Whisky & Culture

Looking to a new horizon

A new frontier is opening up in whisky, and it's in the distilleries' backyard
By Chris Middleton
There is a new trend amongst the major whisky-producing countries and Australian whisky may one day take a new direction. Distilleries in America, Britain and Ireland are learning how much terroir can attribute to whisky – where local ingredients impart distinctive flavours, by forming a unique relationship rooted in place.

Terroir is a French term describing the influence location and process has on a wine’s local character. Evolving over centuries of grape growing and winemaking, there are thousands of wine zones given legal protection under Geographical Indications (GI). These zones spatially delineate wine styles and historical reputations for labelling and marketing, but terroir is much more granular. It can be the side of a hill or even rows of grapes, a farming technique, wild yeast populations and the grape phenotype. While wine is perceived as agricultural produce, spirits are more industrial born by distillation, so establishing a whisky terroir is more challenging, especially when judged in the glass.

This quest is predicated on the proposition field-to-bottle whisky by sourcing local ingredients can create something rather special between place and product. Cereal grown in the vicinity of the distillery and the cultivation of heirloom or heritage varietals are obvious husbandry methods to establish a bond to provenance. It may also include on-site malting or foraging for strains of wild yeast as other pathways to imbue natural and local characteristics into the whisky. This back to basics approach is one of the reasons why millennials are attracted to the craft movement. Small is beautiful especially when it’s local, natural and promotes a new ethical philosophy. This is not a new story to spirits nor whisky.

Over time regions have shaped each country’s national whisky character and styles. Scotch whisky is recognised as being mainly malted barley with varying thresholds of peat, then matured in second or third use casks. Bourbon whisky is more than 51 per cent American corn and stored in new American charred white oak barrels. National whiskies like Scotch, Bourbon, Irish and Canadian are protected under GI since 1998, and a few regional whiskies have obtained trademark agreements such as Tennessee and Islay.

There is no doubt whisky has historically exhibited regional differences. Since the 19th century, some national whiskies have been given unofficial regional appellations by the trade to reflect different styles of whisky. In the late 19th century, blending British firms divided Scotland into five regions attributing general descriptions from heavily peated whiskies of Islay to varying flavour classifications based on regional aggregations where the distillery was situated, from the Highlands, Speyside, Campbeltown, to the Lowlands. In America, different grain and distilling methods saw over a dozen regional styles described before the Civil War, from Monongahela and Maryland ryes to Kentucky Bourbon to Robertson and Lincoln County whiskies in Tennessee. While production styles were not always clearly defined in each region, they usually exhibited some similarities in the flavour profile. However, identifying regional, let alone sub-regional characteristics in grain is more difficult, as they are affected by the subtlety of spatial agronomy, micro-climates and varietal breeds, let alone the more violent temperature transformations brought by malting and distillation. It’s also true if you planted a barley variety in your backyard, its chemistry would be unique in some small way. It will not address whisky imperatives such as the production viability, cost of goods, nor the ultimate requirement; its palatability.

At commercial scale, these grain experiments are underway, and many are available for purchase and tasting. Local and heirloom grains are evidence of this inquiry. In Scotland, the old heritage landraces of bere have been brought back in limited release malt whiskies. In Ireland, Waterford is also testing two barley varieties against different growing locations. With yeast, Glenmorangie’s recent Allta expression used endemic yeast from their field, to Leopold Brothers in Colorado allowing secondary fermentation with wild yeasts. In Japan, local mizunara oak adds endemic flavour, while in America, Westland uses garryana oak from Oregon, and Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak project undertook the most comprehensive study of white oak variables. Hundreds of experiments are investigating the impact of local sourcing and ingredients.

Australia’s whisky picnic

‘There’s no bush tucker here’ describes the absence of local ingredients in everyday culinary use at Australia’s table. It’s been described as one continuous picnic, where all the ingredients have been imported by modern immigrants. This is true of whisky too. Whether it is barley, corn, wheat or rye, the yeast strains or the species of northern hemisphere oak, all are non-indigenous products. But Australian does have a cornucopia of native foods and flavours, some with whisky potential. Whether northern hemisphere ingredients or indigenous to Australia, whisky’s formulation possibilities are endless in generating nuanced flavour differences. Add the potential of Australia’s untapped natural resources and exciting new vectors waits for exploration.

The major barrier in developing an Australian whisky versus a whisky made in Australia are the long timeframes for the R&D programs to domesticate and commercialise raw materials, test, and formulate flavour profiles that are scalable, cost-effective and most importantly, distinctively pleasing to the taste.

Poaceae cereals are the base ingredient for whisky. Australia is a carpet of native grasses and cereals from tropical sorghums, millets and other edible grains. The world’s oldest known grindstone, dated 60,000 years ago was discovered in the Northern Territory. More than a thousand species of grass, 25 per cent of the world’s grains are found in Australia. Jared Diamond hypothesised the rise of civilisations was due to the domestication of high protein cereals which allowed agricultural societies to develop: rice in Asia, corn on Meso-America, wheat, barley and other edible grains from the Middle East. Australia’s ancient grains have proven resilient to domestication and productive agricultural development.

Although some are incredibly high in protein; their low yield and harvesting problems, such shattering before maturity were barriers to their productivity. In the future, native grains may be commercialised; however, it could take decades for R&D to develop a cereal suitable for beverage consumption. Developing a distinctive and unique Australian whisky is a reason I returned to Australia to start a distillery, Starward. One candidate I had identified a decade ago we sourced from an experimental farm evaluating a hybrid native grain for livestock pasture improvement. After tests, the raw spirit proved decidedly unpalatable, and cost $1.5 million per tonne. Pursuit of an unpleasant $200,000 bottle meant some R&D can be a long, expensive and sometimes fruitless.

After grain, wood is an even more potent place to find flavour. Australian law does not specify oak for whisky maturation as historically some native woods were used in whisky making. The law states ‘wood containers’, so native wood, capacities and construction formats of the container is worthy of investigation. Australia has no oak species (Quercus), but there are many thousands of indigenous hardwoods. By the 1880s, after decades of experiments, whisky distillers and winemakers found some hardwoods suitable for maturation. A dozen species have proven successful for tight cooperage without excreting bitter tannins, being too porous, rigid or splitting when worked. After identifying and seasoning, many were used for casks and vats maturation until after the Second World War. The picnic mindset meant traditional oaks dominated wood programs with American oak and Memel (north Germany, Poland, Russia) the most popular, plus limited imports of Hungarian, French and even Japanese oak in the early 20th century. Imported bulk Scotch ‘empties’ were predominately American, Spanish, Memel and French oak. A Portuguese bodega in the late 1920s, coopered more than 300 port pipes from Australian blue gum cut from eucalypt forests planted in Spain during the 1880s. They reported ‘perfect satisfaction’ with the port and the wood. For over a hundred years no R&D program has looked into local hardwood for cask maturation, so another promising avenue awaits.

Wood is not only for storage and maturation; wood can also be for filtration and additional flavouring. Bundaberg Red rum trickles their rum through charcoal made from Riverina red gums. Similar to Tennessee whisky it sweetens and polishes the rum by stripping out some oils and congeners. A few small distillers have experimented with the local peats of which Australia has an abundance. Some built small kilns to smoulder iron bark and other hardwoods; even sheep faeces have been smoked to impregnate grains with localised phenolic and savoury notes. Whether any of the experiments will open promising new flavour directions that consumers will embrace, only time may tell.

Australian distillers use a wide variety of commercial yeasts, usually beer and whisky strains with some wine yeasts in the mix. It’s the local craft brewers where the pioneering efforts in yeast are figuratively mushrooming. Across the country, they are foraging the bush to wrangle wild yeasts from flowers and fruit, or allowing wild yeast and bacteria to make estate beers and wild ales.

Future R&D and investment in local ingredients may lead to new flavour vectors resulting in appetising new whiskies styles. Such provincial inspiration has already provided the impetus to many Australian craft gins to compound native botanicals. More than 100 gins use traditional juniper based recipes with local flora to create a flavour point of difference and to give their brands a connection to place. The picnic table could see local tucker join the menu and make Australian whisky a more interesting place.

The state of the Australian whisky nation

The Australian whisky industry is riding on the worldwide whisky tide. While it is a young and diverse industry, it uses a variety of grains, small still formats and different wood programs.

Distilleries: More than 250 distilleries in Australia, of which 100 distil whisky.

Production: No official data is collected, audits based on capacity, portfolio and intel is around 2 million LPA, almost doubling every year.

Grains: The dominant grain is malted barley, followed by rye, corn and wheat. Most of the barley are Australian varieties. Imports from Scotland are usually limited to making a few peated expressions. Australia has the oldest and most active barley R&D program since 1900, field testing dozens of hybrids as strains exhaust or need to adapt to the effects of global warming and advancing specifications.

Wood programs: With no limitation, cask sizes vary, nano–distillers prefer smaller capacities (50, 100, 200L), others use Bourbon barrels (200L), barriques (225L) and wine hogsheads (300L), most malt whiskies use second fill Bourbon, fortified wines, wine casks and new oak.

Still fabricators: Eight engineering firms and coppersmiths make traditional pot stills, pot with rectifying columns and columns stills.

Craft services: Supporting or forming part of the industry are specialist suppliers like maltsters, coopers, distributors, independent bottlers, craft retailers and whisky shows.

Major trends

1] Blended whisky: Continuous column-distilled grain whisky blended with malt whisky is returning after a forty-year absence. In New South Wales, an ethanol grain distillery produces over 100 million LPAs from wheat with selected fractionated cuts deployed to the gin and whisky sectors. Micro-distilleries are refitting old brandy columns for grain distillation, such as Ostra at Robindale in the Riverina, while foreign liquor companies are assessing start-ups to exploit Asian export opportunities by capitalising on Australia’s resources.

2] Wood programs: As many as 15,000 casks were filled last year. Most are small in capacity. Ex-Bourbon barrels are the most popular, along with a demand for Australian red wine casks. The once popular fortified casks of apera (sherry) and tawny (port) are less than one per cent of wood inventory. Fewer than a thousand casks are dumped each year as demand for apera vanishes. Significant volumes of imported virgin oak barrels are for rye, American style corn-based whiskies and some malts.

3] Expansion: Demand for whisky continues to ride the wave, with significant investment by the larger distilleries ramping-up production.

Starward will double capacity again in 2019. Archie Rose will also commission their new Sydney distillery site. Great Southern has three distilleries in Western Australia, while Australian Whisky Holdings are adding capacity to Nant.

Along with a new Riverina Distillery and rumours of other international liquor companies accessing new production in Australia these distilleries, including Hellyers Road and Sullivans Cove, dominate production and sales. Output in 2022 may reach 10 million LPA per annum. Production expansion necessitates export markets to survive, as the domestic market shrinks in volume and the space for super-premium priced brands. The largest brands, Hellyers Road and Starward, will soon have more case sales in export.