Whisky review: against the grain – Australian whiskies under $90

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On tasting: Upshot Australian Whiskey, Starward Two-Fold, Ned Australian Whisky, The Gospel Solera Rye, 23rd Street Distillery Hybrid Whisky

 

I bought a $38 bottle of Bourbon the other day. It was a low point in my whisky drinking career, but I wanted something cheap and simple and maybe a bit nasty. Something to echo the current malaise.

When you work with booze for a long time, you almost always have something decent around. So going into a retailer and buying a bottle based on price was quite a novel experience. It felt a bit risky and naughty, like someone might spot me and shout, ‘Ha! I knew you were lying about all that over-priced bollocks!’

Like many of us, I’m saving my pennies for the oncoming financial shitstorm. But the broader reality is, when most Australians buy whisky that’s exactly what they’re thinking about – price.

Since the Australian whisky industry’s earliest days, producers have been acutely aware of how price sensitive Australian consumers are. In the 1920s, when Australia was recovering from World War I, the Spanish flu and unknowingly careening into the Great Depression (sound familiar?), quality Australian-made whisky became more affordable than imported Scotch and Irish. Tariffs on imports were increased and enormous Melbourne distilleries had huge quantities of whisky to bottle and blend. As a result, by the late 1920s, local whisky accounted for between 10-40% of Australian whisky consumption across our states – it’s currently under 2% nationwide.

Of course, everything about the last two decades of Australian whisky production has run an opposite course: we’ve produced small-scale, expensive, high-quality juice. But recently, I’ve had people asking me to recommend a cheap Australian whisky so they can support local and have something to swig during lockdown.

It’s an anxiety-inducing question, because for a long time there was hardly a single Australian whisky available for under 90 bucks. But thankfully, that’s slowly starting to change, which brings us to the five sub-$90 drops reviewed below.

Now, let me straighten out a few particulars for eagle-eyed critics of my clickbaity title. In reality, there’s only five Australian whiskies that come in under $90 – Hellyers Road Original and Dobson’s Old Reliable are the others (but here, we wanted to concentrate on grain whiskies and blends).

Upshot Whiskey is $90+, except at Daniel Francis Murphy’s where it’s under, so that was good enough for its inclusion. And technically, The Gospel Solera Rye isn’t ‘whisky’ under Australian regulations (all of the components haven’t been matured for two years in barrel). I’ve also committed the ultimate treasonous act and included 23rd Street Distillery’s Hybrid Whisky, which is, in fact, an Australian blend of Scotch and Bourbon. I mainly threw this in as an interesting counterpoint, and, well, I was struggling for numbers. Hopefully this is making you tasteful folks realise how freakin’ hard it is to find affordable Australian whisky.

All of these whiskies are blends or made from mixed grain mash bills. Personally, I think we devalue these styles at our peril – they’re frequently as complex as malts, and because of our obsession with all things singular, they’re often cheaper. It’s also universally acknowledged that these ‘blends’ are better mixers. They’re social and friendly and tend to pull more accents and accords from the other liquids they’re married with in cocktails. And considering we live in a hot country that’s only getting hotter, that’s a massive tick from me.

I was thinking on all of this when I sat down to drink my $38 Bourbon. It was surprisingly good (it was straight Bourbon, after all – I still have some standards). What an achievement to make a consistently available, solid tasting whisky for that price. It’s no easy feat, and I hope more Australian producers, like these bold folk below, take up the challenge and give it a crack.

  • Upshot Australian Whiskey
    The Stats
    • ABV: 43%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Corn whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in a pot-column from a mashbill of 80% corn, 10% malted barley and 10% wheat (all Western Australian grains). Matured for a minimum of two years in new American oak barrels.
    • Location: Perth, WA
    • Score: 83
    Nose
    Quite bright and youthful, but that's quickly met with fruit and corn bread. Raisins, pear and Hubba Bubba wrapped in wood shavings and vanilla slice.
    Palate
    Gentle start, then the new oak asserts itself: vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. Not particularly mouth-coating, but great flavours.
    Finish
    Short, but the oak and spice is persistent enough.
    Comments
    A great gateway for Australia's legion of Bourbon and coke drinkers. Well-executed, but it'd be great to see more of those lovely WA cereals come through and for the Whipper Snapper spirit to really shine (try the Upshot Cask Strength for that).
  • Starward Two-Fold Double Grain Australian Whisky
    The Stats
    • ABV: 40%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of wheat whisky, distilled at Manildra (NSW) through columns, and Starward malt whisky. Both components are matured in Australian red wine barrels at Starward and then blended to a ratio of around 60% wheat to 40% malt.
    • Location: Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    A bit closed at first. Takes time to warm up, but when the fruit comes through it brings on pears, raspberries and bananas. Butterscotch and toast and those yoghurt and raspberry muesli bars.
    Palate
    Much fruitier on the palate. Wine cask immediately announces itself, but so does the malt. Surprisingly thick and textural with a bit of prickle from the wheat and then brown sugar and a berry/pinot noir flourish.
    Finish
    Great length, persistent malt with a red wine tail.
    Comments
    The Two-Fold is the benchmark Australian blended whisky. In both its design and execution, it's a rare thing: a complete original, but still evokes elements of both Scottish blends and wheated Bourbons. It's also highly drinkable neat, but its flavour and palate weight means it holds up brilliantly in highballs and cocktails.
  • Ned Australian Whisky (First Batch)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 40%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled from a mash of wheat in column stills and matured in American oak casks.
    • Location: Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 73
    Nose
    Nail polish and varnish before you approach the glass. But once you get there, it's all vanilla confectionery, toffee and creme caramel. Green grass, cloves and freshly baked white bread.
    Palate
    Ice cream and Vanilla Coke. Very gentle, again the caramels, and a hint of spirit and metal on the mid-palate. Then the barrel kicks in and covers the fairy bread sweetness with a solid dose of American oak.
    Finish
    Short, but a kick of oak and sweetness carries.
    Comments
    It falls down in being too metallic, cloying and sweet, and the spirit gets lost on the palate. In saying that, mix this and it comes into its own. Super tasty with coke or soda water which is, ultimately, the space it's playing in. Having visited the distillery, I also know this whisky will change quite dramatically in future batches.
  • The Gospel Solera Rye
    The Stats
    • ABV: 42.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Rye spirit
    • Production Story: Distilled from a mash of 100% rye from the Murray Mallee in a column-pot set-up. Matured in a purpose-built 6 x 4 'solera' barrel system comprising of virgin American oak and Australian red wine barrels. Majority of the components are less than two years old, hence, can't wear the 'whisky' title.
    • Location: Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    Dill, strawberry creams, vanilla and old books. Green capsicum, hint of play-do, and an interesting citrus and ribenna note.
    Palate
    Spicy, and a little prickly and youthful upfront, but lengthens nicely into a rye bread, red frogs, confectionery sweetness. Balancing that sweetness, beef brisket, mustard, pepper and mint.
    Finish
    It's a bit short on the back palate, but still kicks through with plenty of spicy rye.
    Comments
    Geez this is fun. Super quaffable on its own. But the sweetness from the new oak and the wine and the savoury oomph from the rye spirit turns this into a rockstar when mixed. Highballs all the way, awesome manhattans, too.
  • 23rd Street Distillery Hybrid Whisky
    The Stats
    • ABV: 42.3%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: A blend of Scottish and Bourbon whiskies
    • Production Story: A blend of Scottish whisky (average age of five years) and Bourbon whiskey (average age of two years). The final blend is then further matured in ex-Bourbon barrels.
    • Location: Renmark, SA
    • Score: 82
    Nose
    A little prickly, but that blows off to reveal a sweet maltiness and stewed fruits. Lots of American oak, and that moves towards shortbread and an earthy almost camphor note.
    Palate
    Really creamy and textural, with an undercurrent of spicy oak, tropical fruit and a slightly herbal edge.
    Finish
    Medium length, nice flourish of Bourbon and oak at the back end.
    Comments
    I've always been in two minds about this whisky. It's very well blended and nails the brief: a good drinking amalgam of the two styles. But does the blend create something new and interesting above the individual components? Something High West Campfire – the benchmark hybrid whiskey – achieves. If it was as cheap as the dozens of straight Bourbons, single malts and Scotch whisky blends that sit in that $45-60 bracket, I might get on board. Otherwise, I'm saving for the 23rd Street Single Malt.
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.