To anyone familiar with the size and scale of Australia’s current crop of small independent distilleries, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how large and grand Melbourne’s Federal Distillery once was. Established in Port Melbourne by the Joshua Brothers in 1884, the Federal Distillery (also known as the Joshua Bros. Distillery) symbolised the spirit of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ during the boom decade of the 1880s when the city was touted as the richest in the world.
The distillery took years to complete, and when it became fully operational in the late 1880s, it quickly turned into one of the largest distilleries in the Southern Hemisphere. Initially, there were two malting floors, a cooperage, a granary and an enormous malt kiln. Four stills – a Coffey still and four pots, the later between 5000 and 9000 litres – were producing malt spirit, grain spirit, gin, rum and the award-winning Boomerang Brandy. Sea water was also drawn from Port Phillip Bay and used to cool the still’s condensers (something even the Scots have struggled develop).
During the distillery’s peak production period in the early 1900s, it was producing over 4 million litres of spirit a year and was one of the largest malt whisky distilleries in the world. But by the early 1920s, there was plenty of local competition from Victoria’s three major distilleries: Henry Brind & Co., the Australian Distilling Company’s South Melbourne operation, and a distillery established by Breheny Bros & Kenna at Warrenheip outside Ballarat. In 1924, these four large distilleries amalgamated to create Federal Distilleries Pty Ltd, raising a starting capital of £750,000 – around $80 million in today’s currency. But six years later, this enormous Australian enterprise was itself gobbled up by Scotland’s Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and reformed into United Distillers Pty Ltd.
DCL had built the Corio Distillery in Geelong in 1928. At the time, Australia was the largest export market for Scotch in the world, but local tariffs, which were further increased by the Bruce government in 1925, made Australian whisky more affordable than imports, and the success of Old Court Whisky, an all-malt expression first released by Federal Distilleries in 1924, meant the quality local option frequently won out. The total market share for Australian whisky began to climb, and by 1929, it was almost 40% in Victoria, 13% in South Australia, and just over 10% in New South Wales (today, Australian whisky barely captures two per cent of the overall market).
But when Corio whiskies began to be released from 1934, they inevitably became United Distillers main focus, and during the 1950s, Old Court and other heritage brands like Brinds Gin began to slowly fade away. Federal Distilleries Pty Ltd then went into voluntary liquidation in 1963 and United Distillers took full control of the remaining interests. Production and bottling of whisky and gin at the Federal Distillery became erratic, and eventually ceased in the 1970s.
The former distillery buildings were used as office space until the land was eventually sold to developers, and in 2003, Sheridan Property Group partly demolished the site and converted it into a large apartment block. One of the facades still displays bottles of United Distillers’ brands, but, alas, none from the earlier period, when this bold Melbourne distillery took on the giants of the distilling world.