Welcome to Hunter’s ‘The making of…’ blog series. To start, can you please let us know a little bit about yourself?
Hello, I’m Dan Woolley, founder of Highwayman Whisky. I’ve been physically, mentally, and spiritually immersed in whisky for decades having worked for and represented some of the biggest, well-known, and awarded whiskies from around the globe. From Kentucky to Japan, Scotland to Tasmania, although truth be told my heart will always lie in Islay, the spiritual birthplace of smoky whisky. Even though I’ve committed everything to these brands, my dream has always been to make and bottle my own whiskies from my hometown of Byron Bay, Australia.
Wanting to make and bottle your own whisky sounds like a fantastic dream. Can you tell us how you went about making this dream a reality?
It’s been a dream of mine for decades, but I only realised it could become a reality after spending time in Tasmania with whisky legends such as Bill Lark and Timothy Duckett. These whisky icons showed me that it’s possible to do it all myself and with their influence along with the guidance of longtime good friend John Campbell of Laphroaig, I started to make the dream a reality and filled my first barrel in 2016.
What research did you do to arrive at what you've got now and how did you test your product-market fit?
I’m very lucky to have worked in countless distilleries across the world and gained a wealth of knowledge. From Maker’s Mark in Kentucky to Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Macallan in Scotland. I donned the task of working out exactly what type of whisky I wanted to produce by deciding exactly what type of whisky I personally love myself. I then started to experiment with different flavours from different barrels. Tasting these over the years with many friends and industry experts assured me that I was on the right path to something very special.
Having your experience, knowledge, and access to some of the best distillers in the business is a great starting point. Can you let us know what the first batches of your whisky were like?
My first ten batches of Highwayman were all spirit that I helped make or was made to my specifications at different distillery locations around the country and freighted to Byron Bay where I then aged them into whisky. They were all great yet all very different. Nowadays, we make everything in-house using our own equipment - mash tun, fermenters, and still as well as aging, so it’s very different but just as good…. I personally would say it’s even better now!
We can only imagine what a treat it would have been tasting the different batches directly from the barrels knowing full well you were in control. How did you initially fund everything?
Bit by bit, piece by piece. Over the last five-plus years, I saved away and managed to amass what is currently a pretty tidy operation. I sold quite a bit of my personal whisky collection to help fund the business, especially to start with. All my tax refunds were invested into more barrels so that by the time I was ready to launch, I had the first five batches all bottled and ready to go and the next five not far behind. The money that this generated was reinvested again and again into what you see today.
So you boot-strapped your way to where you are now. How about the branding? Can you tell us about your process and how you arrived at what you’ve got currently?
For me, branding is just as important as the liquid itself. They both have to be perfectly on point. For as long as I remember I’ve been the ‘Highwayman’ of whisky all around the world. I travelled from country to country with bags full of whisky. This was my life, so the name of the brand was very appropriate and fitted perfectly.
From there I imagined what I wanted as a logo/image to truly represent the brand and worked very closely with lifelong friend and incredible tattoo artist Lawrence Hocking of Seventh Circle Brisbane. He went above and beyond with the task and created what has become known as the dark horse of the Australian whisky scene today. The grim reaper really represents the intensity and high alcohol level of Highwayman. Each batch is bottled at cask strength, very high ABV - 55%, treat it with respect or it will disrespect you! All bottles of poison have a skull image as a deadly warning and alcohol should be no different. Take it slowly, ease into it, and DON’T ever overdo it. Appreciate what you have in the glass and come to understand where this huge plethora of flavours come from.
Now you’ve perfected the product, tested it, and developed an appropriately on-point brand. How are you getting the word out there and how are you scaling the brand?
I launched in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic so everything has been done entirely online, and through social media. Something that’s emerged from that period is online Zoom tastings which I really enjoy running and still partake in quite regularly. As we grow into more volume next year, there will be a big push into retail, selected bars, and bottle shops around the country using my strong network of industry friends and colleagues gained from having been in the industry since 1995.
Knowing you and what you’re capable of, we have no doubt we’ll see you on the back bar of all the coolest bars, and in the best bottle shops across Australia. However, having said that we know there are always challenges facing entrepreneurs. What would you say your biggest challenges are moving forward?
Constantly evolving the brand to stay relevant as well producing a world-class liquid. For me, I see this as a lot of fun and something that I rise to the occasion for. It’s one thing to make great whisky but unless you have a solid plan to make it look very cool and get it out there to the right people then you’re dead in the water. This is definitely something that is not emphasised when people are starting out in the distilling game and it’s a lot harder than people think. The number of hours, days, weeks, and years that go into planning and reshaping are immeasurable.