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.