Simon Hopkins is the Bar Manager at Nola Smokehouse & Bar in Barangaroo, Sydney. With a claim to having the largest collection of American whiskey in Australia, Hopkins is one of Australia’s independent experts on bourbon and American whiskey. He recently started a blog under That American Whisky Guy.
Describe your job in five words
Bourbon, cocktails, BBQ, beer, bolo ties.
What do you appreciate most in a whisky?
Honesty, smoothness, freshly charred American oak. This is a hard question, I think I could write an essay on this. Anybody who knows me, knows I’m quite partial to American whiskey. I love the impact of the American seasonal changes, the water, the grains, the wood, how a position in a rickhouse can change everything. I appreciate just how much effort goes into every single drop.
What do you appreciate least in a whisky?
Brands that lie about their story, history or processes.
What is your most treasured whisky?
Hardest question ever! Work: O.F.C 1990, Elmer T Lee, Angels Envy Rye Rum Finish. Home: It’s the first bottle I won in a competition, it’s a bottle of Jim Beam White Label with my name on it.
What is your favourite virtue in a whisky bar?
Knowledgeable staff, a welcoming atmosphere, unique bottles, anywhere that can make a good balanced old fashioned! If you throw in country music, I’m there!
What do you most dislike in a whisky bar?
Over inflated prices, arrogance (don’t be a dick). As bartenders we usually know more than the regular consumer, you don’t need to be all high and mighty about it.
If you could have any job in whisky, what would it be?
Brand ambassador, or maybe a tour guide at a distillery.
What is your favourite distillery name?
Redemption, Angel’s Envy.
Who is your hero in whisky?
The distilleries that stuck through the ‘dark times’ of bourbon, the ‘80s to 90s, when the evil white spirits were outselling bourbon and the industry almost fell apart. People like Booker Noe, Elmer T Lee, Jimmy Russel, they turned the industry around with single barrels, small batch and limited releases. Oh, and Mr Bill Lark, who without we wouldn’t have Australian craft distilling.
What is your idea of whisky happiness?
Ten-to-15 year Bourbon in my hands, country music playing in my ears and a plate of smoked brisket in-front of me. Or anytime I get to introduce somebody to a product they haven’t tried and I get to see that ‘wow’ moment they have after the first sip.
What phrase do you most overuse when talking about whisky?
Any of my staff would most likely say it’s when I start talking about the impact of the barrel, or I talk about how the temperature fluctuations help with ageing. I talk about the barrels a lot.
When do you lie about whisky?
Never. If it’s good, I say so, if it’s bad, I say so. Sometimes that gets me in trouble.
Who or what is the love of your whisky life?
Is it corny if I say my fiancé? We got matching old fashioned tattoos after we got engaged. Drinking whiskey with her, that’s the best!
What is your happiest whisky memory?
I can’t give you just one, here is my top five, whiskey makes me the happiest! (Other than my fiancé, mentioned above.)
1) Winning the state final at the Woodford Reserve competition, then coming second to Matt Linklater (the dude is a flavour machine), I got to meet the amazing Elizabeth McCall, now assistant master distiller of Woodford Reserve.
2) Winning the state final of the Jim Beam Bartender For Bourbon. I got to visit Kentucky for the first time and even had dinner with Freddie Noe.
3) Spending an amazing night in the Northern Territory with Eddie Russel, I sat opposite him at dinner and just drilled him with questions. Afterwards we listened to ZZ Top and AC/DC and he told me more amazing stories about him and Fred Noe growing up together.
4) Visiting Kentucky the second time, visiting Old Forester and Woodford Reserve. You read, watch videos and listen to podcasts about these places, but actually going there, it’s something else!
5) Anytime I get to talk about bourbon, rye or American single malts. Anytime I break somebody’s preconceived idea about the category. I could be having the worst night at work, point of sale system’s crashing etcetera, but the moment I get talking about whiskey, the bad mood fades away.
What is your saddest whisky memory?
When I sold the last nip of Angels Envy Rum barrel finish rye, it’s so good! Every time I have to leave Kentucky.
Who do you most admire?
Oh man, I admire a lot of people. I won’t name them on here, but it’s made me want to tell them next time I share a whiskey with them, anybody that can turn their love into their job, that’s who I admire.
Sherry cask or bourbon cask?
Bourbon, give me that vanilla and caramel from the oak. But, I do love a sherry finish.
If you could work at one distillery, which one would it be?
At the moment I’m a little obsessed with Old Forester, their 2017 birthday bourbon had bubblegum on the nose, their 1920 prohibition style is everything I love in the category. It’s also a three-hour drive from Nashville.
What is your greatest achievement?
I’d have to say coming second at the national final of the Woodford Reserve cocktail comp national final. it was just an honour to compete against other like-minded American whiskey loving bartenders.