The coming of age of Australian whisky

The coming of age of Australian whisky

Over the past two decades, Australia’s distillers have taken inspiration and adapted techniques from around the world to craft a whisky style all their own – now, they are going for growth

Regional Focus | 14 Mar 2023 | Issue 189 | By Luke McCarthy

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What should we talk about when we talk about Australian whisky? We could talk about history. The convict era and the early years of colonial spirit production. The fledgling distilleries established in New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in the 1820s, none to survive.
We could talk about the first fully fledged whisky distilleries that emerged in the 1860s and the boomtimes of the Victorian gold rush that followed. We could talk about Melbourne’s Joshua Brothers Distillery, one of the largest malt whisky distilleries in the world in the 1920s, cranking out huge volumes of malt whisky for a thirsty Australian public. We could talk about Australia being the fourth-largest producer of whisky in the world back then.

Distillers Company Limited (DCL), the forerunner to Diageo, could get a mention. It built Corio, a behemoth malt and grain whisky distillery outside Melbourne, in 1929. DCL gobbled up its major competitors, dominated the local whisky market for decades, then closed Corio and abandoned Australia in the 1980s during that infamous decade for distillery closures.

We could talk about Brian Poke and Bill and Lyn Lark and the Tasmanian distillers who came along in the 1990s, pioneering a small-scale distilling movement. We could mention all those that followed: the Bakery Hills, the Hellyers Roads, the Limeburners and Belgroves and Starwards and dozens of others. We could talk about the 120-plus distilleries now making whisky in Australia, and the 90-plus who have released their own distinct whiskies to market.

We could talk about awards and wine casks and heritage grains, and how everyone from big brewers to 160-year-old wineries is now making whisky here.

But instead of doing that, talking about what’s already happened, let’s talk about what’s coming next. Because the Australian whisky industry is coming to a precipice and will soon look completely different to how it does today.

Lark was one of the original band of Australian craft distillers

Head to a place such as Tarac Technologies in South Australia’s world-renowned Barossa Valley wine region, and you start to build a picture of where the change is coming from. Tarac was founded in 1930 to recover, recycle and repurpose grape alcohol and winery by-products. These days, Tarac is Australia’s largest producer of high-quality grape spirit, and the leading supplier of neutral spirit to the country’s booming craft gin industry. Now, it’s making contract whisky, too.

“We’re at the front end of what’s going to be a complex environment for Australian whisky in the next couple of years,” says Tarac CEO Jeremy Blanks. “There’s quite a lot of significant changes that are starting to happen. But the simple objective of Tarac’s whisky programme is to provide a range of products that can facilitate the growth of Australian whisky.”

Following years of research and development, Tarac started distilling new make from malted barley through its continuous stills 12 months ago. It has also been maturing large quantities of that spirit in-house, so producers can purchase mature whisky when ready.

“In Australia, more than 90 per cent of Australian whiskies are £80 plus,” says Blanks. “There’s a big concentration at the premium and ultra-premium end of the market, and that’s pretty much the inverse of the global market experience.”

Tarac Technologies in South Australia"s Barossa Valley

Tarac is hoping to balance out the ratio and help to create affordable, good-quality Australian whisky in the £35–£55 (AU$65–100) bracket, especially blends. Blanks explains, “We want to accelerate the opportunities for Australian distillers to export, and the blended whisky segment is a very dominant segment globally, so there’s an opportunity for Australian whisky producers to play in that space.”

The export market is also on the mind of Dawid Ostrowski. In a similar vein to Tarac, Ostrowski has transformed a former grape spirit and fortified wine facility in northwest Victoria into Ostra Distillers, one of the country’s largest dedicated grain and malt whisky producers.
“We’re just here to do exactly what other Australian distillers are doing, which is to create high-end product,” says Ostrowski. “The only difference is, we’re creating scalability so that we can sell Australian brands globally.”

Ostrowski recently purchased a £40 million German-built brewhouse from an iconic Australian brewery and transferred it to his facility. Once fully operational, the site will have the capacity to produce more than 20 million litres of grain and malt spirit per year.

“This brewhouse will give us the ability put down 350 barrels a day, which is phenomenal. And it scares me a little bit because it’s like, you know, will the world drink it? But I am confident they will,” says Ostrowski.

(From left) John Slattery, Hugh Roxburgh, and Tim Salt, the founders of Greenbanks Distilling Co.

In Tasmania, the place best-known for Australian whisky internationally, larger-scale whisky distilleries are now coming online as well. Greenbanks Distilling Co. will open its contract distilling operation north of Hobart, the island’s whisky-soaked capital, in early 2023. The three founders behind the business, John Slattery, Hugh Roxburgh and Tim Salt, the latter a former managing director of Diageo Australia, are highly experienced in the distilling and finance industries. Their project is bound to add a whole new flavour to the Tasmanian scene.

“Our main goal with Greenbanks,” says director and distiller Slattery, “is to take Tasmanian whisky to the world by solving two problems: one, the high price points of Tasmanian whiskies relative to their international counterparts; and two, the extremely limited availability of Tasmanian whisky to anyone beyond Australia.”

One of the key points of difference Greenbanks will bring, apart from its size, is versatility. A mash filter installed by Belgian firm Meura will allow the distillery to efficiently make whisky from any grain. Sydney’s award-winning Archie Rose Distilling Co. uses the same uniquely designed piece of kit, as do Teaninich and InchDairne in Scotland, and the Midleton and Waterford distilleries in Ireland. The Greenbanks team are also going to produce greater volumes of spirit from wheat, one of Australia’s largest agricultural exports, alongside barley and other grains.

“Tasmanian whisky has been winning international awards since 2014 thanks to brands like Sullivans Cove, and it now has an international fan base,” says Slattery. “The challenge for that fan base is supply, so we see an opportunity to take Tasmanian whisky to the world.”

Sullivans Cove, the jewel in the Tasmanian whisky crown, is itself on the move. It is relocating to a brand-new site near the actual cove in central Hobart where the brand was founded in 1994. But in yet another sign of the times, Whisky Magazine Hall of Famer Patrick Maguire, former co-owner and head distiller of Sullivans Cove, and one of the Tassie industry’s foundational figures, has a big project of his own coming online.
Maguire finished up at Sullivans Cove a couple of years ago, and after taking some time off, he’s now revealed that he’s developing a new whisky business, Maguire & Co. Bottlers and Distillers. The business, spearheaded by Maguire and backed by a number of investors, will build a distillery just up the road from Cambridge where Sullivans Cove and Lark are already well established.

Sullivans Cove in Tasmania. Credit: Natalie Mendham

Initially, Maguire & Co. will focus on developing an independent bottling range featuring whiskies from Tasmania and mainland Australia. The distillery at the core of the business will produce up to 350,000 litres of single malt spirit per year, some of it using barley grown on an adjacent farm, and will also feature a hospitality offering. Maguire hopes it will be operational by early 2024.

“I think this is the next important step,” says the ever-humble and understated Maguire. “We know we can do it. We know we can make good-quality whisky. All we need to do now is create enough volume.

“I’ve always thought that what we need is an Australian category. If you’ve only got one line out there, say Starward, it’s a pretty lonely place for that brand to be. But if we’ve got a section of a shelf in bottle shops internationally, and we become a category, then I think Australia could
do really well.”

To support this surge in whisky making, some of the top minds from the Scottish industry are coming to Australia. Islay whisky legend Jim McEwan has been holidaying here, for one. McEwan recently launched Cape Byron Single Malt Whisky at the distillery he co-owns with Eddie Brook near Byron Bay, the boho surfer town that’s more recently morphed into a mecca for Hollywood A-listers.

Morris Whisky"s single malt

Darren Peck, a highly experienced former Diageo distiller and brewer, currently heads up the Morris Whisky distillery in the famed fortified wine region of Rutherglen. Advisors on the creation of that project included veteran Scottish master distiller John McDougall and the late Dr Jim Swan.

Then there’s George Campbell, who started his career as a trainee site manager for Diageo, culminating in leadership roles at Talisker, Cardhu and Mannochmore. He then spent five years at William Grant & Sons leading operations at Balvenie and Kininvie. Now, Campbell is Down Under.

He’s currently working as the head of distilling operations for Mighty Craft, a publicly owned ‘accelerator’ company with a bevy of craft beverage businesses. Originally from Islay, Campbell is now in charge of several distilling operations at the forefront of creating uniquely Australian whisky: from native grain whiskies at the Mighty Craft-owned 78 Degrees Distillery, to the development of terroir-focused whiskies at Kangaroo Island Spirits and Seven Seasons, the latter founded by Indigenous foods entrepreneur and Larrakia man Daniel Motlop.

Even at Lark Distilling Co., Australia’s foundational whisky brand, Satya Sharma, former William Grant & Sons managing director for South East Asia, was recently appointed CEO. Sharma has quite a task ahead of him. Lark has grown dramatically in the last few years, and Sharma will oversee the growth strategy for the business as it drives into export markets. Construction is also underway on the new home of Lark. The huge distilling complex and visitor centre in Pontville will significantly increase Lark’s overall whisky capacity and create a permanent home for the brand, which now has three malt whisky-producing sites across Tasmania.

The tasting bar at Starward Distillery in Melbourne

Australian whisky is, finally, starting to scale up. But all this growth raises a big question: what exactly is Australian whisky? What styles, signatures and hallmarks will Australian whisky makers export to the world, if the world will have it?

Fans of single malt are well serviced here. Single malt is still the dominant style produced in Australia and there’s every type to suit your tastes – from tropical and fruit-driven makes like the previously mentionedCape Byron Single Malt, to wine cask-forward whiskies from Starward and Spirit Thief Distilling Co. There are heavy peat monsters from the likes of Black Gate, Limeburners and Furneaux distilleries, and extensively aged malts from Smith’s Angaston and Sullivans Cove.

You can taste zany, hugely flavourful experiments from Heartwood, the inimitable Tasmanian independent bottler. And you can now get your hands on Australian whiskies that have been selected by some of the world’s leading independent bottlers, including Adelphi, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Berry Bros. & Rudd, La Maison du Whisky and The Whisky Exchange.

Will Edwards and Dave Withers at Archie Rose Distilling Co. in Sydney

There’s a growing rye whisky movement taking hold in the country as well. Producers such as The Gospel Distillers, Backwoods, the paddock-to-bottle Belgrove and the well-known Archie Rose are producing seriously distinctive whiskies that taste of the farms where their rye grains are grown. And for American whiskey fans, corn whiskies from Whipper Snapper, Tiger Snake and Ned Whisky are slowly becoming attractive to Australia’s enormous legion of bourbon lovers.

This is just the start. We could talk on and on about what’s happening now and what might happen in future, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will all turn out. What’s more certain is that there’s a creativity and a freedom to the way whisky is being made in Australia. There’s a growing desire to make something new, to make something that speaks to this place and its people. To give whisky lovers something a little bit different to think and talk about.
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