Rarest collection of Australian whisky is seeking a new home

FeatureNews
featured image

EXCLUSIVE: The rarest collection of early Australian whisky, possibly ever assembled, is seeking a new owner. The collection, comprising of Victorian and some South Australian whiskies produced between 1920 and 1970, was shown to your overwhelmed correspondent this week. It was compiled over three decades by Mr Leopoldo, a former employee of United Distillers Pty Ltd in Melbourne.

Mr Leopoldo began working for United Distillers in 1976 as a sign writer. He started his career at Federal Distillery in Rouse Street, Port Melbourne, and then worked as a merchandising manager at United Distillers (which now falls under the Diageo group) for almost 30 years. During the 1970s and 80s, he began collecting and preserving Australian whisky bottles, distillery records and equipment as many of the once colossal operations that housed them were gradually closed and mothballed.

‘It was all destined to be thrown out,’ Mr Leopoldo said. ‘It was just lucky I was in charge of a lot of this material, otherwise it would be all gone. The bottles would be gone, the books, the records, it’d be all gone.’

 

Brinds Whisky, named after Henry Brind, the English chemist who rescued the Warrenheip distillery in 1870 – Oz Whisky Review

 

Some of the bottles, records and labels in Mr Leopoldo’s collection stretch back to the Victorian whisky industry’s earliest days. Two key amalgamations explain why. In 1924, Federal Distilleries Company was created with the amalgamation of Victoria’s four largest malt whisky producers, two of which were the Warrenheip Distillery, originally founded in the early 1860s, and Federal Distillery, founded by the Joshua Brothers in 1884 in Port Melbourne.

But six years later, the enormous Federal Distilleries was itself gobbled up by Scotland’s Distillers Company Limited (DCL) not long after they opened Corio Distillery. DCL created United Distillers Pty Ltd to manage the amalgamated businesses, and the company went on to dominate Australian whisky production for much of the 20th century. But parent company DCL began to struggle in the 1970s and 80s, and the large Australian distilleries and bottling plants it owned, like Corio and Federal, subsequently became unviable.

 

A rare survivor. Joshua Brothers Australian Standard Malt Whisky, believed to be a 1920s bottling – Oz Whisky Review 

 

As the distilleries were closed, little thought was given to the remnants of over 140 years of Australian whisky and spirits heritage the company had accumulated. That’s where Mr Leopoldo came in.

‘At one time, I had a lot of this stuff on a pallet at Corio Distillery and I’d moved it around a hundred times,’ says Leopoldo. ‘And I actually asked Alan Beretta, one of the directors at the time, do you want me to send this to Sydney where the office was, and he said ‘Don’t bother, they’ll throw it out’. He said to me, ‘But don’t you dare ever throw that out. This is history. You keep it.”

Mr Leopoldo, a devoted collector since his youth, continued to gather up bottles, photos, records and distilling equipment that would’ve otherwise headed straight to landfill. ‘I’ve always loved old stuff. It was criminal to throw this away,’ he says.

 

Both Tolleys and Gilt Edge were owned by W&A Gilbeys, who also produced Bond 7 – Oz Whisky Review

 

For those familiar with Australian whisky, the industry’s often assumed to have started in the 1990s with a number of small-scale Tasmanian pioneers. But as this collection shows, the history of Australian whisky production is much older and more complex. While New South Wales and Tasmania had fledgling distilling industries between 1820 and 1850, from the 1860s onwards, Victoria, and to a lesser extent, South Australia, produced enormous quantities of whisky that would eventually turn Australia into the fourth largest producer in the world by the early 1900s.

 

An incredibly rare bottle label of Warrenheip Distillery malt whisky, estimated late 1800s to early 1900s – Oz Whisky Review

 

Chris Middleton, a co-founder and director of Starward, is the authority on early Australian whisky history. After researching the subject for three decades, Middleton was astonished to see these bottles and records had survived upon examining photos of the collection and discussing its history with Mr Leopoldo.

‘Undoubtedly, this is the most significant collection of domestic Victorian whisky memorabilia (with some South Australian Milne relics), from the era when Australia was the world’s fourth largest whisky manufacturing nation,’ Middleton later told me.

What makes this collection so unprecedented is the utter rarity of the bottles, labels and distillery papers. At least 95% of the 70+ bottles have never been entered into auction, with the vast majority of the whiskies, predominately blends, known to perhaps a dozen Australian whisky enthusiasts.

The collection contains some incredibly rare gems, including two Corio Treble ‘A’ bottlings – the first whiskies released by Corio Distillery in 1934. According to Middleton, they contain grain whisky distilled and matured at Corio but also older malt whisky stocks from some of Melbourne’s early distilleries like Federal and Warrenheip.

Two unicorn Old Court bottles, blended malt whiskies likely from the 1920s, are also there (a whisky I once wrote I’d give my right arm to try). Two dozen early Australian gin bottles, some dating back to the early 1900s, are also scattered throughout the collection, as well as 1960s Australian brandies, rums and even vintage UDL cans.

 

Early 1900s Brinds Gin and vintage UDL cans – Oz Whisky Review

 

But beyond the whisky bottles (some of which are victims of their advanced age), there’s a vitally important resource of distilling records, artifacts and equipment in the collection. Everything from 100 year old Australian hydrometers and spirit thiefs, to a vast collection of whisky labels and photographs. A number of distillery ledgers and accounts were also salvaged, including the recording of spirit runs and blending procedures from both the Federal and Corio distilleries, with some books from the former dating back to 1919.

 

 

But Mr Leopoldo is now looking to part with the collection after more than 40 years caring for it. ‘I can’t take it with me, and I don’t want to leave my daughters with the burden of having to deal with it,’ he said.

Greg Hondromatidis, a childhood friend and consultant, is presently negotiating the sale. Multiple auction houses in the UK have already expressed interest in acquiring the collection in full. But Mr Leopoldo and Hondromatidis hope to keep it in Australia, ideally in Victoria, where the majority of the collection hails from.

‘It would be a real shame to see it go overseas,’ said Hondromatidis. ‘You can’t appreciate something like this unless you see it and touch it and feel it… It’s real, this is a living piece of history. But we’re at a stage where it’s time to move this, and obviously it’s Australian history and should be staying in Australia, and that’s what we’re hoping for.’

Currently, they welcome inquiries from serious collectors, businesses and organisations who’d be interested in acquiring the collection in its entirety – individual bottles and items are not presently being sold. Contact Greg Hondromatidis – hondobig23@gmail.com – for more details.