Dan Woolley - Liquid Sunshine
“Too much of anything is bad,” Mark Twain was once quoted as saying, “but too much whisky is never enough.”
It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it things; for those who indulge, it can be orally orgasmic; for the heathens, it’s best reserved for stripping paint.
“There is a whisky for every single palette all around the world - doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what your tastes and preferences are,” suggests Dan Woolley, aficionado of the smokey elixir, and founder and chief distiller of Byron Bay’s first and only whisky label, Highwayman.
“It’s foolish for someone to say ‘I don’t like whisky’. It’s such a humungous genre of flavours, from one end of the spectrum to the other. I often hear people say something like, ‘I can’t drink tequila because I had a bad experience with it when I was a kid.’” But Dan, never one to pull punches, believes, “it’s time to grow the fuck up! We’ve all had food poisoning at some time in our lives - does that mean we never eat food again?”
Whisky has an image problem.
To some, it goes hand in hand with snow-white hair, carpet slippers and a pipe, and passing out after a Sunday roast in front of the 2:45 handicap at Randwick.
To others, it comes in cans and is little more than the alcohol that goes with Coke.
To Dan, it is the amber liquid that courses through his veins, the vapours of his inspiration, the spirit of life.
Whisky often comes to us early on in life, not imbibed from mothers’ fingers to ease our teething or assist our transition to slumber, but in the hands of our mentors - our fathers and grandfathers. Dan was 11 years old when whisky first touched his lips. His father, a district court judge, was often witness to significant and traumatic cases. His respite was in the golden warmth of scotch. Not to the level of drowning his sorrows, it must be said, but a responsible whisky or two eased him nightly from the shadows of his day’s events. He would bring young Dan to his side, offering the glass to sniff and, from time to time, dip a curious finger into to suck upon.
“Dad would always come home, take his suit off, get comfortable and sit down with a glass of Scotch whisky before he did anything else. So my love of whisky definitely came from him - he was the reason I have the appreciation and respect for whisky that I do.”
Appreciation and respect, rather than intoxicating his young progeny, was Mr Woolley’s rationale; to give his son a healthy understanding of whisky at a young age would avert the intoxication and alcohol poisoning born of inexperience in later life. It is a relationship Dan, in turn, is now passing on to his 8-year-old son. “He already understands that it’s something you should treat with respect or it will disrespect you,” says Dan.
Those first tipples in the family living room would develop into a thirst that could never be quenched, not just for the deep and smokey flavours of myriad whiskeys from around the world, but also the expansive depth of history and knowledge surrounding the at least 500-year-old beverage. He would read books on it, travel the globe in search of it, absorb the words of distillers like an eager sponge, craving to know more and more about this liquid alchemy. His fascinated devotion was such that he would eventually and indelibly have the word ‘WHISKY’ - punctuated at either end with a skull - inked across his knuckles.
Dan’s father was also the president of Sydney Game Fishing Club. Barely tall enough to peer over the polished grain of the counter, Dan would tend bar from the age of 11, and even then, without being able to consume the beverages he was proffering, he was enthralled.
“The fishermen from the club thought it was the funniest thing in the world - they absolutely loved it - and I thought it was phenomenal, I really, really loved it. But then OH&S came in and ruined everything - apparently, they said, it was illegal!”
At 21, Dan’s career in alcohol officially began...legally.
“When I started to work full time in a bar, I started to become really obsessed with everything whisky; drinking every single type that I could get my hands on, reading every single book I could get my hands on - this was the days before the internet, so I couldn’t just jump online.
“I started to travel around the world hunting for different types of whiskys I could drink and information that I could absorb.”
This lifelong love affair has been through transitions. Not for Dan himself, nor the whisky, but in social perspective. That image problem is getting a makeover and, Dan suggests, in the last five years whisky has rapidly gained favour in a younger marketplace.
“The way the whisky industry is perceived,” says Dan, “and the way whisky is consumed on a global level - not just in Australia or in major cities, but from continent to continent all across the world - has massively changed.
“Back in the mid-’90s, everyone drank vodka. I never really understood the point of drinking something that really has no flavour. The only reason to have it is to get drunk.”
Perhaps you could whitewash it with the ‘hipster’ paintbrush, maybe times and perceptions have changed and our discernment for whisky - along with coffee, ales and stone-ground, sourdough bread kneaded by the hands of a tattooed, bearded, flannel-shirt-wearing 30-something poet - has elevated far beyond mere consumption. People are savouring, investigating, drinking not to alleviate boredom or eradicate brain cells and all responsibility for the evening’s haphazard revelry, but for experiential pleasure.
“About eight or nine years ago, it started to shift,” recalls Dan. “Young girls, in particular, were starting to drink neat whisky - and powerful whiskeys like Laphroaig and Ardbeg - and it was an incredible thing to see, but it was also really unexpected.”
The stigma - whisky’s image problem - has been dispelled. It is no longer the tipple of grandfathers or the cola accompaniment for bogans. It is a smooth, enjoyable, social drink that is cogitated upon, savoured, experienced not for its alcohol content, at least, not exclusively, but for its depth and complexity.
Seeing this firsthand, Dan had an epiphany, “what an alcoholic would call a moment of clarity”, he suggests, somewhat ironically. With such a passion for whisky, why was he wasting his time on all these other liquids?
His obsession had guided his life path across that of John Campbell, master distiller at Laphroaig’s 200-year-old distillery in Islay, Scotland. Visiting on several occasions to learn the trade from some of the finest whiskymen in the world, Dan struck up a friendship with Campbell that lasts to this day.
So when, a decade ago, a role to represent Laphroaig nationally in Australia arose, Beam Santory, owners of the Laphroaig name, came knocking on Dan’s door.
“It was an incredibly humbling situation to be in because I love the whisky itself, and the island it comes from, Islay, so much.”
Visiting several times a year, Dan would live with John in his home, which happens to be adjoined to the distillery, and work alongside him in every aspect of the whisky production, from rolling and filling barrels and mashing and fermenting the barley to blending the final product and hosting whisky tastings.
The education was second to none. Dan was in his element, a kid in a candy store, soaking up every nuance of the fundamental yet alchemically complex distillation process.
Making whisky is almost unbelievably simple: you take ground barley, hot water and yeast, boil it up and distil it twice. From those three ingredients, you get the basis for whisky. The skill lies in the ageing and blending, placing this clear alcohol, essentially a form of vodka, into aged oak barrels and allowing it to absorb the rich, woody flavours, sometimes generations in the making.
The pedigree of Laphroaig gave Dan an even greater respect for whisky, and he spent the next several years on the road, offering tastings, promoting the brand and connecting with like-minded whisky connoisseurs. What he noticed with increasing regularity was that whisky was the new drink of choice for an expanding demographic. The niche drinkers had already turned onto the silken delights of good whiskies, but now it was mainstream. There was no ‘whisky drinker’ stereotype, no furtive glances of curiosity or perplexity at those gently nursing a single malt while others sank beer after beer. Not only was whisky now trendy, it was completely accepted across generations and genders.
It was upon this fertile peat bed of whisky appreciation that Dan decided to part from Laphroaig and go it alone. Added to this, beyond whisky’s newfound popularity, Australia was rapidly becoming a viable contestant on the world stage.
“Thanks to Tasmania and the likes of my good friend Bill Lark,” says Dan, “they have really helped to put Australian whisky on the map and now we are a global contender. The first written record of Scotland making whisky, or usquebaugh as it was then known, is in 1494, and that’s only the first written evidence. Realistically, we have been making proper whisky in Australia since 1992. So the fact that we, in such a short amount of time, have been catapulted onto the world stage is a really fantastic thing. It has really opened up the doors to create a new industry in Australia.”
Over the course of his whisky bromance, Dan had gathered quite a cellar. At its peak, his collection of bottles was upward of 1,200 bottles. Rare, vintage, heavily sought-after; with the right knowledge, which Dan had by the aged-oak barrelful, whisky could be a better investment than gold.
Plundering his stock, he sold, at significant profit, almost half of his cellar, sinking the sum total into his very own whisky.
In 2016, Dan began filling barrels with his finely honed recipe, blending the raw spirit with acute precision to formulate his desired flavour. Using other distilleries’ equipment to waylay the $5 million outlay for his own still and setup, Dan’s liquid gold sat in barrels around the country for the next two years or more, maturing, absorbing the flavours of the oak casks and evolving into the robust beverage that Dan had so carefully formulated.
In 2018, Dan was lucky enough to align with Brian Restall. Brian, a generational Byron local, had established Lord Byron Distillery, specialising in rums and liqueurs. Lacking the immense startup capital of his own, Dan was as thrilled as he was grateful when Restall agreed to help Dan create Byron’s first-ever locally-produced whisky. With the casks around the country now ready for harvesting and a long-term arrangement in place to begin local production, all Dan now needed was a name.
“My previous job had been to travel from city to city, up to five different cities a week, with suitcases full of whisky, hosting masterclasses, tastings and events. I was constantly on the highways around Australia and around the world - I was the highwayman of whisky!
“I started to fill barrels around the country with my whisky, in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and so on, and they all got put on a truck and found their way into Byron Bay on highways. So it was this whole highway theme constantly, and it just made sense to name the brand Highwayman.”
After years of education, experience and passion, months upon months of work and waiting and hundreds of kilometres on the road, the first golden drips of Highwayman single malt touched glass in April of this year. Decanted from their heavy oak sepulchres into the brand’s squat bottles rustically labelled and emblazoned with a hand-drawn Grim Reaper, Dan’s inaugural stock sold out phenomenally quickly:
“We launched the first five batches back at the end of April. Those five batches sold out so quickly that we were selling a bottle every six seconds and nearly crashed the website! All five batches sold out in a matter of minutes.”
With the official Highwayman website now live, replete with Highwayman merchandise - including apparel, hats and custom-engraved whisky glasses - new batches of dan’s creation are set to flow again soon:
“In late August, we launch batches six, seven and eight. Late October, we launch batches nine and 10. Then in the first week in December, we will launch batch 11 - the first 100 percent milled, mashed, fermented, distilled and aged Byron Bay whisky ever.
“Whisky teaches me lessons on a daily basis. Whether I choose to listen or learn from those lessons is another story! Making whisky is not something that you can study for 10, or even 20 years and know it all. I learn 20 new things every day.”
Highwayman itself is a lesson, in patience and devotion and the steadfast belief that, with time and respect, you can find your own gold. The Grim Reaper upon each bottle, hand-drawn by Dan’s tattooist, Loz Hocking of Brisbane’s Seventh Circle studio, reflects these lessons. Whisky, indeed any alcohol, can be a cruel mistress if treated disrespectfully. Through its entire process, it must be nurtured, appreciated and carefully tended to become its very best. The reaper is always waiting for you to slip up, your complacency your demise. But in your respect, the reaper, as with the whisky, will afford you some of the greatest experiences that life can offer.
Dan Woolley’s journey has been much like whisky itself; fundamentally simple, established early on, his love and passion has aged, matured, ripened and evolved, becoming richer, deeper and more robust with each passing year. It is a passion few of us will ever experience, so ingrained and multifaceted, so all-consuming as to permeate every aspect of our lives. For Dan, whisky is more than a drink, more than a job, it is the distillation of his entire lifetime.
“My father passed away 16 years ago, and I find that it really is a link to him on a daily basis. I find that it is connecting me with my father in some way or another. Whether on this planet or on another plain somewhere, I very much feel like he is somewhere out there, and he is very happy I’m doing what I’m doing.”
You can find Highwayman Whisky on social media at:
Website coming soon
All Photos: Kirra Pendergast