Like many Australians, I have a complicated love affair with American whiskey. Growing up, and especially bartending here, my first recollections of hearing the word ‘Bourbon’ where immediately followed by another famed American invention – ‘Coke’.
The infamous ubiquity of Bourbon and cola RTD cans, and the peculiar popularity of Jack and Jim, has turned Australia into one of the most crucial export markets for American whiskey in the world. But thankfully, for a number of years now, we’ve steadily been waking up to the serious depth and complexity American whiskey has to offer.
We’ve even taken the love affair a step further, with Australian distillers producing their own riffs on American Bourbon and rye for a new generation of whisky lovers to enjoy.
Tiger Snake Whiskey, Albany; Whipper Snapper Distillery, Perth
Origins of Australian corn and rye whisky
Both American rye and Bourbon whiskey have been arriving on Australian shores since at least as far back as the 1840s. And although rye and corn have been used to make whisky here for well over 150 years, the production of traditional American Bourbon and rye styles is a more recent phenomenon.
Western Australia is most responsible for the corn whisky charge Down Under. All of the grains for making American whiskey grow successfully in the West, and the pioneering Californian-born Spike Dessert was the first distiller to take advantage of this up in the Kimberley. Spike started producing his Raymond B 100% Corn Whiskey in the late 1990s, but decided to stick with rum not long after, a wise choice.
Peter Bignell, Belgrove Distillery. Photo – Samuel Shelley
Cameron Syme, a long-time American whiskey fan, then took over from Spike Dessert in the West, distilling corn and rye down in Albany next to his successful Limeburners single malts. Great Southern’s Tiger Snake Distillery is now dedicated to these styles.
Alasdair Malloch and James McKeown, who founded Perth’s Whipper Snapper Distillery in 2013, were the next brave souls to jump on the American whiskey train. Whipper Snapper’s Upshot, fashioned on a wheated Bourbon, was first released in 2016, and the team have since released a plethora of award-winning American-style whiskies for fans to savour.
Further south in Margaret River, The Grove Distillery has been making Bourbon-style corn whisky for almost a decade, while on the other side of the country in Far North Queensland, Wild River Mountain Distillery are creating their own interpretation with corn and barley.
Rye around Australia
More recently, Aussie rye makers have swaggered in and dropped confident, cereal-forward rye whiskies that are big on flavour, big on complexity, and bring their own unique spin to the style.
Sydney’s vaunted Archie Rose Distilling Co. are now recognised as one of Australia’s, and the world’s, top rye whisky producers, first releasing their Archie Rose Rye Malt and Chocolate Rye Malt in 2019.
In Melbourne, The Gospel Distillers, another inner-city distillery, unveiled their own take on American rye around the same time. And further north in the Victorian High Country, Leigh and Bree Attwood of Backwoods Distilling Co. were inspired by Tasmania’s master of rye, Peter Bignell, to produce their own distinctively Australian rye whisky.
The Gospel Distillers; Backwoods Distilling Co
‘Whisky’ v ‘Whiskey’ – why the difference?
In Australia, ‘whisky’ is the accepted spelling and has been since the 1800s. But when you see Australian distillers adopting ‘whiskey’, that’s often a statement on the style a producer has been most influenced and inspired by (American whiskey, Irish whiskey, Scottish whisky). However, like the rest of the world, this is not a blanket rule, and producers frequently use different spellings for different reasons.
Some of those reasons are on show in the selection below, which introduces you to the variety and quality of Australian rye and corn whisky being produced today.
10 of the best
Australian rye whiskies
(North American/World equivalents: Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky, New Riff Bottled in Bond Rye, Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whisky, Alberta Premium Canadian Rye Whisky, Zuidam Distillers Millstone 100 Rye Whisky)
1. The Gospel Straight Rye Whiskey ($95-$140)
Since re-launching in 2020 at their Brunswick site in Melbourne, The Gospel’s 100% rye whiskies have found a devoted audience, and are even now being exported to the United States. Compared to other Australian distillers in this space, their method is much closer to an American style, owing to their use of unmalted rye and maturing their spirit in charred virgin American oak casks. Look out for The Gospel Solera, an affordable rye option great for mixing, and especially for their limited ‘Projects’ and single cask bottlings, which, I guarantee you, are among the highest quality value for money whiskies being produced in Australia right now.
2. Archie Rose Rye Malt Whisky ($120-$250)
Archie Rose are rightfully recognised for producing some of the world’s best rye whisky after taking out World’s Best Rye Whiskey at the World Whiskies Awards in 2021. Accolades aside, the broader rye whisky project at Archie Rose is both daring and mammoth. Their relationship with Voyager Craft Malt has allowed them to use some incredible heritage rye varieties to bring the flavour of the farm right to your glass. And beyond their signature Rye Malt Whisky, which is one of Australia’s best whiskies across any style or category, Archie Rose release a suite of limited and experimental bottlings which are pushing the boundaries of where rye whisky can go.
3. Belgrove Rye Whisky ($129-$190)
Ice and sand sculptor, inventor, agricultural scientist, farmer, distiller – these are just a few of the titles on Renaissance man Peter Bignell’s remarkable resume. Peter is the founder and sole creative force behind Belgrove Distillery, the one-of-a-kind operation located on his farm north of Hobart in Tasmania. You run out of superlatives trying to capture Peter’s achievements with Belgrove. But try his dense, earthy paddock-to-bottle 100% rye whiskies, from the flagship Rye Whisky to the Peated Rye, to the various single casks or even the bonkers Wholly Shit Rye Whisky, and you’ll get a taste of why this Tasmanian icon is so revered.
4. Backwoods Distilling Co. Rye Whisky ($135-$195)
Located in the small town of Yackandandah in Victoria’s High Country, Backwoods Distilling Co. has rapidly emerged as a rising star of the Australian whisky scene. Founders Leigh and Bree Attwood produce both rye and single malt, with the core range rye whisky employing a unique mash bill of 60% heritage rye, 25% pale malt, 10% wheat and 5% chocolate malt to create a rich and earthy experience. Maturation occurs in a variety of ex-wine and whisky casks (the latter hailing from Perth’s Whipper Snapper Distillery, which is awesome). And give their Red Gum Rye Whisky a try – it’s one of the top examples of an Australian native wood matured whisky.
5. Tiger Snake Rye of the Tiger Australian Whisky ($165-$229)
Visit Albany, three hours south east of Perth, and you’ll find Great Southern Distilling Company, makers of Limeburners single malt and the American-style Tiger Snake Whiskey. Cameron Syme, Great Southern’s founder, has been ramping up production of rye and corn whisky at their larger Tiger Snake Distillery 30 minutes north in Porongurup, and his Rye of the Tiger is a nod to the Pennsylvanian rye whiskies of old. It’s made from 60% rye and 40% pale malt, matured in a combination of new and used American oak casks, the latter making it less cask forward and more spirit-driven. At 55% ABV, it’s not one to be messed with (like the snake). But jump up to the Rye of the Tiger Cask Strength (64% ABV) if you’re feeling particularly bold.
Australian corn whiskies / Bourbon-style
(American/World equivalents: Maker’s Mark Straight Bourbon Whisky, Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Redemption Wheated Bourbon, Bains Cape Mountain Whisky)
6. Upshot Australian Whiskey ($105-$155)
Alasdair Malloch and James McKeown, who founded Perth’s Whipper Snapper Distillery in 2013, were among the earliest brigade of Australian distillers to solely focus on Bourbon-style whiskey. Their Upshot Whiskey was first released in 2016, and starts with a mash bill of 80% corn, 10% malt and 10% wheat, and thanks to maturation in virgin American oak casks, Bourbon fans will find plenty to like here. Their Upshot Cask Strength expression is one of my favourite Australian whiskies on the market, and one of our best in terms of bang for buck. They also produce the brilliant Upshot Wheat Whiskey, and rumour has it that a Whipper Snapper rye might be coming soon as well.
7. Ned Australian Whisky Sour Mash ($55-$120)
The first we saw of Ned Whisky came in the form of their popular RTD whisky and cola cans in 2015. Ned’s ASX-listed owner Top Shelf then released its own proper Ned Whisky bottle in late 2019. At $55-60 retail, it’s one of the most affordable Australian whiskies on the market, and Ned has since morphed into a sour mash style whisky, with a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% wheat and 10% barley (similar to Maker’s Mark) and maturation occurring in predominately new American oak casks. Be sure to check out some of their single barrel and limited edition bottlings, where ex-wine, cognac and even ex-agave spirit casks have been used to add an extra dimension to the core range sour mash whisky.
8. Tiger Snake Whiskey ($140-$265) / Dugite Whiskey ($99)
The corn side of the Tiger Snake Whiskey equation has won over a legion of fans since first being launched in 2012 (there’s even a song about it!). It’s distilled in pot stills from a mash bill of corn, rye, malted barley and occasionally triticale (a wheat-rye hybrid), all sourced from Western Australia. It’s a surprisingly herbal, savoury and spicy drop, thanks to maturation in both new American oak and ex-Bourbon casks, the latter allowing the spirit to shine. And don’t forget Great Southern’s Dugite Whiskey, Tiger Snake’s more affordable offering, where a majority-corn mixed grain whisky is married with single malt to produce an easy sipping blend.
9. Nonesuch Triple Grain Whisky ($253)
Nonesuch Distillery in Tasmania produce some fantastic gin, single malt, and since 2019, Bourbon-style grain whisky. Distiller Chris Burdon mashes together his own take on American’s signature spirit with a proprietary blend of corn, rye and barley. Distilled through Nonesuch’s pot stills and matured in smaller 20, 50 and 100 litre casks, it’s a creamy, peppery offering, and one of the only examples of its type from Tassie. For those seeking some sherry cask goodness in their lives, look out for their recently released Triple Grain PX Sherry Cask.
10. The Grove Corn Mash Whiskey ($78)
The Grove Distillery was a winery before evolving into one of Margaret River’s first distilling ventures around a decade ago. For mine, their Bourbon-style sour mash whiskies have been some of their most consistent and impressive offerings. Distilled from a fairly traditional mash bill of 70% corn, 20% rye and 10% barley, the spirit is then matured in 50 litre virgin American oak casks which bring on plenty of vanillin, raspberry and Big Red Gum flavours. It’s great in classic cocktails, especially Manhattans and Boulevardiers, and try the Distillers Cut for something a little more serious.
Other Australian rye and corn whiskies to explore: Wild River Mountain Australian Whisky, Ord Valley Corn & Sorghum Whiskey, Riverbourne Betrayal Wild Rye Whisky.