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.