The early days of Australian Whisky

Five years ago the mainland had only five distilleries selling whisky (Limeburners in Albany, Smith’s Angaston in   Barossa Valley, Southern Coast in Adelaide, Bakery Hill Melbourne and Timboon coastal Victoria), with another whisky brand preparing for release (Victoria Valley Distillery in Melbourne). There were also two independent bottlers in Australia buying casks from distillers and marketing under private label (Heartwood malts and Cradle Mountain), though stocks of these whiskies are limited releases and are often unavailable.

Until the mid-1980s Australia had a major whisky distilling industry in Victoria. Melbourne had the three largest whisky distilleries in the southern hemisphere producing 200 million litres of whisky during the 20th century. This older Australian blended whisky style has been replaced by a generation of new malt whisky distillers. Besides being small, they are experimental in their production approaches to whisky making by trying to advance a distinctly Australian style. These new distillers often have scientific or winemaking backgrounds and are all about bringing new approaches refashioned for Australia’s varying climates and raw materials.

There are a number of bars in Sydney that are ‘bringing back the whisky’ with whisky sours, a cocktail with apple/lemon or lime juice, egg white, whisky and often a fruity garnish becoming incredibly popular.

The exciting fact is most of the whiskies exhibit a wide variety of flavour differences created by the differing maturation climates, different yeast cultures and fermentation protocols, different still designs, varying from French brandy stills to traditional whisky stills, to hybrid designs to differing cask sizes and wood programs. Five distilleries even make a peated whisky, a signature flavour of most Scotches. Lark in Hobart uses peat from local bogs, while Hellyers Road, Nant, Limeburners and Bakery Hill import peated grain from Scotland to make their whisky have a unique smoky flavour. Distillers all use local Australian barley varieties that are kilned to brewery specifications versus distiller’s malt used overseas; this preserves a more malty flavour.

The financial burden of small production makes artisanal Australian whisky, being slightly more expensive than those that are imported. Australian distillers have been experimenting with smaller barrels to accelerate flavour development, filling a portion of the inventory in 100 litres casks, compared to Scotland’s hogsheads (225 – 250 litres) and American standard 200 litre barrels. Mainland distilleries in Australia benefit from the hastening effect of hot dry climate maturation, compared to Scotland and Ireland’s damp cool and slower extraction periods. Climate and casks size are both maturation short cuts. Most distilleries use small casks also for cash flow necessity, speed to market which results in relatively young whiskies coming to market, usually three to six years old. These whiskies reveal a youthful brightness with malt rich spirit marrying with the extractive wood flavours. The older ten-year-old whiskies now appearing from Lark and Sullivans Cove show much more complexity and finish. Outstanding examples that point to a very promising and exciting future for Australian malt whisky.

What sets Australian whisky apart is the influence local wine casks have on the flavour. While ex-bourbon casks are popular with distillers, it is the Australian sherry; port and wine casks that are giving Australian whisky its flavour twist. Australia’s significant fortified wine industry gives distillers access to casks that are 40 to 100 years old. Lark is maturing whisky in 100-year-old Penfolds Para port casks, Victoria Valley sherry casks are over 50 years old. These casks are uniquely rich in residual flavours, unparalleled anywhere in the world in terms of age, far older than Spanish and Portuguese. Hellyers Road whisky is matured in Tasmania ex-pinot noir casks and ex-port casks are popular with many distillers, used by Lark, Sullivan’s Cove, Timboon, Southern Coast and Overeen for full maturation or for finishing after years in ex-bourbon barrels.

Production volumes are creeping up and retailers are starting to stock Australian whisky. Keep an eye out and when you do see an Australian label dig deep into your pocket and try a whisky that may have been made from the same malted barley as your favourite beer.

Tasting comment: Australian whisky displays too much diversity to offer guidance on a national profile. The ten distilleries produce whiskies from rich and flavoursome to light & fruity, and with distilleries also producing a portfolio of expressions, peated to differing cask woods, which will vary from cask to cask.

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