Mike Bennie on Rutherglen's new whisky
After 165 years in wine, Morris gets into the whisky business with a multi-million-dollar distillery.
Darren Peck is a distiller, though his background is in brewing. He started working in the cider business in England before moving into Guinness in Ireland, then shifted across to the United States to work in spirits. His journeyman career had him pivoting as his vocational experience grew, with a stint in South America to do rum, before becoming a flying distiller working around the world, troubleshooting for breweries and distilleries. A breathless adventure in booze, it seems.
A job in Australia beckoned for an all-rounder who knew beer, RTDs, cider and spirits. “It was the last inhabited continent I hadn’t got people pissed in,” Darren quips, “so it was of great interest to come down.”
It was here that John Casella came into the picture. “John Casella is passionate about being Australian,” says Darren. “He’s always said ‘we drink Australian beer, we drink Australian wine, but Australians don’t necessarily come straight to Australian spirits as their go-to’.” Darren and John met minds, and with Morris of Rutherglen coming under the wing of Casella’s family drinks empire in 2016, the foundation stones were set for Darren’s next great undertaking.
When Pernod Ricard Winemakers sold the Morris brand, the team came across to Casella with a vision to not only maintain the historical winery but to broaden Morris’ charter. They unearthed an old still in a shed, and then came the whisper that spoke of distilling once more at Morris.
The older materials in the Morris winery, particularly the backdrop of fortified wines in tokay, sherry and muscat, became a compelling underpinning. “Why not create a truly unique, a truly Australian whisky?” reflects Darren. “To be able to tell people about fortified wine is a neat re-purposing of the famed and original materials of the winery too – this was additionally attractive and interesting to us.”
Darren forged ahead with the project, enlivened by the breadth and potential of the materials on hand. A second, modern still was built to Darren’s specifications with an aim to enhance the quality of base spirit with which to forge ahead. The freight train of momentum was impossibly exciting, the results of considered experimentation yielding results.
The releases to date speak of immense drinkability yet inherent personality, with strong DNA of the barrels utilised from Morris. The first release of whisky under the Morris label delivered on Darren’s promise of drinkability. “That was the aim. Whisky that was charming from the get-go,” he says. ●