When Will Edwards lodged the paperwork to open the City of Sydney's first independent distillery in more than 150 years, no one on the council knew how to deal with request. "You put in the application and they go 'Bloody hell, what's this?'," says the Archie Rose co-founder.
That was only five years ago. I can barely fathom the back-and-forth brouhaha that Bill Lark must have endured with his local member in 1992 to begin distilling small-batch craft spirits for the first time in Australia since it was outlawed in 1800s. Of course, there have been a few big-business brandies and Queensland rums since, however Bundy hardly qualifies as "craft".
Depending on your criteria (say, if a brewery makes gin on the side, is it also classified as a distillery?) there are about 120 distilleries in Australia, making whisky, gin, vodka, moonshine, brandy, absinthe and whatever else you want to throw in a still and see what happens. In 2013 there were less than 50 registered distilleries and in the mid-90s only a handful. The boom owes itself to a global craft spirits revival plus an increased interest in all things artisanal, Australian and botanical. Now it seems like there's a new distillery launching every week. The industry can no longer be referred to as juvenile.
That isn't to say it's mature either. Rather, new wave distillers such as Archie Rose and Melbourne Gin Company have ushered Australian spirits into a period of adolescence. Through informed experimentation with stills, styles and ingredients, Australian distilleries are find their voice in the most delicious ways.
It's awesome to see brands making waves internationally too. In July, Starward hopes to launch its whisky in the US, while Four Pillars now exports gin to 23 countries. Greater global reach and cash flow is essential for the industry to reach its potential
We're at the beginning of a very exciting time for Australia spirits, whisky in particular. One of the reasons there's so much gin and vodka on the market is because new distilleries need to release something for cash flow while their whisky dozes in a barrel for four or five years. Many of those whiskies are now beginning to stir.
Welcome to the brave new world of Aussie spirits without rules and a doctrine of style. Below is by no means a definitive list of distilleries doing fantastic things, but rather a snapshot of the diversity, brilliance and establishment-shaking that's happening in our cities, suburbs, deserts and bush. Get stuck in.*
Okar: a riberry-based amaro from Applewood Distillery. Photo: Supplied
Applewood Distillery, Gumeracha, South Australia
Brendan and Laura Carter, the Adelaide Hills winemakers behind Unico Zelo, are passionate about Australian soil and ingredients. This led them to establish Applewood, which releases more limited edition gins than you can shake a swizzle stick at. Definitely check out the Seven Deadly Gins range.
Drink now: Applewood Gin, 500ml, $70. The backbone of Applewood gins, tarty and fragrant with finger lime, peppermint gum and saltbush.
Coming soon: The legends also produce Okar – a riberry-based amaro. Brendan Carter says "big things" for are planned for Okar in 2018 so expect to see more all-Aussie negronis at your local.
Fleurieu Distillery, Goolwa, South Australia
Est. 2004 (as Steam Exchange Brewery)
Distillers Angela and Gareth Andrews are making delicious, complex whiskies on the river's edge of historic port town, Goolwa. Sea-air aromas combine with vanilla and maple oak overtones in Fleurieu's second year of whisky releases, which has seen the distillery pick up medals across the globe. Not bad for a former brewery.
Drink now: Bogart and Bacall, 700ml, $255. Heavily peated single malt matured in a sherry barrel to be as smouldering as its namesakes.
Coming soon: Unpeated whisky releases, matured in both sherry and port barrels.
Sheep's whey vodka from Hartshorn Distillery Photo: Supplied
Hartshorn Distillery, Birchs Bay, Tasmania
Ryan Hartshorn and his family run Grandvewe Cheeses in the deep south of Tasmania. When Hartshorn isn't tending to sheep, he's using cheese byproducts to make vodka and gin by converting complex whey sugars into smooth, floral distillate. It's wonderful stuff and the cheese is pretty banging too.
Drink now: American Oaked Whey Vodka, 500ml, $100. An invigorating drop rounded out with notes of wild spice and leather. Hartshorn was also was awarded World's Best Vodka at the World Vodka Awards 2018.
Coming soon: Hartshorn is working with Tasmanian street artists to hand-paint bottles for a limited-release series of six spirits, each featuring a different original artwork.
High Spirits Distillery, Welshpool, Western Australia
This small distillery operating out of an industrial estate in Perth's eastern suburbs took home the trophy for gin of the year at the inaugural London Spirits Competition in March. The family-owned business had been distilling for less than 12 months. "We only entered to benchmark our spirits internationally," says Mike Caban, who co-founded the distillery with his brother, Jade. "We never expected to clean up like we did."
Drink now: Dry Gin, 700ml, $84.95. High Spirits is one of the few distilleries in the world using a base spirit of 100 per cent biodynamically farmed triticale grain – a hybrid of wheat and rye.
Coming soon: The Cabans have laid barrels for dark rum and whisky, and are looking to distil alternative grains that push the boundaries of spirit categorisation.
Joadja Distillery Single Malt. Photo: Supplied
Joadja Distillery, Joadja, NSW
Joadja was a kerosene shale mining town in the southern highlands that operated from 1878 to 1911. It was inhabited by hundreds of Scottish miners who distilled "sly grog" on the side and when the shale industry collapsed, they left Joadja and took their moonshine with them. The Jimenez family now owns and manages the heritage site and, in 2014, laid down ex-oloroso sherry barrels of whisky. It's a beaut nod to Joadja's distilling past and the family's Spanish history.
Drink now: Crossbones Freebooter, 500ml, $59. A mild-flavoured cane spirit enhanced with native botanicals and pure Joadja spring water. An introduction to Crossbones Rum, set to be released later in the year.
Coming soon: Single Malt Whisky, 500ml, $249. Joadja's first whisky release and a bona fide collectors item. Already available to newsletter subscribers, there are a few bottles left which the distillery hopes to release to the public this week.
Killara's Kristy Booth checks her still. Photo: Supplied
Killara Distillery, Goodwood, Tasmania
When your old boy is the godfather of Australian whisky, you have some pretty big spiritual shoes to to fill. Kristy Booth can do it though – the daughter of Bill and Lyn Lark had won many awards for her father's distillery (where she was head distiller) before opening Killara with a 600-litre copper pot still of her own. Killara is one of very few distilleries in the world to be owned and operated by a woman. Great things are coming.
Drink now: Apothecary Gin, 500ml, $65. A no-funny-business dry-style gin featuring 10 different botanicals. A percentage of each sale is donated to Pademelon Park Wildlife Refuge.
Coming soon: Killara's first single malt whisky will be available in September, albeit in a super limited edition of 30 bottles made with glass hand-blown in Launceston. Put your order in now.
Never Never Distilling co-founder Sean Baxter. Photo: Supplied
Never Never Distilling Co., Adelaide, South Australia
You would be hard pressed to find three blokes more keen on juniper than Never Never co-founders Sean Baxter, George Georgiadis and Tim Boast. The chaps just picked up gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their triple-threat juniper gin that's big and bold and reminds you why you love mother's ruin so much.
Drink now: Triple Juniper Gin, 500ml, $60. A major dose of juniper is balanced with botanicals such as Australian coriander and cinnamon. Your perfect gin and tonic starts here.
Coming soon: Juniper Freak – a 48 per cent navy-strength gin that will have more juniper in it than anything else on the market.
Archie Rose x Horisume Spring Gin. Photo: Supplied
Archie Rose, Rosebery, NSW
This Sydney distillery's gins, vodkas, rums and white whiskies are loved by bartenders fond of their versatility. The team have a penchant for collaboration and recently launched Archie Rose Collections with an initial release that saw Kaiju! Beer's double India black ale distilled 2½ times in a copper-pot gin still and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. It sold out in 10 minutes.
Drink now: Distiller's Strength Gin, 700ml, $99. Overproof gin with 16 individually distilled botanicals including fresh pears out of Orange and honey from the distillery's rooftop beehives.
Coming soon: Archie Rose laid its earliest casks almost four years ago and is on track to release its first rye malt whisky in mid-2019, with a single malt to follow soon afterwards.
Black Gate, Mendooran, NSW
Husband-and-wife team Brian and Genise Hollingworth make world-class, small-batch spirits in a climate that's hotter than Hades. (That is, the NSW Central West.) Their single malt whisky release "BG022" (Black Gate's second release of port-matured whisky) is an absolute cracker and is causing a lot Australian spirit lovers to become very excited.
Drink now: Single Cask Rum 51%, 700ml, $110. Matured in an ex-port barrel with big toffee and caramel flavours and a lovely long finish.
Coming soon: A cask-strength follow-up to the "520s" whisky where five 20-litre casks were married together. Expected to be a stunner.
Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin. Photo: Supplied
Four Pillars Gin, Healesville, Victoria
The grand poobah of Aussie gin is only half-a-decade-old, but reported sales of $8 million last year and 90,000 people are expected to pass through its Yarra Valley distillery doors in 2018. Its fourth still, Big Betty, is a whooping 2000 litres and arrives in Healesville this week. (By comparison Four Pillars' original still, Wilma, is 450 litres. Clearly there's a thirst for gin out there.)
Drink now: Sherry Cask Gin, 500ml, $80. A solera made from 42 Spanish and Australian sherry barrels, released just in time for cooler weather.
Coming soon: The fourth Bloody Shiraz release will launch on June 1, and a gin made for Melbourne's Kisume restaurant will be available to the public from September. Distiller Cam Mackenzie is just waiting for some yuzus to ripen.
Tin Shed Distilling Co., Adelaide, South Australia
"We South Australians reckon we've got the best climate in the world for making whisky" says Tin Shed co-founder Ian Schmidt. "We have big diurnal temperature ranges and hot, dry seasons. Our spirit matures a hell of a lot faster than the stuff in Scotland." At Melbourne's Whisky and Dreams festival held in March, Scotland's leading whisky expert, Charles MacLean, couldn't stop raving about Tin Shed's Iniquity Batch 010, which is predominantly two-year-old spirit. If Tin Shed whisky is already brilliant so young, how will it be with more years in the barrel? Bloody tremendous, most likely.
Drink now: Iniquity Batch No. 010, 700ml, $150. A balanced whisky with a nose of woody herbs, dry sherry and meadow flowers. "Disgracefully easy drinking," says its maker.
Coming soon: Batch No. 011 isn't too far away and there's a four-year-old rum just itching to be bottled.
Peter Bignell of Belgrove Distillery. Photo: Supplied
Belgrove Distillery, Kempton, Tasmania
Australia's first rye distillery is also the only biofuel-powered distillery in the world, using recycled cooking oil collected by founder Peter Bignell from local businesses. It's also one of few whisky distilleries on earth growing, distilling, ageing and bottling all its grain on site. Truly unique and exceptional.
Drink now: Oat Whisky, 500ml, $250. Hazelnut. Pepper. Fudge. Tropical fruit. Also smells a bit like porridge.
Coming soon: Bignell is releasing "Wholly Shit" in 2018 – a whisky smoked in sheep's manure.
Kangaroo Island Spirits, Kangaroo Island, South Australia
John and Sarah Lark make beautiful gins, vodkas and liqueurs on Kangaroo Island's Cygnet River. Legends of the craft spirit industry, they were working with native flora when many other distillers probably thought lemon myrtle was a type of cake.
Drink now: Wild Gin, 700ml, $89. London dry-style gin made with boobialla (native "juniper") foraged on the island.
Coming soon: Koala 48 Gin made with 48 botanicals grown at the distillery. Australia's first gin made with distillery-grown juniper is also in the works.
The Starward Distillery door in Port Melbourne. Photo: Supplied
Starward, Port Melbourne, Victoria
"The last place we picture our whisky is by the fireplace with a tweed jacket and a pipe," says Starward founder Dave Vitale. Indeed. This is, after all, Australia. Although it does have many excellent drams for sipping, Starward's accessibility in both taste profile and price also makes it ideal for mixing into highball at a backyard barbie. Check out the Port Melbourne distillery door for masterclasses and special releases such as an orange and macadamia autumn gin.
Drink now: Wine Cask Single Malt Whisky, 700ml, $104. Matured in old Aussie wine barrels for a long tannic finish.
Coming soon: Pre-batched cocktails, including an Old Fashioned, are set for release mid-May. Each 500ml bottle will contain eight serves so you can store it in the fridge to see you through the week.
Sullivans Cove Tasmanian brandy. Photo: Supplied
Sullivans Cove Distillery, Cambridge, Tasmania
Tassie's second-oldest distillery is loved by dram boffins around the world for single malts made with Tasmanian mountain water and malted barley. Its American oak release was named the world's best single-cask single-malt at the World Whiskies Awards in March. Although whisky will always remain the distillery's focus, Sullivans Cove has also released a knockout vodka, gin and, most recently, brandy.
Drink now: XO Single Cask Tasmanian Brandy, 700ml, $280. A rich brandy made with Huon Valley chardonnay, gewurztraminer and sauvignon blanc. Matured in ex-tawny American oak for nine years, only a very small amount of bottles hit the distillery store and online shop last week. Get in quick if you're keen.
Coming soon: An XO double cask brandy crafted using traditional vatting methods is set for release later in the year.
Bottles listed are available at the time of publication from the distillery website. Many can also be found at independent bottle shops around the country.
*Yes, some of these prices are high, but so is the ever-rising tax on craft spirits in Australia. Take it up with your local MP.