As surreal moments go, this takes the biscuit. I'm standing next to the silent stills at St George's distillery inn Roudham, Norfolk, a few miles from my home.
It's early on a Monday morning and in front of me the distillery's managing director Andrew Nelstrop is having a conversation about bore holes and water sources with David Baker of Australian distillery Bakery Hill.
'It has been an enormous learning curve but we have a great system'
"The thing about Scotland is that they're trying to make so much whisky they're sacrificing quality," declares Nelstrop. "A few years from now they won't be winning any awards because the whisky won't be good enough."
Baker nods solemnly in agreement and I feel slightly disloyal, like I'm party to some clandestine counter movement plotting against a close friend. But the quality line will be repeated many more times over the coming two years, mainly from Australian mouths. It will become a mantra, a unique selling point for the Aussies to rally round.
"But I've nothing against Scotland or its whiskies," says Baker. "We just happen to be operating on a different scale and in a more hands on sort of way."
Fast forward two years and it's all gone quiet on the Bakery Hill front. While the distilleries of Tasmania have been making waves and winning awards, the Melbourne distillery has dropped out of the picture to a great extent. So what's been going on?
"2011 has been a consolidation year here at the Bakery Hill Distillery," says Baker, when i speak to him. "Continuing to distil our malts and lay them down has been our major focus for 2011 together with the growth of the distillery into various new export markets.Particularly pleasing is the way the public in general has embraced our malt whiskies particularly as we are from non traditional distilling countries. Probably the phrase that best describes 2001 is Full Steam Ahead."
With stock laid down and his core whiskies established, Baker now feels it's time to look further afield and expand in to new areas. But he's not going to rush things.
"For the last few years Bakery Hill has been experimenting with the effect of different wood finishing techniques on our various malts," he says. "With the jury still out we have had some excellent results but still have to wait a little while yet before we unleash them on consumers.
"That said, i am delighted by the way the public both locally and overseas has embraced our malts. For the 11 years since we have been distilling there has been an enormous change in the way the consumer looks for and values malt whiskies from “ non traditional” countries. Eleven years ago, the malt whisky consumer considered malts coming from the non traditional counties a bit of a curiosity but once it was seen that their malts were as good if not in some cases better then the situation really changed in our favour.
Baker admits that it's not all bees plain sailing, and being a long operator isn't without its drawbacks.
"Establishing a single malt distillery in a country that is not a traditional producer of malts is tough, " he says. "The biggest hurdle has been the lack of engineering knowhow. Whether it be brewing our wash or distilling the lack of any technical expertise means that we had to all the research and development and design ourselves. it has been an enormous learning curve but we have ended up with an outstanding system.
"With all the product development behind us, 2012 will be a year of expansion where the distillery will be in operation round the clock seven days a week 365 days a year, putting together the volumes of spirit that will enable us to grow to the stage. Being part of the Pacific Basin with new markets are always opening up all the time Bakery Hill is focusing it marketing on these non traditional areas.
After a quiet spell, then, Bakery Hill is ready to re-enter the picture and reclaim is place at the forefront of new world whisky in general and Australian whisky in particular. Baker is bullish about the future.
"Australia has an amazing future for its malt whiskies," he says. "Our country produces enormous qualities of some of the worlds best barley with 40 per cent of it being exported, and as a result the raw materials are readily available.
"Our warm climate in Melbourne particularly is perfect for maturation of spirit. Ambient temperatures are generally high which encourages a slightly more rapid maturation. With no less than 15 malt whisky distilleries in operation there is a real nucleus to build a viable industry here.
Growth and sales in single malts over the last eight years has been exponential and this coupled with our geographic positioning in the Pacific Basin means that the best years are still to come."
Random Irrelevant Fact
Bakery Hill is not reference to distillery owner David Baker. It's a reference to a local area where miners made a bloody and tragic stand against their exploitative employers