Distillery Focus

Great Southern: Into the Great Unknown

Seáneen takes a tour of Western Australia's only whisky distillery
By Seáneen Sullivan
Out on the patio, we sit, and the humidity we breathe, we watch the lightning crack over cane fields…This is Australia.

The car radio crackles the lyrics to the GANGagang anthem 'This is Australia' through dust coated speakers. I have been driving all day in the heat, through scorched land where it appears the vegetation has been singed from the sandy crust of the earth. As the names of townlands roll past, I pronounce them in the languorous accent of the local area, drawling each vowel into two syllables: Manjimup, Katanning, Narrogin. Occasionally heat-weary cows appear in paddocks, clustered beneath eucalyptus trees for shelter from the blazing heat or lapping pointlessly at empty water troughs rusted through by the elements. The road shimmers into the horizon with nothing but scrub on either side and the tarmac is actually melting in the heat. Squinting into the the searing sun I wonder if a second pair of sunglasses would provide some respite. Everything feels dry and still and the heat hangs heavily in the air.

An hour down the road, a pristine white beach opens up before the windscreen. It is completely abandoned and I wonder if perhaps sunstroke has finally claimed my sanity. The breeze from the sea puffs pleasantly in the car window and the air has become cooler and more humid. The contrast seems impossible. Staring out over the glittering water of Oyster Bay the outline of wind turbines can just be made out. Beneath them lies my destination: Western Australia's only whisky distillery, Great Southern Distilling Company. Despite the bright blue of the sky above, something about the location reminds me of the coastal Scottish distilleries. I am starting to understand why distillery owner Cameron Syme chose Albany as the home of his Limeburners whisky.

At the distillery a man on a fork lift wearing board shorts cheerfully greets me with a wave. He ushers me into the distillery, a large corrugated shed where the unmistakable smell of mashing hits me. Ben Kaji is the head distiller here. Celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year, it is clear that Great Southern is owned and run by people who are very proud of the place they live and work in. Many of the vessels in the distillery are made from vats repurposed from the dairy industry, and there is a sense that Ben knows them intimately. Pipes and hoses writhe around machinery, and Ben pauses mid-conversation to occasionally tweak a valve or carefully move a lever into place. "No computers here!" he laughs. Ben explains how each single malt 'brew' uses 300kg of malt and 1,200 litres of water. The fermentation is long, between five and seven days, before being transferred to custom made pot stills.

As he works, Ben chats away. His enthusiasm and joy in his work are immediately obvious. "We have access to amazing quality local grain, it is all the Wheat Belt", says Ben, referring to the large swathes of local land under grain crops. 'We even peat it here!' He can see I am intrigued, as while there is a lot of land and space around us, there is nothing that resembles floor maltings. Ben leads me out to the yard, where a number of interesting looking stills rest amongst the native plants. "They're a few stills we might play around with," he says mysteriously as he leads me to a square box in the middle of the yard, the size of an office filing cabinet. I crouch down and peer in. Inside the smell of peat is unmistakable, but the aroma is not in any way Scottish. This is dry, arid peat, with a smell of clay and earth, vegetal and yet meaty. Ben explains how they take some already malted grain and soak it before drying it out using peat sourced from the nearby town of Denmark. He gives me some of the grain to try. It is sweet, smoky and distinctly Western Australian.

Western Australia was the site of the first free European settlement in Australia. Though convicts were later transported to the colony (including those that manned the nearby lime burning pits that lend their name to the whisky) the first people to move there did so of their own free will. In a town founded by people who bravely left the comfort of civilisation to forge a new life in a wild and unforgiving place, it is little surprise that the distillery's ethos is fiercely local.

Along with a maritime climate that is described as mild by Australian standards, the distillery character is shaped by the sourcing of primary materials: local grain and peat. The water comes from both underground limestone aquifers and rain water tanks. Much of the energy used in the distillery comes from the wind power taken off the coast of neighbouring King George's Sound. The wood policy also retains local influences. While imported ex-bourbon barrels are ubiquitous, much of the oak used by Great Southern is supplied by the Australian fortified wine industry. The nearby wine region of Margaret River provides casks that once held Australian Port, Sherry, Muscat and Tokay. I spy a number of these oddly shaped barrels nestled amongst the palates in the surprisingly cool maturation shed, a sub-division of the main distillery building.

Per Australian law whisky must be aged for two years in oak, but expressions from Great Southern are frequently aged for longer, up to four and five years. The whisky is ready when it is ready, once the cool temperate climate has helped coax the wood influence from the barrels. Each of the whiskies I tried are robust and full flavoured. Great Southern releases only single cask expressions, with each release being unique, the contents of a single cask. In a way, this seems fitting, capturing in a bottle the best of local produce at a moment in time, ties in perfectly with the distillery's keen sense of local pride.

Tasting Notes

Tiger Snake Batch 4

A Sour Mash Bourbon Style named after a species of vicious snake that occupy the sandy earth around the distillery.

Nose: Caramel, cayenne, cereal.

Palate: Candied corn, sweet spice, rich mouthfeel.

Finish: Lasting warmth, more spice.

Limeburners Barrel M76

Single Malt matured in ex-bourbon barrel before being re-racked into an Australian port cask

Nose: Malted loaf, some treacle, stone fruits.

Palate: Rich, spicy, soft tannins, brown sugar.

Finish: Fruity and warming.