Production

Malt matters: Australian distillers are focusing on whisky’s core ingredient

Speciality malts are reshaping the Australian whisky landscape
By Luke McCarthy
Harvest time for Archie Rose Distillery
Harvest time for Archie Rose Distillery
Cask-led flavours have largely dominated Australian whisky’s reinvention over the last 30 years. Looking at whisky from any of the 80-odd Australian distilleries currently releasing single malt, rye, corn and grain whisky, it’s clear that casks previously containing Australian tawny (a fortified wine similar in style to port), apera (a fortified wine similar in style to sherry) and various red and white wine styles will, for the most part, be loud and forward. In recent times, however, some Australian distillers have started to refocus their approach to better express whisky’s fundamental ingredient: grain.

At Whitton Malt House, six hours’ drive west of Sydney in the northern Riverina, the seeds of this new movement are growing. Whitton is a state-of-the-art maltings located in one of the country’s most productive agriculture regions. It came online last year and aims to revolutionise the way distillers and brewers select grains.

The site is much more than just a malting facility, boasting a restaurant, café, adventure park and accommodation villas. Of course, there’s also the all-important whisky bar, where visitors can find out where the Australian whiskies on pour started their journey – as grain grown on surrounding farms.
The Voyager Craft Malt team walk the fields at Whitton Farm

The project was instigated by Voyager Craft Malt, a boutique malting firm started in 2014 by childhood friends Stu Whytcross and Brad Woolner. The pair grew up in the region, and both hail from grain-growing families that have been farming locally for generations.

Initially, they set out to open a brewery in their local town of Barellan, not far from Whitton, but quickly became frustrated when they couldn’t source specialty malts and grains. Plans for the brewery were shelved and they decided to malt grain instead.

Once the duo got Voyager up and running, orders flooded in from brewers and distillers around Australia. An annual production of 50 tonnes of specialty malts rapidly progressed to several thousand. The company needed a new site and fast. A search for the most sustainable way forward led them to a nearby biochar facility operated by Southern Cotton, and a partnership between the two businesses was struck.
Checking the crop

Voyager’s new maltings would be built next to Southern Cotton to utilise their gin trash – a waste product that can be turned into fertiliser for grain crops – and harness the heat generated by the plant to kiln Voyager’s malts. It was an ingenious solution; thus, the Whitton Malt House was born.

“We wanted to educate consumers and show them that wine, beer and whisky are agricultural products – they start in the ground,” says Whytcross. “We felt the best way to do that was to design a facility that enabled people to enjoy the finished beers, whiskies, breads, etc., in an environment where they could walk through the paddocks, touch and feel the grains, and experience the malting process – to smell the biscuit malt as it hits the cooling tray.”

Whisky producers are given an even deeper insight into the malts and grains Voyager supplies. Traceability is one of the core tenets of the project, with the different malts processed at the facility remaining in separate streams. After harvest, each individual paddock of grain is stored in segregated silos ranging from 10 to 800 tonnes in capacity. Customised software then compiles the growing, farming and malting data into a specification sheet for the distiller. QR codes are also made available for each batch or bag of malt, so that the producer and, eventually, the consumer can see who grew the grain and which paddock it came from.
Aerial view of the Whitton Farm site showing Voyager Craft Malt and Southern Cotton

“It offers distillers two things: a connection to the farmer, their land and their story, and a highly unique expression of provenance and terroir. Essentially, distillers can control and dictate the variety, the farming practice and the malt style, which is something we’re really proud of,” says Whytcross, adding that there are also some advantages from a processing point of view. “Grain that’s been harvested from a single site is much easier to malt. It all behaves in a consistent, uniform way, which enables us to get the distiller as much extract as possible from the grain. We’re often working with older heirloom varieties that are naturally lower in yield, so it’s important that we’re maximising everything that’s available.”

Several Australian whisky producers including Backwoods, Corowa, Riverbourne and Kinglake are taking full advantage of Voyager’s approach, but it’s Voyager’s relationship with the Sydney-based Archie Rose Distilling Co. that has transformed both businesses.

The rye and single malt whiskies Archie Rose produces use numerous grains supplied by Voyager. Spirit data is available on the distiller’s website for every bottle of whisky released: detailed information on the grain and malt type, its treatment, its variety and where it was grown is just a click away.
Archie Rose founder Will Edwards and master distiller Dave Withers in the still room

“The idea is that each malt has a unique flavour and story,” says Archie Rose master distiller Dave Withers. Following the successful launch of Archie Rose Rye Malt, the distillery’s first single malt was released in August 2020. It was made from a mash of six different malts, similar to Westland Distillery’s approach in the United States. Though already employing unusually complex mash bills, Archie Rose has more elaborate plans on the horizon. Its new Banksmeadow site, set to become one of Australia’s largest whisky distilleries, was unveiled late last year, and with it came the unveiling of the brand’s updated ‘six-malt approach’.

“We want to respect the grain and the year that it’s taken to grow and be harvested,” Withers explains. “So, for the six-malt approach at Banksmeadow, we mill, brew, ferment, distil and mature each malt completely separately. Each malt has its own brewing recipe, yeast strain and method for distillation. The whole process is customised to the malt, and that allows us to dial in to the specific flavour profile of that malt and let it shine.”

The blending team is then tasked with marrying these various malts to create the finished whisky. Archie Rose has gone so far as to patent this ‘individual malt stream’ process as a globally unique method of whisky production. However, the validity of the patent is currently being challenged by Cameron Syme, founder of the Limeburners and Tiger Snake whisky brands in Western Australia. Syme argues that the method is commonplace in Australia and other parts of the world, pointing out that several distillers practised similar methods before the patent was first initiated in 2018. Whatever the outcome, the situation shows that malt and how it’s used matters deeply to Australian whisky distillers.
One of Archie Rose’s fields

Archie Rose has marched on despite the disagreement. The company is currently experimenting with a wide array of ancient grain varieties, some of which Voyager has resurrected from the Australian Grains Genebank, home to over 900 different crop species from Australia and abroad. Native wood-smoked malts are also being explored, and Archie Rose is now trialling what could be a gamechanger for the Australian whisky industry: the use of native grains.

The first Australian native-grain whiskies were produced by Adelaide Hills distiller Sacha La Forgia at his 78 Degrees Distillery. La Forgia’s project dates back to 2016, when he started experimenting with a range of different endemic Australian grains for whisky making. “It started with the fact that, if I was going to make whisky, I didn’t want to replicate Scotch,” La Forgia says. “My thinking was, if whisky had been made in Australia first, what would it be made with and how would it taste?”

La Forgia started contacting farmers, growers and suppliers to see what was out there. He trialled native plants like kangaroo grass and spinifex, but the results were unviable. Local wattleseed was then found to work brilliantly, like a speciality malt, when mashed with barley, so La Forgia laid down casks of spirit infused with the expensive seed.
Adelaide Hills Distillery’s Native Grain Whiskey

In 2019, he released Native Grain Whiskey Wattleseed to wide acclaim – but then he hit another roadblock. La Forgia was told that wattleseed isn’t a cereal grain and was cautioned against using it by the Australian Distillers Association, as any spirit produced using it would be a non-compliant whisky under Australian law.

Undaunted by this unfortunate setback, La Forgia switched to his next best candidate: “Weeping grass is what we use now. It’s a perennial grass – it grows all over the place and crops three times a year, which makes it much more sustainable than traditional grain farming.”
Checking the malting process for Archie Rose

Only small portions of weeping grass are needed to add what La Forgia describes as a hint of smoke, salted caramel and gingery spice, similar to those flavours found in some rye whiskies. Native Grain Whiskey Weeping Grass was released for World Whisky Day in 2020, and it went on to receive some significant awards – including Best Australian Grain at the World Whiskies Awards 2021. This success emboldened La Forgia to push the project further.

“It’s my very strong belief that this is the way forward for Australian whisky,” he declares. “We’re so lucky to have access to these unique grains and flavours in Australia – raw materials that the rest of the world can’t access. The whisky boom isn’t just happening here, it’s happening globally, so there’s no reason for the whole world to make the same thing.”