Australian whisky means malt whisky. It’s distilled in pot stills. It’s matured in fortified wine casks. And it’s made from one goddamn grain. Got it?
For the longest time, it almost felt like this kind of distilling dogma was drummed into new Australian whisky producers. Single malt made in the Scottish style has dominated Australian whisky over the last 25 years. It’s not a recent phenomenon, either. Look back through the history of whisky distilling in this country pre-1990s and you find we’ve predominately followed a Scottish or Irish textbook, even though we were ahead of both industries at certain crucial junctures.
Of course, there are outliers, the most remarkable being Peter Bignell and his crazy paddock-to-bottle rye whisky. But Pete seemed so outside the paradigm, his methods and philosophy so unique, that his adaptation of American whiskey styles could easily be written off as a rare departure from the malt whisky gospel.
But then other distillers started to quietly emerge, recognising that Australians drink veritable shiteloads of Bourbon (albeit, mainly in a can). They thought, surely there’s room for a widely available Australian corn or rye whisky?
Alasdair Malloch and James McKeown, who founded Perth’s Whipper Snapper Distillery in 2013, were two of the first brave souls to give this idea a crack.
‘It was definitely easier for us, because we weren’t from Tassie or the East Coast, to go after a style we liked and that we knew Australians loved to drink,’ says McKeown. Whipper Snapper’s Upshot, an Australian whisky fashioned on Bourbon, was first released in 2016. It starts with a mash bill of 80% corn, 10% malt and 10% wheat, and is then fully matured in virgin American oak casks.
‘When I started’, says McKeown, ‘I was working with Tom Cooper at Colorado Gold Distillery, and there really wasn’t much Australian whisky on the market then, and hardly anything in an American style. The way the craft movement was going over there, there were quite a few brands and distilleries that were doing some innovative stuff, focusing on different grain profiles, and a lot of that inspired our Upshot whiskey.’
It was definitely easier for us, because we weren’t from Tassie or the East Coast, to go after a style we liked and that we knew Australians loved to drink.
– James McKeown
Head to Albany, three hours south east of Perth, and you’ll find the Great Southern Distilling Company, makers of Limeburners single malt. Cameron Syme, Great Southern’s founder, was influenced by Tasmania’s malt whisky producers when he first created Limeburners. But he’s now intent on ramping up production of corn and rye whisky, and the company has moved into a large distillery in Porongorup to concentrate on their two American-style offerings: Tiger Snake, a riff on Bourbon, and Rye of the Tiger, a nod to Pennsylvanian rye whiskey.
‘I started my whisky journey on Bourbon,’ says Syme. ‘Like a lot of young Australians, your introduction is Jim or Jack, so it was inevitable that I was keen to make those styles. We’ve got all the grains here in Western Australia: corn up north, and wheat and barley down south. Australia’s also one of the largest markets for Bourbon outside the US, and I always thought, ‘why aren’t we making mixed grain whiskies down here?’ so that was the impetus behind it.’
On the other side of the country, Sydney’s Archie Rose Distillery has been flying the rye whisky flag over the last twelve months. The release of Archie Rose Rye Malt and Chocolate Rye Malt met with immediate acclaim. Both whiskies are built around malted rye, using varying levels of roasting to create a rich, cocoa character not commonly found in America’s spicier rye whiskies. A new distillery has also been constructed to create large volumes of rye and single malt, and the team tell us they’re hoping to begin exporting to the US in the near future once stock levels are ready.
Australia’s also one of the largest markets for Bourbon outside the US, and I always thought, ‘why aren’t we making mixed grain whiskies down here?’, so that was the impetus behind it.
– Cameron Syme
Further south in Melbourne, another inner-city distillery has looked to the US to develop its own take on American rye whiskey. The Gospel Distillers (formerly Melbourne Moonshine), unveiled their Gospel Solera Rye in September 2019. The production of the spirit is much closer to a traditional American style, using unmalted rye and distilled in a pot-column set-up. And the duo behind The Gospel, Andrew Fitzgerald and Ben Bowles, don’t mind that their approach is more closely aligned to America’s craft distilleries.
‘It’s common for Australian whisky to follow Scottish or British ways of doing things. And that’s great. But we don’t want to be common in our practice, we want to be common in consumption,’ says Fitzgerald.
The Gospel Distillery, Melbourne
The producers of Melbourne’s Starward, Australia’s most ubiquitous whisky brand, are drinking from the same glass. Since 2007, Starward have been producing their distinctive single malt, but one of their most progressive moves came with the release of a blended grain whisky in 2018, Starward Two Fold. It begins with wheat spirit distilled at a large ethanol distillery on the south coast, which is then trucked to Melbourne and matured in Australian red wine barrels. Starward’s malt whisky is then blended with this matured wheat whisky to create the Two Fold Double-Grain. It retails for around $70, and is now much cheaper in the US (around US$33), where it was launched in October, 2019.
‘I have a saying that we love whisky spelt both ways,’ says David Vitale, Starward’s founder. ‘We are whisky fanatics at Starward, we draw inspiration from the world. In the early years of whisky production in Australia, it was whisky spelt one way, and from probably one region of Scotland. And so there’s been a transition, and the thought provoker from that would be, no, we’re not just drawing inspiration from Scotland, we’ve done that already. It’s drawing inspiration from each and the world.’