Whisky Distilleries of Australia
When you think of the land ‘Down Under’ you likely think kangaroos, kiwis, deserts, beautiful landscapes and forest fires, Aborigines, rugby and, unfortunately Fosters. You almost certainly don’t think about whisky but Australia has a booming whisky industry the overall quality of which is making the world take notice. Lark, Sullivan’s Cove and Bakery Hill are all worth mentioning as are Starward.
Australian single malt is something of a shooting star in the whisky sky in recent years. Starting from the Australian island of Tasmania, Australia is currently becoming one of the most renowned whisky nations in the world. In 2014, the Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask was voted “World’s Best Single Malt” at the World Whiskies Awards beating the Scotland, Ireland and Japan. Since then the whisky world has Australia and Tasmania on its radar. Far from being a one hit wonder Sullivan’s Cove 2019 placed again for the same title.
To date, no other single malt has succeeded in doing this. The continent of marsupials is up and coming and already offers a proud selection of distilleries and bottlings, some of which are noticibly experimental. In theory Australia already had considerable whisky production on paper by the 19th century but the modern whisky industry in Australia is actually only 30 years old making its ascent to the Olympus of whisky all the more impressive.
Lark and the modern Australian whisky era
During a fishing trip to Tasmania in the 1980s Bill Lark of the eponymous Lark Distillery chanced upon the realisation that the conditions in Tasmania were ideal for whisky making. Upon applying for a distilling licence Bill and his wife Lyn were shocked to discover that the 1901 Distillation Act prohibited a licence being granted to anyone with a wash still smaller than 2,700 litres. This was considerably larger than the small 20 litre still they been planning to use. Thankfully for the rest of us the Larks lobbied their local parliamentary member to have the law amended paving the way for Australia’s whisky renaissance. Lark Distillery was then founded in 1992.
What is Australian whisky like?
Australian whisky is based on the single malt Scotch whisky style when it comes to quality standards and production methods, though it’s worth noting that peat is not as much of a focus nor as pronounced in Australian whisky. However, there are a number of Australian peated single malts, some are even produced using local peat. Australian whiskies are not merely scotch copies however, while they may follow the high manufacturing standards their whiskies have their own, sometimes exotic, flavor profiles. The diversity of Australian whiskies makes it difficult to attribute a uniform style to the country. The differences between the individual distilleries and even the country’s climate zones are simply too great even in the south where the distilleries are clustered.
It’s also worth noting that purely technical terms, Australian distilleries often take a purist approach, bottling at cask strength, often even bottling from individual barrels, not chill-filtered and without the addition of artificial colors. Smoke aromas can be found in Tasmanian whiskies in particular, as their malt is often kilned over the smoke of peat from local quarries.
The Australian continent is extremely diverse in terms of climate. In the north there is a tropical climate, while the middle of the continent has large desert regions. The south, on the other hand, has a temperate climate by Australian standards. So purely from a climatic point of view, it is unsurprising that Australia’s distilleries have developed in the south of the country. Anyone who wants to make whisky needs water above all else. In the south, the higher levels of precipitation and the temperate climate offer favourable conditions for whisky production. Cask maturation likewise works better when the humidity is high and the temperature fluctuations are not too extreme.
Angels share, grain and experimentation
Whisky producing countries such as Taiwan and India have shown that the evaporation rate through the barrel wall can be 10-14%. Scotland, on the other hand has an Angels’ Share, the proportion lost to evaporation, of around 2% annually. Australia’s climate is more challenging for whisky producers. Heat waves and ground frost are not only a problem for agriculture, a more temperate climate is also easier on the wallet of a whisky producer.
Australia’s grain production is primarily geared towards beer. This means the grain varietals tends to produced with more focus on flavor rather than maximising alcohol yield. Although this is potentially problematic for Australian whisky distillers from a volume perspective, it may well serve the quality of the Australian whisky over the longer term.
Australia’s distillers are also experimenting with different yeasts, and fermentation times, a trend that the Scots slept through for too long and are now playing catch up on. All the major whisky manufacturers such as Lark, Sullivans Cove, Overreem, Hellyers Road and Starward distill on classic copper pot stills. For cask maturation the tried and tested bourbon barrel is common, however strong wines casks such as those producing Australian version of the sherry and port wine are also used. As Australia has blossomed into an important wine producer, there are great opportunities in the form of casks from the wine industry for maturation.
Eary history of Whisky making in Australia
There is no reliable record of the beginnings of Australian whisky. It is believed that the first whisky distillers were active in the late 19th century, illegally of course. The Kelly and Delaney families, who are said to have produced the first whiskies down under, were of Irish descent. The whiskies they produced were therefore spelled with an ‘e’ and believed to have followed the Irish style.
Australias official history began shortly after the introduction of the Victorian Distillation Act of 1862. The first large scale whisky distillery in the country was John Dunn’s Warrenheip distillery outside Ballarat which began production in 1863. It was joined by the Federal distillery, constructed in Port Melbourne in 1888 which was the third largest in the world at the time produced more than 1.1 million litres of spirit per year though exactly how much of this was whisky is unclear as the distillery also produced gin and brandy.
The Corio Distillery built in Geelong southwest of Melbourne in 1929 by the Distillers Company of Edinburgh (now known as Diageo). Corio Distillery was merged with Federal Distilleries company shortly after it opened in 1930. Corio distillery was closed during the whisky drought of the 1980s. Corio distillery produced the Blended Whisky Corio 5 Star which wom a number of national awards from competitions during this period, although contemporary witnesses cannot attest to the existence of serious competition. Maturation of Corio whiskies was set at least 5 years and the capacity of the distillery warehouses was enormous at around 5 million liters. For comparison Hellyersroad Whisky Distillery the largest of Australia’s new distillery now only produces 100,000 liters per year.
As distillation ended in the 1980s it’s incorrect to speak of a renaissance for Australian whisky, more accurately it should be considered a rebirth.