I received an angry email from a reader last week. It was about this recent whisky review and how ‘ridiculously expensive’ (his words) the whiskies in the article were. He pointed out that the average price per bottle was around $280, and considering they were all 500ml, he couldn’t understand how the hell people were buying them. He said that all Australian whisky was overpriced. He’d like to buy some, but he rarely spent more than $100 on a bottle, maybe $150 at a stretch.
Now, there were some nasty words used in the email, and I don’t agree with this gent’s assessment of the Australian industry. But I have some sympathy for his plight. I’ll even let you in on a little secret (but don’t tell anyone): I rarely spend more than $100 on a bottle of whisky as well (phew, finally said it).
The reason? I’ve been a bartender and writer for most of my adult life, professions that don’t necessarily correlate with expensive whisky purchases. My partner would also push me the down stairs if I regularly spent $150+ on a bottle of whisky.
I’ve been able to taste hundreds of Australian whiskies and a few thousand international ones over the journey because of said professions. But that doesn’t help out my concerned correspondent and all the exasperated folk out there mashing their keyboards shouting ‘Why is Australian whisky so expensive?’
Industry data suggests that most Australians only infrequently purchase whisky over $80-90 (see our previous post on Australian whiskies under $90 for those). But most Australian whiskies, particularly malts, sit in the $120-$250 bracket, and some punters are frustrated that there isn’t an Aussie Glen Moray for them to trundle home with from their local.
Why is it so? Most Australian whisky distilleries are small-scale enterprises. They aren’t designed to produce big volumes of spirit like many large overseas distilleries. The overwhelming majority of the 60-odd Australian producers that have released whisky are also owned by small, independent businesses.
Alternatively, four or five massive conglomerates own over three-quarters of Scotch and only a dozen companies own most of the Bourbon on our shelves. As a result, the big Scotch and Bourbon makers are able to competitively price their whiskies thanks to revenue generated by other arms of their businesses and by being very efficient in the way they manufacture whisky. Those factors, plus unfavourable excise conditions here, mean Australian whiskies will continue to be a bit pricier than their international competitors into the future.
I’ve no doubt as the Australian industry grows that prices will come down, particularly as bigger players enter the market and take advantage of economies of scale. The modern Australian whisky industry is still young, and they’re competing against distilleries that have been at it for over 200 years in some cases. So give them a break! Whisky takes time. Be patient my friends.
Australian producers are, however, awake to the discrepancy, which brings us to the whole point of this clickbaity listicle. As you’ll find out below, more sharply-priced Australian malt whiskies are now coming online around the $90-130 mark – an exciting trend, considering the quality on offer and the fact that similar independently-owned Scottish malts like Kilchoman, Arran, Wolfburn and Daftmill sit in the same price bracket.
In this list, you won’t see a few quality Australian malts because I’ve kept the selection to 700ml bottles (except for Corowa Characters, because it’s significantly cheaper). A lot of us would prefer Australian whisky to come in 700ml bottles, as is standard overseas (750ml in the U.S.). But Australian producers use 500ml bottles for all sorts of reasons, often to give more consumers a chance to taste limited releases, and I don’t begrudge them that decision.
Anyhow, enough waffle. Time to get listing.
Limeburners Single Malt Whisky, American Oak, Port Cask, Sherry Cask 46% 700ml ($144) – Albany, WA
Limeburners single malts don’t receive they attention they deserve. Well-priced, distinctive – that maritime, beeswax character is a consistent feature – and the core range is now well-defined and drinking better all the time. Get to know these three and then explore their incredible single cask and peated releases, which, for pure complexity, are up there with some of the very best malt whiskies around.
5Nines Single Malt Whisky Vatted-Lightly Peated 44.2% 700ml ($120) – Adelaide, SA
A very new entrant to the Australian malt whisky scene – the first 5Nines single malts were only released last week. This bottling will be 5Nines flagship expression, although it may vary batch to batch depending on which casks are used. It packs plenty of flavour thanks to the influence of South Australian peat, which was used to lightly smoke the barley, similar to the Lark Distillery method. The 5Nines team will also be releasing a number of fascinating single cask malts over the next few years from South Aussie wine barrels, so stay tuned.
Chief’s Son Single Malt Whisky The Tanist 43% 700ml ($115) – Somerville, VIC
Another new release, this time from Naomi and Stuart McIntosh’s Chief’s Son Distillery in Mornington Peninsula. The Tanist hit retail shelves last month, and is aimed specifically at those bemoaning the high price of Australian whisky. Designed to appeal equally to newbies and seasoned whisky lovers, the whisky’s matured in ex-Bourbon casks to sweeten things up, while Aussie fortified casks and a smidge of peated malt inject further depth and intrigue. It’s a great introduction to the Chief’s Son range, where different specialty malts, cask types and distilling regimes capture all sorts of flavours and styles.
Hellyers Road Single Malt Whisky 10, 12 and 15 Year Olds 700ml ($98-149) – Burnie, TAS
Hellyers Road has been egregiously overlooked in Australia. A few hiccups in their early years meant that many wrote-off this pioneering Tassie distillery, and now that the world’s most respected international whisky critics are scoring Hellyers up there with the best in the business, hopefully we’ll start to wake up to how good this stuff is. The Hellyers core range is in a league of its own here, offering multiple age statement whiskies all under $150 – a fair achievement. The 15 year old is pound for pound one of the best Australian whiskies on the market, and some of their single cask bottlings, particularly the heavily peated malts, are stonkingly good.
Loch Single Malt Whisky 49.5% 700ml ($149) – Loch, VIC
This complex malt hails from one of the country’s most humble, forward-thinking distilleries. Loch’s ales, whiskies and gins have won Melinda and Craig Davies, the husband-and-wife duo behind the brewery and distillery, a legion of devoted fans. They’ve just put out their eleventh whisky release, and it’s notable for our story here that Loch switched from 500ml to 700ml bottles in the last twelve months, and now retail their unique malts for $149 a throw. Great value in the Aussie context, and if you haven’t tried a Loch ale next to their single malts, then you’re seriously letting the team down.
Starward Nova, Solera and Fortis 700ml ($96-129) – Melbourne, VIC
For affordable, flavourful, uniquely Australian malt whisky, Starward’s the benchmark. They’re currently blazing a trail for Australian whisky on the international stage, and the recent release of Starward Fortis has further cemented their spot at the top of the pyramid. Fruit-forward, wine-cask influenced, and generally lighter-bodied than most of Australia’s malt and cask-driven whiskies, Starward attracts all sorts of attention from whisky fans, most of it positive, some of it unhinged. Forget the noise, try the whiskies, decide for yourself. Your wallet will thank you later.
23rd Street Distillery Single Malt Whisky 700ml ($149) – Renmark, SA
I was at the launch of the 23rd Distillery in 2016, and I’ve closely followed the distillery’s progress since, as they’ve released a number of brandies, gins and, since 2019, this tasty single malt whisky (review here). Like Starward, this is on the fruitier end of the spectrum, but it differs from Starward, and most Australian malt whiskies, in that it’s not oak-driven, being solely matured in refill ex-Bourbon casks. It’s more akin to a classic Speyside malt, so if that’s your jam, this is worth a look.
Corowa Characters Single Malt Whisky 500ml ($95-99) – Corowa, NSW
This is a cracking red wine cask matured number from the popular crew at Corowa Distilling Co – a must visit if you’re ever in the area. The wine casks, ex-shiraz, hail from Rutherglen and the Barossa, and the Corowa team have done a great job at ensuring those casks don’t leach too much tannin and juice into the spirit. Great value even at 500ml (review here), and once you’ve knocked this off, there’s a whole other world of Corowa single cask and limited bottlings to explore.
Adams Single Malt Whisky Original, Bourbon Cask 47.2% 700ml ($150-155) – Perth, TAS
They’re an ambitious lot at Adams Distillery, and their single malts, which were first released in 2018, are quietly accumulating fans and devotees. These are bold, full-flavoured Tassie whiskies, where specialty malts add weight, viscosity and a hint of smoke, and maturation in different casks – Bourbon, tawny, apera and red wine – has created some fascinating whiskies. I love this Bourbon cask release – it gives you a clear look at that complex Adams spirit. Yes, Adams whiskies are often at or just over $150, but Tassie was going to be poorly represented here without their inclusion.
Archie Rose Single Malt Whisky 46% 700ml ($119) – Sydney, NSW
Archie Rose’s new single malt was one of the biggest Australian whisky releases of 2020. The Sydney distillery’s rye malt whisky had already taken out ‘world’s best rye’ at a major international competition. So expectations were high when the single malt was released, and it doesn’t disappoint. The signature chocolatey, cocoa character comes from the unique six malt mash bill. Top that with maturation in ex-apera, Bourbon and Archie Rose’s own ex-rye whisky casks, and this a delicious experience. Fascinating to see just how influential this whisky becomes over the next few years.