In Food + Drink

Whisky Pro Sean Baxter On Why He Gave Up His Dream Job

The average punter is generally loyal to one or the other, but Sean Baxter - one of Australia's leading whisky experts - recently made the move from whisky expert to gin creator.

Is Sean Baxter – hailed as one of Australia’s greatest ever whisky ambassadors  – the only person to wish he drunk more Malibu in his youth?

“I’m glad I didn’t start too early,” Baxter says of his love for uisge beatha (that’s Gaellic for whisky). “Every 18 year old kid needs to spend more time drinking coconut rum and coke and doing Jager bombs. Loving expensive single malt that young is only going to get you into trouble later in life.”

“My love of whisky started with my dad. He mainly drank blended whisky because he preferred to mix it with ginger ale and was known to have the occasionally single malt. My mum’s Scottish so I think I always had an affinity to the whisky the country made. I never really got it at first, it was all heat and smoke, however as my palate became used to the texture and taste I started to enjoy it more and more.”

As well as a leading whisky expert, Baxter can add one-time MasterChef finalist, bowtie enthusiast and now gin entrepreneur to his resume.

Last year, Baxter ditched the suits and soirees of a whisky ambassador’s life in Sydney for a more laid back existence in Adelaide. Principally, one that involved establishing Never Never Distilling Co and creating “bloody tasty” gin. The gamble has already paid off, with Never Never breaking new barriers for an Aussie gin. 

Whisky’s ambassadorial advice

Sean Baxter Photo: Never Never Distilling Co

The job as Australia’s National Ambassador for Johnnie Walker and The Classic Malts is not an easy one to walk away from. Baxter thrived in the position and made the role his own. With iconic drops like Lagavulin, Talisker, Oban, Caol Ila, Mortlach and the Johnnie Walker range at his disposal, he introduced people to new whiskies in new places in all sorts of far flung corners of the world – from aboard yachts on Sydney Harbour to inside ancient Scottish castles.

“A brand is always looking for someone who knows how to interact with the most amount of people, be it over the bar, or during a presentation. Bartenders tend to be well skilled in these traits and are a natural fit into the role,” he says.

Baxter with Chris Hemsworth Photo: Instagram

Known for his proclivity for bowties – of which he says: “I think when your boss is a guy wearing a top hat and tails (Johnnie Walker), you have to dress the part” – and his immeasurable knowledge of all things whisky (with an enthusiasm to boot), Baxter looks back fondly on his time at the coalface of this classic spirits category.

“I genuinely love the people that make [whisky] – that dedicate their lives to creating something that’s pure purpose is to create happiness. They are truly spectacular humans to be surrounded by, even the grumpy ones. I love the fact that a great whisky can be so flexible in its purpose – for some it calms, for others it excites. It can create peace or start arguments, you can drink it straight or mix it in a cocktail (that’s usually where the arguments actually start). It is a perfect distillation of life itself, cajoled into one joyous little measure.”

From Johnnie to juniper

Never Never’s triple juniper gin.

Nothing lasts forever though. Baxter launched Never Never Distilling Co with business partners George Georgiadis and Tim Boast last year. 

“My life as a whisky ambassador was always going to be tempered by the fact that I wanted to move to Adelaide to marry my wife. When the opportunity came along to start a distillery with two other friends I jumped at the chance.”

Despite giving up his Johnnie gig, Baxter swears he’s not playing favourites.

“I’m really not swapping my love of whisky for my love of gin, I’m just being more inclusive of all my spirit passions. There’s still room for heaps more (I do love a good rum),” says Baxter.

A Gibson martini Photo: Instagram

“Those who know me know my affinity for a delicious Negroni or Gibson Martini, especially when made with a big, heavy, flavoursome gin. I wanted to make a gin that bartenders loved to use – and had a place in any bar due to its intensity of flavour. We set about making that style eight months ago and the result is our Triple Juniper Gin. Weirdly, its bold oiliness and rich flavour reminds me a little of a young single malt. I am still using my whisky palate to understand and describe the way it tastes. I think whisky lovers might be surprised by how much they like it.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing but he says it has definitely been worth it, including giving up the corporate credit card.

“It’s very scary. One day you have an incredible national sales team, following up every lead, addressing every concern – the next you are sitting by yourself in your kitchen going ‘right, what do I do now?’. Every day presents new challenges. I’d be lying if I said it was all enjoyable (like having no money) but it’s very, very rewarding. I still get shivers when I walk into the best bars in the country and see our gin on the shelf. It makes everything worthwhile.”

Trending worldwide

The gamble seems to be paying off for Baxter and his Never Never cohorts. Their Triple Juniper Gin has just been named as the first ever Australian brand to make the prestigious Top Trending Gin list, compiled by Drinks International. The list, created by polling bartenders from the top 100 bars in the world as well as key industry influencers and pundits, saw Never Never coming in at number seven alongside the likes of Tanqueray, Hendricks and Bombay Sapphire.

Hamish Smith, editor of Drinks International, says the fact this list is created by industry makes it even more important for brands.

“As we know, a best-selling brand, even in the best bars in the world, earns its place on more than taste,” Smith said.

“So we also wanted to know the brands that are not necessarily doing huge volumes but have cool-appeal right now. This is where the Top Trending lists come in. [These] are the brands customers are increasingly asking for, perhaps because of word-of-mouth or even on bartenders’ recommendations.”

Baxter says it’s amazing to see what the brand has been able to achieve in just six months.

“We’ve only just scratched the surface here in Australia, so it’s exciting to think where we’re going to be in another six. The appeal of the brand lies in a return to flavour, a return to the classic characteristics and traditional ingredients that make a gin special. We have focused on using juniper as our signature botanical, supported by local and international flavours.”

You Never Never know

So what’s next for Sean Baxter and the Never Never Distilling Co.? Possibly a Never Never Australian whisky?

“We’re up to our necks in juniper right now. We have just been awarded a state regional development grant for our future distillery and brand home to be built in the McLaren Vale region. Once we have more room we can expand our operations. Right now we are operating in a 16 square metre distilling space which doesn’t leave much room for whisky ‘r and d’.”

And what of his famous bowties?

“The bowties now sit neatly in a draw near my socks. I’m not sure how much more wear they will see. I’m quite casual these days, mainly because I’m heaving cases of gin in and out of the car.”

Watch this space – because it’s surely not the last we’ve seen of Baxter and his booze.

Published 23 January, 2018