Australia is the only island continent, the sixth largest country in the world, where 60 per cent of the population huddle around five coastal cities. It is a land of droughts and flooding rains. A landscape of tropical jungles, deserts to snowy alpine mountains, where sugar cane plantations and vineyards are as bountiful as the fields of grain. It should come as no surprise the similar extremes can be found in Australian whisky. These extremes make Australia's whiskies fascinating, diverse and surprising.
It should be pointed out we have broken down Australia into mainland which is detailed below and Tasmania which is featured from page 78.
Australia and whisky
Let's start with Australia's drinking habits. A nation famous for beer drinking (fitting connection to whisky), for the past 130 years has ranked as the world's highest in per capita consumption of whisky. It remains Australia's favourite spirit at almost half of all spirits consumed. In the late 1940s, Australian whisky was 85 per cent of whisky sales; the 1960s 80 per cent blended Scotch, today Bourbon is 60 per cent. Domestic whisky brands now only contribute 0.2 per cent to sales volume. High prices and limited distribution are two impediments. Ready to Drink (RTD) have been an Australian phenomenon since 1960s. This pre-mixed format still represents around 13 million cases (average 5% ABV), mostly whisky and cola mix in cans and single serve bottles. These major shifts in whisky partially explain the diversity of whiskies being made today.
Australia's whisky distilling industry today
Since the microdistilling movement started back in the 1990s, around 50 distilleries have made whisky.
We could debate what constitutes a whisky distillery. Do distilleries that make a single batch every few years rank as a bona fide whisky distillery? Distilleries here are small and infrequent in their production, which is another Australian whisky quirk, due to financial constraints. The modern micro whisky industry began in Tasmania in 1992 (Sullivans Cove and Small Concern), within a few years new distilleries started to mushroom across the mainland (Smith's 1997, Bakery Hill 1999). Now over two-thirds of the whisky distilleries are situated between the mainland's east and west coasts.
Last year, around 400,000 pure litres of whisky were distilled at 48 distilleries. The top four generated over half of the volume. The same Pareto principle plays out with 24 whisky brands for sale around Australia. The top four clear over two-thirds of depletions. However, when it comes to awards the room gets a little more crowded with Sullivans Cove, Lark, Nant, STARWARD, Timboon, Limeburners and Hellyers Road, all receiving major awards. The industry may be small, but it is producing some fine and noticeable whisky.
So what's the secret to the success of many of these whiskies? And is there such a thing as an Australian style of whisky?
What is Australian whisky?
Scotland, Ireland and Japan are malt plus grain whiskies. The US is Bourbon plus rye. Australian made whiskies are all of these plus local factors influencing flavour. At present, over 90 per cent is malt whisky; however, that's rapidly changing as over a dozen distilleries have moved into other grains and mash bills in recent years. Western Australian distillers have been the most aggressive with rye, corn, wheat and Bourbon mash bills. Bourbon is protected geographic indication and marketed as American style spirit or sour mash whisky. The other influence is spirit focus. Distilleries produce a mix of spirits. Especially white spirits like gin, vodka, schnapps and liqueurs, to ease cash flow pressures during the long years of financial start-up and supplement cellar door sales.
To help understand how these whiskies are building different flavour nuances, insights may be gained by discovering some of the conspicuous flavour components precipitated in Australian whisky's production.
Taking a look 'under the hood'
Five local ingredients impart the most flavours to Australian whiskies. Grain: 85 per cent of whisky made in Australia uses local barley. The second most popular grain is rye, followed by corn, wheat and some experimental quinoa, oats and triticale.
Numerous varieties of barley have been developed in Australia since 1903. The industry has bred adaptions for diverse cultivation conditions and malting techniques, focused on Australian and Asian brewery industries. Popular varieties like Schooner, Gairdner and Commander were propagated for different regions and tolerances, with many of new ones in field development. This cross-breeding of genes has led to variations in amino acids, carbohydrates and trace nutrients. Add the effect of lighter beer malting practices, the use of different yeast strains and fermentation techniques, the wash profiles in Australia start to deviate.
A couple of distilleries follow the estate principle of growing and malting their grain. Belgrove does this with rye, Redlands Estate and Nant attempted this with barley. A small number import barley from Baird's and Port Ellen in Scotland, for peated whisky expressions (Hellyers Road). Australian peat has also been pioneered using Tasmanian (Lark) and Western Australian peat bogs (Limeburners), even smoking grain with native woods such as South Australian mallee stumps (Iniquity). Some brands use only corn (Raymond B), some rye (Archie Rose) and others American mash bills (Tiger Snake).
There is a diversity of yeasts from wine, ale to pilsner, as well as secondary distiller's yeast to boost yield. Half a dozen distilleries obtain their wash from external breweries. Some whisky enthusiasts debate the artisanal credentials of this practice. The fact is they are distilleries, not malt houses, breweries, or cooperages. How many distilleries make their casks?
This line of enquiry is a slippery slope. Similar arguments can be levelled against whisky in the British Isles, where barley and its symbiotic yeast originated in the Middle East, the copper came from Chile, Mexico or Indonesia, the oak from America and Europe. Does this mean that only truly endemic national whisky is Bourbon because they use American corn and native white oak, or maybe some Japanese whiskies using mizunara oak?
Over two-thirds of the whisky stills are made in Australia, either by engineering companies or by home-made welding. The remainder of the stills originated in England, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Portugal and China. Oddly, none are from Scotland or America, yet. The stills come in all types of shapes and designs, from Iberian alembics, Charentais and grappa stills, Australian brandy stills, doublers, pot rectifying columns to the more traditional Scottish-looking shapes. With the exception of Smith's old brandy still they all share two common attributes, small capacity and squat shape.
Compared to Scottish distilleries, runs are slower, cuts often tighter, with the alcohol yield per tonne about a third less. Except for three distilleries, all wash stills are less than 1,800 litres. Smaller dimensions and shorter necks and most have descending lyne arms feeding shell and tube condensers, adding more inflection points to affect flavour. This is what foreign commentators describe as Australia's oily, fatter distillate.
Most distilleries have paired wash and spirit stills, a few apply triple distillation (Shene Estate), and some use a single still (Timboon), even a doubler (Hoochery). Hoochery is also the only distillery rectifying their corn whisky through a bed of Kimberley mahogany charcoal. In New South Wales, a paxarette whisky is produced in chardonnay casks (Eastview Estate).
Here are some interesting facts, few people know. There is no minimum or maximum wooden vessel capacities. Nor is oak a mandatory requirement. When the laws were legislated, Australian distillers were using a variety of native hardwoods along with imported oak, mostly American and Memel. Coopers are starting to experiment by adding local hardwood staves into oak casks.
Ironically, Tasmanian distilleries have developed a preference for smaller casks (100l). Mainland distilleries have skewed towards Australian wine hogsheads (300l). The extractive influence of small reconditioned casks impacts much flavour, especially when the wood has held tawny (port in Australia) or apera (sherry) for many decades. This secret resource is rapidly diminishing.
Australia's vibrant wine industry delivers another big flavour hit for many whiskies using Barossa red shiraz (STARWARD), tawny (Sullivans Cove), apera (Overeem), muscat (Bakery Hill) and pinot noir casks (Hellyers Road). Even young wine hogsheads in the hot, dry climate liberate remarkably rich and fruity flavours into the local malt spirit.
That's because climate is another significant factor. On the mainland, summer temperatures surpass 40C with low humidity. Which is why at Federation Australian mainland distillers in unison had the Federal Government set the world's first compulsory minimum ageing law at two years. They already knew hotter conditions accelerated 'maturation and wholesomeness of their whisky'.
Similar to micro-distilleries in other countries, the people attracted to start distilling ventures in Australia had no previous experience in distilling. They learnt by trial and error. This has led to quite a lot of novel experiments and even idiosyncratic approaches to manufacturing whisky. Whether accidental or deliberate this lack of tradition has led to the variety of experimental and diversified whisky styles with wide flavour spectrum.
But it's also the subtle and accumulative influences of the diversity of these local materials, modified methods, the environmental conditions and Australia's eclectic whisky tastes that have resulted in a broad range of whiskies being made in Australia. Should you be fortunate to come across an Australian whisky, be prepared to meet them as individuals. They're all very different. Some are youthful, many are brawny, some show grace, few upstarts, while others as big and extreme as the country.
Smith's Angaston malt whisky, another normal exception
In South Australia, Smith & Sons operate the large Yalumba winery in the Barossa Valley. Every few years they pull out their 1931, 9,000 litre brandy still to make a batch of whisky. Runs were made in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2011 and 2014. Malt whisky is not something new to the winery, founded by Samuel Smith in 1849. In the early 1950s, they bottled Smith's whisky, later called Imperial Vat until it ceased in the early 1970s. Originally, it was blended malt made at Milne's Thebarton Distillery in Adelaide, then from Gilbey's Moorabbin Distillery in Melbourne using grain whisky formula. For their first 1997 run, Smith's shipped in liquid malt extract from Cooper's Brewery in Adelaide. For later batches, the wash was again supplied by Coopers. The first whisky released was in 2004, subsequent releases have been subject to cask maturation.
Top 10 Whisky Brands
- Belgrove (rye)
- Hellyers Road (malt)
- Lark (malt)
- Limeburners (malt)
- Nant (malt)
- Overeem (malt)
- Smith's Angaston (malt)
- STARWARD (malt)
- Sullivans Cove (malt)
- Tiger Snake (sour mash)