Tasting a bygone era of Australian whisky production

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On tasting: Milne’s 1940s bottling, Corio 1960s bottling and Corio 1970-80s bottling.

It’s not often you get to try whisky made in an entirely different age. But at recent events in Melbourne, three old Australian whisky bottlings were opened and a bygone era of distilling revealed.

This period, dominated by Victorian distilleries, began in the 1860s and came to a halt around 120 years later with the closure of multiple longstanding facilities. The three whiskies reviewed here were produced towards the tail end of that period, between 1940 and 1980, during a dramatic moment of expansion and retraction in the Australian spirits industry.

The Milne & Co. bottling is a particularly rare gem. Milne & Co. were a wine and spirits merchant founded in Adelaide in 1846. They successfully produced gin, brandy, wine and whisky, and in 1898 acquired Thebarton Distilling Company. Thebarton produced a range of dark and white spirits for Milne & Co. brands using columns and a large 10,000 litre pot still.

In 1946, Milne & Co. was acquired by Gilbey’s, the successful London wine and spirit merchant. Gilbey’s saw the potential in the Australian spirits market and had been importing various products into the country since the early 1900s. But realising they couldn’t compete with more affordable local products due to tariffs on imported spirits, Gilbey’s opened a sizeable distillery and bottling plant in Moorabbin, a suburb of Melbourne, in 1937. The Gilbey’s Distillery eventually ceased production in the mid-1980s, and the original distillery buildings were eventually demolished in 2000.

According to Australian whisky historian Chris Middleton, the Milne’s blend likely contains whisky produced at Thebarton Distillery in Adelaide, and possibly grain whisky from the Gilbey’s Distillery in Moorabbin. And what a treat it was to try such a rare survivor.

The Corio bottlings are a different beast altogether, and the story behind Corio Distillery is so big and complex that we’ll save it for another day. But as a quick preliminary, the Corio distillery was constructed in 1928 just outside Geelong by what was then Distillers Company Limited – a modern descendant of which is Diageo, the world’s largest spirits company. The distillery flourished in its early years, producing enormous quantities of whisky and gin, before the Corio 5 Star brand, which these two bottlings fall under, was released in 1956 (there’d been a number of earlier Corio whisky brands beforehand). Accompanied by a mammoth marketing campaign, Corio 5 Star became an incredibly popular Australian whisky, selling 8.5 million bottles in Australia and abroad in its first four years on the market.

But by the 1970s and 80s, increases in Australian excise rates and the perception that Corio whisky was an inferior local product (the encroachment of the petroleum industry around the distillery can’t have helped), led to Corio’s closure in 1983. Since then, Corio’s image as a rotgut whisky mass-produced by a faceless company has been hard to shake. But sit down and actually taste some of these bottlings, particularly next to Scottish blends of the same era (the 1960s Corio reviewed below was a revelation), and you begin to build a picture of how they once sold in the millions.

  • Milne's Specially Selected Well Matured Whisky 1940s bottling
    The Stats
    • ABV: No abv given
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Australian blended whisky 
    • Production Story: Likely contains malt whisky produced at Thebarton Distillery and possibly grain whisky from the Gilbey's Distillery in Moorabbin. Portions of the blend were definitely matured in wine casks, likely Australian fortified or table wine.
    • Location: Moorabin, Melbourne / Thebarton, Adelaide 
    • Score: 82
    Nose
    Soft and musty, some old bottle effect. Then comes the sweetness – caramel, toffee, fairy floss, fruitcake and a pronounced fortified note. More floral as it opens up, grass clippings, damp earth and a slight hickory smoke. 
    Palate
    Much richer and sweeter than expected. Salted caramel and mince pie – boy there’s thick apera on this. Rounds out to an earthy, slightly phenolic character which might be time in bottle or possibly something else. Great balance between spirit and oak, too. 
    Finish
    Short. There’s a pretty, floral thing initially, but that’s the only saving grace. Loses texture and the finish is sharp and a little prickly – lets it down. 
    Comments
    A great drinker, but there’s still plenty of complexity on this. The casks, which would have likely held Australian fortified wine, have added some seriously intriguing flavours. And remarkably, there’s hardly any tannin despite the richness from the wine. Tastes a world away from the current crop of cask-forward Australian whiskies.  
  • Corio 5 Star Whisky 1960s bottling
    The Stats
    • ABV: No abv given
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Australian blended whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of malt and grain whisky from Corio Distillery. Likely matured in American oak or ex-Scotch whisky casks.
    • Location: Corio, VIC
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    Straight away, you smell a different world. Tar mingles with a salty maritime note, and then fudge, bread crumbs and some fruit (pineapple?). A bit musty and a definite hint of smoke as well. Plenty going on.
    Palate
    Much more textural than expected. A little funky, old bottle effect, with salted caramel, a lick of fortified wine and then a meaty, almost charcoal note. Bit of a savoury backbone but there's a pleasant cereal sweetness on top of that.
    Finish
    A little short, but the malt in this drives it home, and the salt and smoke hold it all together.
    Comments
    This really stacks up against Scottish blends of the same era. The earlier bottlings definitely have more malt and grunt to them, little wonder it was so popular in the 1950s and 60s. Good drinking neat, but this would've made a great mixer as well.
  • Corio 5 Star Whisky 1970-80s bottling
    The Stats
    • ABV: 37.1%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Australian blended whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of malt and grain whisky from Corio Distillery.
    • Location: Corio, VIC
    • Score: 77
    Nose
    Much lighter than the earlier bottling. Floral, honeyed, and a slightly hot, vanilla sweetness that hints at a greater proportion of grain spirit.
    Palate
    Again, a more simple, subdued experience. No smoke here, and definitely less of that savoury, salty character. Instead, you get butterscotch, nutmeg, cardboard and vanilla – feels like more ex-Scotch and Bourbon casks for maturation and very little tannin as a result. Abv is a real shame.
    Finish
    Short and plain, but not unpleasant. And again, the low bottling strength has killed this.
    Comments
    Certainly not as complex as the earlier bottling, but still eminently quaffable. If anything, it's just a bit simple and boring, lacking in texture and complexity, but still fairly well-balanced. And where's the motor oil?
Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. A freelance writer and author, Luke's the chief judge of the Perth Royal Distilled Spirits Awards, a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, and his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.