The native grain project attempting to redefine Australian whisky

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Oz Whisky Review

 

‘What would whisky look like if it was made in Australia before Ireland and Scotland? What grasses and grains would it be made from? How would it taste?’

Sacha La Forgia, the founder and distiller of Adelaide Hills Distillery, often begins discussions about his Native Grain Whiskey in this mode. When you hear La Forgia talk about Australian spirits and liqueurs, it’s easy to get swept up in his vision and enthusiasm. Taste his experimental range of whiskies, and the vision becomes even more enticing (see our review of his Native Grain Whiskey series).

‘Why copy the Scottish or the Irish to make whisky? Let’s use what we have around us to make a truly Australian whisky.’

La Forgia has been championing Australian native foods and produce through his Adelaide Hills Distillery at Lot 100, the collective home of Mismatch Brewing Co, Hills Cider Co and Vinteloper Wines. He isn’t alone, either, in wanting to create products that more closely reflect the flavours of the Australian environment.

 

Lot 100, Adelaide Hills – Supplied

 

The popularity of Australian native foods has exploded in recent years, building on the work of Aboriginal chefs and businesses. It’s also spilled over into drinks, with a number of pioneering Indigenous-owned businesses producing everything from cider, gin and beer featuring Australian native ingredients.

The work of Bruce Pascoe has been another catalyst. Pascoe’s landmark 2014 publication Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident? demonstrated how Aboriginal agriculture irrigated, sowed, harvested and ultimately domesticated plants and grasses. The book had a lasting impact on La Forgia he frequently references one of its most cited passages as inspiration for his native grain whisky journey. The passage discusses the enormous native grain belt that once spread across Australia, since destroyed by colonisation. These native grasses were successfully harvested by Aboriginals for tens of thousands of years and resulted in a truly incredible baking heritage:

 

‘The science of baking developed alongside the seed harvests. Richard Fullagar, Australian Museum, and Judith Furby, University of New South Wales, found grindstones at Cuddie Springs, near Walgett, western New South Wales, which had been used to grind seeds 30,000 years ago, making these people the world’s oldest bakers by almost 15,000 years, as the Egyptians, the world’s next oldest, didn’t bake until 17,000 BC.’

– Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

 

La Forgia’s reverence for Australian ingredients is obvious in his acclaimed gins and amari, which layer Australian herbs, nuts and spices over a traditional base of botanicals.

His relationship with Something Wild Beverage Company then exposed him to a range of native foods and practices that he was able to work into his spirits. Something Wild is majority-owned by the Motlop family from Larrakia country in the Northern Territory (the famous AFL family), and supplies Indigenous food to restaurants, businesses and consumers around Australia. La Forgia collaborated with Motlop to create the award-winning Green Ant Gin, and the experience got him thinking about building native flavours into a whisky in the same way, using ingredients supplied by Something Wild.

A number of subsequent experiments were conducted, with everything from spinifex to kangaroo grass. The results were mixed, but then La Forgia hit on wattleseed and found that small portions of the expensive seed could be roasted and integrated into a barley mash, creating uniquely earthy, spicy and dark chocolate characters, similar to some American mixed grains whiskies.

 

Sacha La Forgia – Supplied

 

Bourbon and rye whiskey have always been a big influence for La Forgia, and his project resembles Bourbon’s original blueprint, where the base indigenous grain, corn, is flavoured with rye, wheat and barley. La Forgia has simply flipped the ratio, starting with a majority exotic grain mash, barley, and layering flavour on top with Australian natives.

Once these experimental mashes were distilled, La Forgia then leaned on his winemaking background and sought out French oak cabernet franc casks from nearby wineries to mature the spirit. The first release was the Native Grain Project, a bottling of malt and wattleseed spirit matured for nine months in oak. Then in 2019, he got everyone talking with the Native Grain Whiskey, the same malt and wattleseed spirit as the project bottling, but this time matured for over two years.

The bottling hit the headlines – ‘… World First’, ‘… a Whole New Category’ – and received glowing reviews from those who tasted it. But then the complications surfaced. The release riled a number of Australian whisky makers who raised a series of questions, the most important being – was this actually whisky under Australian law?

The issue related to the use of wattleseed. Australian regulations, similar to long-established definitions in the UK, Europe and the U.S., only allow for cereal grains (barley, wheat, rye, oats, etc) to be used in the production of whisky. Whipper Snapper Distillery’s ‘Project Q’ Quinoa whisky has raised similar questions – quinoa is a pseudo-cereal, a seed harvested from a tall, leafy plant, similar to spinach and beets. While there’s still debate about quinoa’s ultimate classification, technically, it’s external to the Poaceae family – the family responsible for the traditional whisky grains mentioned above.

 

 The first Native Grain Whiskey with wattleseed. Photo – Brendan Stevens

 

You can see where this is going. Wattleseeds are harvested from Acacia, a genus of shrubs and trees native to Australia and Africa, and well outside the accepted ingredients for whisky making.

By the time the Australian Distillers Association (ADA), the peak industry body for craft distillers in Australia, noticed the potential breach, the Native Grain Whiskey had completely sold out. La Forgia now admits, he didn’t quite realise that what he was producing was outside the classification for whisky.

‘It was talked about by the ADA and they pointed out that wattleseed is not an official cereal and so the first Native Grain wasn’t, by definition, whisky,’ La Forgia says.

‘But they realised I was trying to do the right thing. Basically… I wasn’t trying to be a dick, that was years of work trying to create a progressive whisky. And it was already sold out, so as long as we didn’t release it again, there was no reason to pursue it further.’

From there, La Forgia was a lot more careful about which native grasses he used and selected. Weeping grass eventually became one of his preferred candidates, and it’s the hero grain in La Forgia’s second Native Grain Whiskey, released on World Whisky Day a few weeks back.

 

Native Grain Whiskey mark two. Photo – Haley Renee

 

‘Weeping grass is a native cereal grain, so it fits under the regulations, and it’s going to be one of our feature grains moving forward,’ La Forgia says.

‘At the moment, it’s actually being farmed, rather than just wild harvested, and we’re ordering it from a local supplier. Just the fact that I can call a supplier and order it – I don’t have to go out and grow fields of the stuff myself – is a huge step forward,’ La Forgia says.

One of Australia’s top growers and suppliers of Australian grasses is Native Seeds Pty Ltd, who’ve been leading the native grass industry since 1988. Kathryn Frances, an agricultural scientist and the operations director of Native Seeds, says very few people grow these grasses as a crop, which significantly increases their price.

‘Most people go out and they wild harvest, that’s why you pay $3 for a kilo of rice and $1000 for a kilo of kangaroo grass. There’s very few people out there that are producing it well, so at this point in time, it’s quite unaffordable for businesses,’ Frances says.

But the benefits are potentially enormous. From the regeneration of landscape to the reduction of fuel load for fires. Native grasses also require significantly less water and fertilizer to thrive.

‘In the early days, when we started to realise that biodiversity was getting destroyed, a lot of effort went into trees and shrubs, and we’re now only just realising the significance of Australia’s grasslands,’ Frances says.

‘We have 26% of the world’s species of grasses, and we’ve got 1100 different species in Australia. But we’re just behind Indonesia at number two in the world in terms of the destruction of biodiversity. We’ve quickly destroyed a very intricate and very unique ecosystem, and native grasses have so many uses for improving that ecosystem.’

La Forgia wants to be a part of that improvement. ‘The price aside, it just makes so much sense on so many levels for us to be working with and using these grains.’

He says he’s already seen the industry develop in the five years he’s been sourcing native grasses, and he hopes that more brewers and distillers will follow and help to bring down prices.

‘We’ll never stop experimenting, and as the native grain industry develops, more grains will become available, and we’ll start experimenting with them as that happens. Ultimately, we may end up with a range of different native grain whiskies,’ says La Forgia.

‘I think it’s the way forward for our industry.’

 

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.