Growing thirst: More than 550 whiskies are on offer at Whisky and Alement. Photo: Luis Ascui
On a Thursday night in Melbourne's inner west, a bottle shop is hosting a tasting masterclass. Almost half are women; six of us are under 40. We're not sipping wine, or quaffing craft beer.
This is a whisky masterclass but you won't find any scotch – only the finest Australian single malt.
"More people have been coming in requesting Australian whisky so we decided to put on a masterclass with just Australian whiskies," says Al Little, of Essendon's Prince Wine Store. "It sold out in less than a week."
Hot summers and cold winters help Starward develop its complexity. Photo: Richard Cornish
Three distilleries are represented, Sullivans Cove and Hellyers Road from Tasmania, plus newcomer Starward, distilled in Essendon.
"We are seeing a different kind of whisky drinker these days," says Hellyers Road's Stewart Ferguson.
"There is a young, professional market out there who are thirsty for knowledge and desire a premium product – but they're not looking to get drunk. They want to know how the drink is made, who is making it, what the ingredients are.
"The women love it too and I think that's because our whisky is quite fruit-driven – it has some sweetness and is beautifully balanced."
David Vitale, whose distillery released Starward last year, believes whisky could overtake craft beer as the drink of choice among people aged 20 to 40 – if it hasn't already.
"Whisky is no longer associated with the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacket-wearing Scotsman," Vitale says.
"There is a growing curiosity among young people who are just discovering whisky as a category or want to look for something that's a little bit different."
With some scotch distilleries more than a century old, the question must be asked why the antipodean market is only just taking off.
One hurdle has been government legislation.
Bill Lark, considered the father of Australian whisky, was crucial in lobbying the government to overturn a century-and-a-half ban, setting up Hobart's Lark Distillery in 1992.
Others quickly followed, with distillery numbers on the Apple Isle recently overtaking Scotland's distilling mecca, Islay.
Then there is the issue of climate. Hot summers and cold winters are not ideal for whisky-making.
But Vitale, whose brand Starward is going gangbusters, sees this as an advantage.
"Due to Melbourne's four seasons in one day, the whisky is expanding and contracting in the wood all the time, giving it more flavour," he says.
"It also means all the volatile and unsavoury alcohols are evaporating.
"The climate we have really speeds up the process compared to what happens in Scotland, which is why we are able to make young yet complex world-class whisky."
Australian distillers also have access to world-class brewing barley and wine casks from renowned wineriesthat are 55 to 60 years old , which contribute to the flavour profile.
Stewart Ferguson puts a Tasmanian spin on whisky's Aussie boom.
"Tasmania as a region is recognised now throughout the world for producing beautiful barley and magnificent clean water, ingredients that help make a world class single-malt whisky," he says.
Tasmania's whisky industry has boomed in the two decades since Lark became the island's first distillery in 150 years. Its progress hasn't gone unnoticed overseas.
In March, Sullivans Cove became the firstdistillery outside Scotland or Japan to win Best Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards – leading to huge demand for Australian whisky abroad.
"It's happening globally," Ferguson says. "Six years ago, when we first started sending whisky to some of the key overseas critics, they wrote back saying they just love our whisky."
That buzz has translated to crammed whisky-themed bars around Australia.
Whisky and Alement on Melbourne's Russell Street boasts more than 550 whiskies, including 10 local products, and runs weekly whisky-tasting classes.
"We are definitely in a whisky boom at the moment," says general manager James Fairlie. "Everyone's looking for this new, sexy drink. They want that appeal, that look.
"But with whisky you get more than that. There is often a story behind how it's made and people are enjoying the education process too."
The bar has grown so popular since honing its focus to whisky that there are plans to open a second venue soon.
Fairlie, whose family runs a Scottish distillery, has first-hand proof Aussie whiskies are gaining respect abroad.
"I gave my family a blind tasting of Starward when I was home recently," he recalls. "They thought it was fantastic but couldn't pick where it was from.
"A lot of people said Speyside, a few said the Highlands and when I told them it was from Melbourne, they were surprised.
"Then I told them the age (three years old) and they were even more impressed because they thought it was a lot older than that."
If the Scots like it, we must be doing something right.
Australian whisky distilleries
William McHenry & Sons
Great Southern Distilling Company Hoochery
The Grove Whipper
Swan Distilling Company
Best whisky bars
Whisky and Alement, 270 Russell Street, Melbourne.
Nant Whisky Bar, Driver Lane, Melbourne.
Eau De Vie, 1 Malthouse Lane, Melbourne.
The Baxter Inn, basement, 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney.
The Wild Rover, 75 Campbell Street, Surry Hills.
Bulletin Place, 10-14 Bulletin Place, Sydney.