SMWS + Shirt Bar Sydney

The other week the Shirt Bar in Sydney held a very special Scotch Club event in conjunction with the Australian chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS).

Shirt Bar sign

I’ve been to a few Scotch Club events before (here and here) and I’m also a member of the SMWS, so I knew this would be a winning combo. Even more so as the evening was being hosted by SMWS Australia’s Cellarmaster, the affable Mr Andrew Derbidge.


For those who’ve never met Andrew, he has to be one of the most knowledgeable and approachable whisky figures I’ve come across. His presentations are always jam-packed with interesting info, yet never bore – irrespective of your level of whisky knowledge or interest.

What you need to know about The Society

If you’re not familiar with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who they are and what they do, their website should be able to help solve that problem for you. In my opinion though, here’s what you really need to know:

  • All of their whiskies are bottled from single casks,
  • They’re all cask strength, natural colour and non-chill filtered.
  • Bottles will never be repeated, so when they’re gone – they’re gone!

SMWS pack

In the images to follow, you’ll note that the labeling contains an odd numerical code. Quick intro if you’re not familiar with the SMWS’s labeling system – the first number represents the distillery the whisky came from and the second represents the number of casks that have been bottled by the Society, from said distillery. The brilliant names? Well, that’s the domain of the chaps in the Society’s creative department I guess!


On to the whisky then

The line-up consisted of six pretty special bottles, including two not previously seen as part of Australia’s quarterly outturn (yes, think yourselves lucky my UK friends, we’re a long way away from Scotland, so our Outturn is only quarterly).

Tasting mat

41.59 Appetizing and tantalizing

First up was this ten year old whisky from a Speyside distillery by the name of Dailuaine. You may not have heard of them, but chances are you’re consumed their whisky before. Dailuaine is owned by Diageo and the majority of their output ends up in the various Johnnie Walker blends.

A super small amount of this stuff is bottled as a single malt – let alone singe cask, cask strength – so it was pretty special to have this.


Very fruity and quite light on the nose. Summer fruit salad, pineapples, pears, apples and some tart piney notes dominated, while some softer vanilla and sweet floral notes hid up the back. Quite a light nose with a decent amount of spirit prickle.

Light on the palate as well, yet rather oily at the same time. I found that it initially sat quite high before unleashing a decent amount of spice and some big tangy and tart pineapple notes that sent the saliva glands into overdrive. The finish was long with quite a bit of heat and some oaky spice, somewhat balanced by a noticeable vanilla note.

Back to where it all begins  

Before moving on to dram number two, Andrew paused for a moment to take us back a few steps, presenting whisky in its naked new make spirit form.

New make

He busted out this small sample of Glenmorangie new make spirit, which comes off the stills at an industry average of 63.5% ABV. I didn’t spend too long with this, but as you’d expect, it was very grassy, slightly dusty and botanical on the nose (they often remind me of Mezcal) and hot and saliva-inducing on the palate.

I had to have a chuckle when a guy near me nosed his glass and exclaimed to his mates ‘oh man, that’s smells like unleaded petrol’.

Not the most interesting new make I’ve tired, but I always find it really interesting to sample the building blocks of whisky, and trying new make from a hugely popular Scottish distillery is not something you get to do often!

121.68 Harvesting fruit on an Indian summer’s day

Next up was this 14 year old dram from a fairly young island distillery, Arran, which opened in 1995.

SMWS 121

A noticeably heavier nose on this one compared with the Dailuaine. Sweet esthery polish notes, sour green grapes, caramel – almost on the verge of burnt bitter caramel. Initially the nose seemed quite closed, but given some time it changed quite a bit, developing some meaty fermented grape notes and gummy lollies, in particular, strawberries and cream.

Creamy and oily on the palate, straight off the bat. Tropical fruits, sweet spice and overall, a very round profile. The back of the palate became almost drying, with a hint of kiwi and some slight salty notes. A long fruity finish (reminded me of tinned tropical fruits).

123.8 In the Spanish mountains

As far as I can tell, the Society has only ever bottled eight casks from this distillery, making it somewhat of a rarity and indeed a priviledge to be tasting. I’m talking about Glengoyne and this particular bottle was matured for 12 years in a refill port pipe.

SMWS 123

Quite a dense, heavy nose on this dram. Spice, Vegemite, a touch of salt, tart plum jam or plum butter (reminded me of my favourite Polish powidła) and some hazelnuts. Not overly sweet or sugary, but also not overly fruity. A very interesting nose, though I’m still not sure how much I really liked it?

Lovely oily mouth feel which was both rich and winey. Spice developed quite quickly, but a winey sweetness remained the whole way through. The finish is where I felt the port notes really showed, with some lingering plummy prune flavours, more spice and a decent oakiness.

An enjoyable and really interesting dram, but if I’m being completely honest, I think I prefer Glengoyne’s spirit when it’s been bourbon or sherry cask influenced.

132.5 Sweet and darkly beguiling

Not actually a Scotch, this next whisky hailed from one of Japan’s most revered and lauded closed distilleries, Karuizawa.

Big, rich and syrupy on the nose. Sweet raisins, stewed plums, figs and Christmas cake. So rich, yet surprisingly clean. I’m not sure how to describe exactly what I mean by ‘clean’, but despite the heavy sherry influence, the nose came across as really quite bright and active.

SMWS 132

The theme continues with a rich, creamy, syrupy palate. Tangy raisins and dark red fruit, there’s some spice, but I found it somewhat restrained for such a heavily sherried whisky. Slightly prickly, dense and a hint of old char smoke. A long and warming finish remains sweet and fruity with some oaky spice showing at the tail end. Such a clean sherry cask in my opinion.

I wondered whether this dram had star status in my eyes because I knew it was from a closed distillery and knew it was rare. But I’ve been fortunate enough to try it on two or three occasions now – on its own and up against a number of other whiskies I regard quite highly – and each time it has stood out as something pretty special.

If you’re a big Glendronach or Glenfarclas fan, this isn’t one to miss. A hugely enjoyable drinkers whisky (ie. collectors/investors, you’re seriously missing out!)

Time to bring on the peat!

It was around this time of the night that Andrew revealed his last sensory item for the evening, some freshly peated Ardbeg malt.

Ardbeg malt

I love the smell of Ardbeg, but this was something else. Burrying my nose right in there, the glass was full of cereal and grainy notes but they were overlayed with that amazing smoky sweetness. I know it would probably taste like rubbish, but in that moment I could have eaten that glass full of malt with a spoon. A rare treat to encounter Ardbeg malt in Australia, that’s for sure.

I have no idea how he got a big zip-lock bag of malted barley past Australian Customs on the way back in from his recent trip to Scotland, but I’m glad he did. Andrew – if you smuggled this in your jocks, I don’t want to know about it.

53.198 Wasabi on a California Roll

The last dram of the evening was also the oldest of the night, a lovely 18 year old coastal dram from Caol Ila.

SMWS ShirtBar

On the nose, I found this to be rather tangy and salty up front, with fragrant peat and a fairly light smokiness. A hint of iodine, but nowhere near as medicinal as the likes of Laphroaig. In a moment of poetic wankerism, I wrote down ‘a coastal BBQ with sea spray’.

More smoky on the palate than the nose, a lovely oiliness to the mouth with some spice, saline and drying hay. It had a certain fruity quality to it as well though, with grilled peaches (burnt perhaps?) and a tangy peat, sweet and savoury finish. Really quite lovely and balanced.

Phone picture

In true Shirt Bar fashion, the evening’s Scotch Club finished off with their trademark antipasto board & pies.


This round of Scotch Club was perfect for those who’d never been to an SMWS event and wanted to see what all the fuss is about. As an existing member, I took it as a perfect opportunity to get my SMWS whisky fix between Outturns and taste a few new expressions I hadn’t come across before. A seriously enjoyable tasting.

If you missed out

I was originally going to write something along the lines of ‘if you missed out, not to worry – there’s another one being held on August 13th’.

Group 2

But you can forget that. It went on sale the other day and completely sold out – in less than 24 hours! If you do have a ticket, I’m not sure that you’ll be tasting the above, but whatever Andrew brings, they’re bound to send those taste buds into overdrive!

If you didn’t manage to get yourself a ticket and want to find out more about the Society, head over to their website and keep en eye on their tastings and events page to see when an event is being held in your capital city.

Woodford Reserve tasting

Woodford Reserve tasting of epic proportions, Shirt Bar, Sydney

Ah Woodford Reserve. You bring back some vivid memories for me.

We enjoyed each other’s company a little too much on our last encounter though. It was great while it lasted – I had an absolute blast – though I spent much of the following day cursing your name and I wasn’t in a hurry to see you again.

That was unfair of me though. It wasn’t your fault, it was mine, so I’m really glad we had the chance to make up. And what better way to make up than with a bourbon tasting bonanza at Sydney’s Shirt Bar hosted by the incredibly knowledgeable, Mr Stuart Reeves.

Woodford - Pouring

A bit of a forewarning here – If you’re not one for the details and a bit of a story, feel free to skip the wordy bits and start reading again when you get to the pretty pictures – this post’s a bit long. 

Woodford Reserve: The distillery

I’m a bit of a sucker for details. So it was a good thing that our host for the evening, Stuart, had a wealth of knowledge to impart. As told by Stuart, here’s a bit of info you’re probably not going to find on Woodford’s website:

  • For a brief period of time in the early 1870’s, Colonel EH Taylor (a name Rye whiskey fans might recognise) took over the distillery and patented a heat cycling process that’s still used in Woodford’s warehouses today (more on this in a sec)
  • Woodford’s current owners, Brown Forman, have actually had two bites of the cherry – purchasing the distillery for the first time in 1941 and again around 1993/ 1994. Reason for the first sale? The bourbon slump of the 1960’s.
  • During the above period, the distillery actually lay dormant from around from around 1970 until 1993 while under the ownership of someone who had intentions of turning it into a chemical plant of some description

As an aside, while absorbing these details like a fresh shamwow, we were all treated to a classic Woodford Reserve Old Fashioned – well executed by Shirt Bar’s crack team of bar tenders.

Woodford - OFs

Creating Woodford Reserve

At one point in time, I thought bourbon was just bourbon. But just like the Scotch whisky industry, the differences in production from distillery to distillery can be truly fascinating and they all factor into creating a unique product.

The first thing to note about Woodford Reserve is their standard grain bill, which is 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley. That’s a decent proportion of rye as far as bourbons go and Stuart brought along this neat visual representation.

Woodford - Grainbill

Here’s a few other interesting things that make Woodford, well, Woodford!

  • As opposed to using column stills (which are standard in the bourbon industry), Woodford use copper pot stills imported from Scotland (the same kind of still used in the production of Scotch whisky)
  • Woodford Reserve is the first and only triple distilled, copper-pot bourbon available in the US.
  • Woodford Reserve use only 6% sour in their mash, which means 94% of each distillation comes from fresh grain (industry standard for sour is around the 30% mark). Not sure what I mean by sour mash? Check this out.
  • Brown Forman own their own cooperage and make their own barrels – a whopping 2,900 of them a day! The number of those earmarked for Woodford Reserve? Around 100.
  • Those 100 barrels are special though – they’re the only barrels out there in the bourbon world where the heads of the barrel are toasted and charred as well as the barrel itself (I wonder if Ardbeg got this idea from them?)
  • Maturation warehouses are made of limestone rock and are heated in the winter with steam coils (enter EH Taylor). Why? To speed up maturation and keep it going at a constant rate, right throughout the year.
  • This takes its toll on cask volumes though. A staggering 50% of volume is lost to the Angels over seven to eight years.
  • One last one for the Scotch fans – some of Woodford’s barrels end up cradling the nectar of Balvenie and Glenfiddich.

What we tasted

If there’s a definition of a bourbon bonanza, then this is probably it. The line up for the evening included no less than six of Woodford Reserve’s finest, plus a few extras.

New make spirit

First up was Woodford Reserve new make spirit, also known as ‘White Dog’.

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you, the label was misprinted and had you seeing double, before you even tasted it. Perhaps if you finish the bottle is become clearer?

Woodford - New make

On the nose, I got some sweet spirit notes, spice, some nutty herbal notes and a young grappa/ white rum kind of effect. There weren’t really any surprises on the palate, with the new make tasting clean, dry and spicy with some faint herbal flavours on the finish.

After being triple distilled, I expected their new make to have a really high alcohol content (ABV) and indeed it does when it comes off the third distillation at around 79% ABV (158 proof).

However, it was interesting to hear that they actually dilute the new make down to 55% ABV (or 110 proof) before casking it, as they believe it matures better and gets more flavour out of the cask, needing less dilution at the end!

Distiller’s Select

Next up was their flagship expression, Distiller’s Select. A seven to eight year old bourbon made with their standard grain bill, triple pot distilled and bottled at 43.2% ABV (I believe it’s bottled at 45.2% in the US?).

Woodford - Distillers Select

I got some lovely caramel notes on the nose, vanilla, orange, some nutty spice, woody furniture polish and grainy cereal swirled throughout. I found the Distiller’s Select to be a tad thin on the palate, big wave of spice and not quite as sweet as the nose suggested. Pleasant burnt caramel and woody notes, minus any bitterness faded to a medium length finish, mainly concentrated in the mouth.

It was around this point that Stuart introduced some of the sensory tasting items he brought along, aimed at highlighting certain flavour characteristics. I picked up on the orange notes a fair bit in the Distiller’s Select, while the tart dried cranberries really emphasized the sweet caramel notes.

Woodford - Sensory

Before I move on from this one, ever wondered where the grain comes from? Probably not.. but I did and I can report the following: The corn comes from Kentucky, rye from Manitoba and barley from Wisconsin.

Maple Wood

Now we’re into the big league – the first of the Master’s Collection bottlings on taste. Created as one-offs, the Master’s Collection range is never intended to be repeated.

Released in 2010, the Maple Wood expression starts life as the standard Distiller’s Select, before being finished for around 18 months in a toasted sugar maple barrel.

Woodford - Maple

On the nose I got some additional sweetness over the Distiller’s Select, but not in a caramel sense. More of a dark fruity syrupy sweetness, with a bit less spice. This translated to fuller palate, hints of sugared plums, fresh toffee, vanilla, cereal grains and restrained spice. At 47.2% ABV, the finish was noticeably longer.

Aged Cask Rye

Released in 2011, the Aged Cask Rye was sold in a twin pack with the New Cask Rye (coming up), so you could taste them side-by-side and taste the influence of the cask on the base spirit. A pretty neat concept in my opinion!

Woodford - Aged Rye

Made from a combination of both malted and un-malted rye, this represented another first for the distillery, being the first triple distilled 100% rye whiskey made in the world.

I got some interesting grassy notes on the nose, vanilla sweetness, crisp green apple, pineapple and hints of spice. Stuart likened this one to a young Calvados (apple brandy) and I think he was pretty spot-on with that analogy. On the palate, clean, mild citrus, dry, spice, some pepper and overall quite mild. I’ve never had a rye like this before!

New Cask Rye

Now for the comparison – exactly the same spirit as the previous version, but this time, matured in a fresh charred oak barrel and bottled at 46.2% ABV.

Woodford - New Cask Rye

Much sweeter on the nose, return of the Woodford caramel notes, vanilla, sweet balsamic, lots of vibrant spice, soy and hints of crisp apple. I thought this had a thicker mouth-feel, loads more caramel on the palate, spice, woody oaky flavours and a touch of cinnamon.

Interesting tidbit on these twins – although they both weigh in at 46.2% ABV, they actually entered the cask at a surprising low 43% ABV!

Four Wood

This was an interesting one. Released in 2012, as the name suggests, four different types of wood come into play.

As with the Maple Wood, this expression starts life as the standard Distiller’s Select. After seven to eight years though, a proportion is placed in a toasted sugar maple barrel for a year, another portion in ex-Oloroso sherry casks for six months and the remainder in Portuguese ruby port pipes for six months.

In the end, it’s all mingled together, bottled at 47.2% ABV and presented as the Woodford Reserve Four Wood.

Woodford - Four Wood

Sounds like it could have been the makings of total disaster, however it’s surprisingly balanced. Clear hints of port and sherry on the nose, some lovely raisin notes, vanilla, spice, caramel and still clearly Woodford. On the palate, I got some big spice upfront, followed by soaked raisin sweetness, vanilla and some malty cereal. Big sherried whisky fans would appreciate this one I reckon.

Classic Malt

To end the night, the one I had been eagerly awaiting! Released in 2013, the Classic Malt is essentially a single malt whisky, but made it the US by one of the most innovative bourbon distilleries. The mashbill is 100% malted barley, it’s triple distilled in copper pot stills and aged in used, ex-bourbon casks before being bottled at 45.2% ABV.

Woodford - Classic Malt

I got some serious grassy, grainy cereal notes on the nose. Lots of barley and freshly grated green apple. Reasonably thin on the palate, still quite grainy and grassy, but with an underlying sweetness and some vanilla. Not really to my taste, but quite delicate whisky, I mean, whiskey.

Andrew Derbidge, Cellarmaster of the SMWS was also in the room and likened this expression to an Auchentoshan single malt from the Lowlands of Scotland. Right on the money with that comparison in my opinion.

Some final thoughts

I’m not sure how impressive this lineup would look to someone in The States, but I have to say that we were mighty privileged to be tasting this number of Master’s Collection releases.

Woodford - Group

These releases are something of a rarity in Australia. You’d struggle to find these behind a bar if you wanted to taste them and if you managed to find a bottle for sale, you’d need to hand over $200+.

If that wasn’t quite enough, we each left with a goody bag comprising a Distiller’s Select miniature and the smallest bottle of bitters I’ve ever seen – perfect for mixing an Old Fashioned on the weekend.

Woodford - Goodies

Thanks to Stuart for presenting a highly informative tasting, sharing the story of Woodford Reserve and these fantastic bourbons (and whiskeys) with us. A big thanks to Shirt Bar as well for hosting another great evening – check out their website for info on their upcoming tastings.

Nikka whisky tasting

A round of Nikka nightcaps at Shirt Bar in Sydney

A stroll from Sydney’s Wynyard Station in a small laneway separating Kent Street and Sussex Street, you’ll find a cosy coffee by day/drinks by night establishment called Shirt Bar. Oh I left one thing out, they also sell shirts – lots of them!

Shirt bar

According to their site, they’re all about three of the things they love ‘tailored shirts, freshly roasted coffee and great whisky’. Walk through the doors and it’s not hard to see this represented in the eclectic styling of the warm and friendly fit-out.

Shirt Bar - Menu

Anyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy a nicely tailored shirt and a good coffee. But on a miserable, rainy Wednesday evening, it was Shirt Bar’s third love that saw me perched at a table up the back with some like-minded company. See, they don’t just enjoy and serve great whisky, but they’ve gone one step further and have set up their own appreciation group aptly called Scotch Club.


I always keep an eye out for drinks and whisky tastings in Sydney and I’d read a bit about Scotch Club. I’m on their mailing list and I’ve read some great reviews of their events by fellow whisky fans Martin and The Baron – but their events always happened to fall on a weeknight when priorities clashed, so I’d never actually been along to one.

This was about to change though. My first Scotch Club was all about some of the whiskies that come out of Japan’s Nikka distilleries, Miyagikyo and Yoichi. To take us through four of their whiskies, our host for the evening was their Australian brand ambassador, Taka.


I must admit I haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to Japanese whisky, so I was really looking forward to this tasting. Here’s what we got to taste.

Miyagikyo 12 year old

Miyagiko 12

First up was a single malt from the Miyagikyo distillery, which you’ll find in northern Honshu, near Sendai. Built in 1969, the Miyagikyo distillery produces a lighter style of whisky thanks to its steam-fired bell-shaped stills, which require a longer and gentler distilling process. Interestingly (for a whisky nerd like me), the stills also have an ascending lyne arm, ensuring only the lightest spirit is collected.

This was indeed noticeable when nosing and tasting. On the nose, I got some citrus, apple cider notes, pear and a touch of sweetness and spice. I also got a note that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I jotted down ‘oddly meaty’ – whatever that means!

Fairly thin and light on the palate (surprising for a 45% ABV), reminded me very much of a Lowland style Scotch whisky. Soft sweetness, slight sourness, pears and quite a dry white wine-like finish.

Yoichi 15 year old

Yoichi 15

The next single malt came from the second distillery in Nikka’s portfolio, Yoichi.

In contrast to Miyagikyo, at Yoichi, they have a much faster and more intense distilling process, using direct coal-fired straight column stills fitted with descending lyne arms. Their water source is an interesting one too – using naturally peated water collected from an underground aquifer that lies beneath the distillery itself. All of these factors contribute toward producing a much heavier style of whisky.

On the nose I got a hint of sweet smoke, salted caramel notes and something a bit raisin-y. Much heavier on the palate than the Miyagikyo (they’re both bottled at 45% ABV) with some salty/saline notes, seaweed, light smoke and a bit of spice on the finish.

Taketsuru 12 year old


The Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old is a blend of both Yoichi and Miyagikyo single malt whiskies (so there’s no grain in this one – similar idea to the Johnnie Walker Green Label).

Bottled at 40% ABV, this was the lightest of them all. I got some green apples and pears on the nose, vanilla notes and touch of spice. Reminded me a little bit of The Glenlivet 12 year old. Very smooth on the first sip, light sweetness, some gentle sour apple notes, maybe a touch of nuttiness, then bang – nothing. This has got to be the shortest finishing whisky I’ve ever come across. I think apple juice probably has a longer finish then this.

That’s not to say it’s a bad whisky (because its not), but I personally didn’t find it overly satisfying. I can see this being a great introductory whisky for a first-timer.

Nikka from the barrel


The last whisky of the evening was also a blend of single malts from Yoichi and Miyagikyo, but this time there’s some aged grain spirit in there too – specifically, a grain spirit produced at Miyagikyo using imported corn from the US! The components are then married together and left to sit for a few months before being bottled.

Lovely and rich on the nose, sweet fruits, creamy, hints of spice and some faint bourbon notes. Big and juicy on the palate (it’s bottled at 51.4% ABV), caramel sweetness and some vanilla finish with pleasing spice notes.

I had only ever heard good things about Nikka from the barrel and it’s not hard to see why – it’s a mighty fine blend indeed.

Some final thoughts


I should also mention that the tasting was accompanied by some quality food – individual servings of sushi, plus generously-sized charcuterie and cheese share plates.

As for the venue, Shirt Bar really is quite a cosy spot. The eclectic styling, interesting furnishings and odd bits of bar and tailoring paraphernalia make it an enjoyable spot to just sit back, relax and enjoy a few drinks, and that’s what the crowd seemed to do. Whatever your reason for being there, it looked like everyone was enjoying themselves.

The pours were a bit on the light side and I probably didn’t get to taste enough of each whisky to develop a proper opinion. But one thing I did get out of the evening was a real interest in exploring the world of Japanese whisky a whole lot more.

Whilst it’s a much younger industry (compared to the Scotch whisky industry), it’s still rich with history and great stories that make some of these whiskies truly fascinating.