effective when talking about how a whisky tastes. You want to be able to make connections for people, so they understand what they might get. And when I’m writing notes now I think about that same thing as well, and try to be balanced — am I getting too flowery or descriptive, or am I getting too dry and technical?I think my approach is just grounded in to try give readers an accurate account of what I’m tasting, so they’d like to taste it too. To do that well is not that easy.
All that stuff aside, I think tasting notes should be entertaining as well, they should have that element to them — you can make it dry and technical if that’s your raison d’etre, but at the end of the day it’s booze, there should be some fun to it, it’s fun to try and you should be able to communicate that experience to people.
When it comes to objectivity — do you think you can separate the experience that you’re having at the time from the liquid in the glass? Do you try to do that, or is it not possible?
That’s a really tricky one. I think it’s very hard to separate the experience from the individual drinking experience you’re having at the time and at the moment. What I try to do wherever possible is to keep my process the same. Particularly if I’m sitting down to write serious tasting notes for a publication, or for consulting or things like that, I just try to make sure my process is the same if I’m doing it professionally wherever I am. That’s not always entirely possible, because you know it’s booze and it’s travel and it’s distilleries and it’s bars, you have to do your best in those settings.
Often the tasting notes and the reviewing I do for the site I tend to do most of that at home, unfortunately these days because I try so much whisky, I’m mostly spitting that stuff out as well, and just undergoing that technical process that we’ve been practicing in spirits comps and elsewhere.
Process for me is very important, trying to replicate that as often as possible so that at least your own personal experience is consistent.
What sort of role does regionality play in Aussie whisky — is it a thing or is it more of a marketing tool?
It’s a hot button question too, because the Tasmanian whisky industry is looking at developing an appellation for Tasmanian whiskies, so it’s something people in the industry are thinking about and pushing for.
As to whether or not there is regionality in Australian whisky, no I don’t think so. I think you’ve got a series of producers in different parts of the country who are influenced by their surroundings, by their peers and the way they’ve come into the industry — which I think is definitely the case in Tasmania where you have some leading figures in the industry being very influential in giving a lot of distillers down there a hand.
People on the mainland, we start to see really different ideas and thinking and even if you think about someone like David Baker at Bakery Hill Distillery, he came along in 1999, he wasn’t really influenced by what was happening in Tassie much at all; he was looking to Scotland, he was really trying to create a smaller version of a Scottish distillery here in Melbourne.
Other distilleries in WA, like Whippersnapper and Upshot, they’re American-style. Then you’ve got a guy like Spike Desert up in the Kimberley, he was an American, who wanted to make American-style whiskey.
What I think will happen eventually is you’ll get some regional characters developing as distillers in certain regions use what’s close to them and what’s around them. And there are some distilleries that are looking to really focus that — the grains that grow locally to their area, the wines that are made nearby, what grows well, what else grows in their immediate surroundings — and then trying to inject that into their whiskey.
You’ve got some people doing that really well, like Belgrove Distillery. Peter [Bignell], you know, his whisky tastes like his farm, it’s absolutely incredible. He’s probably one of the most unique expressions of a place in a whisky, made anywhere in the world. There are distillers who are achieving it here, whether or not you can throw regional blankets around their distilleries though I’m not so sure.
In terms of an Australian sense or style of whisky, is there one, and how does it differ from other parts of the world?
A lot of people have fought about this for a long time, I think we’re actually better evolved in that conversation and telling that story now than we were 15 or 20 years ago. Wine casks are big part of the story of Australian whisky, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. With Starward doing so well internationally, and with red wine casks so important for them, people are looking at whiskies that come out of Australia and definitely noticing that we’ve got this really high quality of both fortified wine casks and table wine casks, and they’re having a big influence in how our whisky tastes.
The other great thing is the grains that are grown here. Unlike a lot of other countries that makes whisky, Australia has all of the ingredients right here for making really high quality whisky. We grow all sorts of different grains here, so different mixed grain whiskies are going to become a big part of the story moving forward.
And then it’s the alternative whisky makers like Sacha La Forgia at Adelaide Hills Distillery playing around with native grains, you’ve got guys like Backwoods that are using native timbers. We are going to see more native flavours, grains, and wood species coming into Australian whisky in the future — it’s just going to take more time to develop.