Australian whisky 101: Local distillers shake things up with native grains, rye whiskey and even coffee

Rutherglen's Morris Whisky has resurrected a 130-year-old still to make its Australian single malts.
Rutherglen's Morris Whisky has resurrected a 130-year-old still to make its Australian single malts. Photo: Supplied

The world of whisky can be daunting, but don't let that put you off. Buckle up and give these bold Australian spirits a whirl.

Whisky has long been the spirit of choice for deep-thinkers and world leaders. Writer Mark Twain loved it, former British prime minister Winston Churchill swore by it and screen siren Ava Gardner wanted it on her deathbed. If only they could see how far their beloved beverage has come.

These days, whisky is shedding its "gentleman's drink" stereotype, thanks to a wave of Australian producers who are getting creative with their use of grains and connecting with curious young consumers in the process.

According to a report by drinks analysts IWSR (International Wines and Spirits Record) released in May 2021, sales of local whisky more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, while data released by Dan Murphy's in February 2021 indicates a 150 per cent spike in sales of Australian whisky from August 2020 to January 2021.

Australians are an adventurous bunch. According to Lark Distilling Co's head distiller, Chris Thomson, innovation helps drive demand.

"It's all becoming a big melting pot," he says. "Instead of just being a wine drinker, people drink beer, whisky and gin. They have a hunger and desire to explore quality drinks."

Whisky consumers are diversifying, too. "We're seeing a lot more of an age difference at whisky tastings. Most excitingly, the gender split at tastings is 50/50 now. It's become more of a welcoming and progressive place to be," he says. "Australia is one of the most exciting whisky markets on the planet at the moment because it's one of the most open."

It's all good news for curious whisky consumers. Buckle up and give these Australian producers a whirl.

Adelaide Hills Distillery founder Sacha la Forgia is a champion of the use of native ingredients, taking out the World’s Best Grain Whiskey titile with his Native Grain Weeping Grass Whiskey.
Pic credit: Ben Macmahon
For Katie Spain whiskey feature, Good Food, Aug 3, 2021

Adelaide Hills Distillery founder Sacha la Forgia with a bottle of his award-winning Native Grain Weeping Grass Whiskey. Photo: Ben MacMahon

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Native grains

When Adelaide Hills Distillery (soon to be called 78°) founder Sacha La Forgia won two major awards at the World Whiskies Awards in London in March 2021, he joined Tasmania's Sullivans Cove and New South Wales' Archie Rose on the world's best honour roll. The award has helped redefine the spirit's identity in Australia.

As a champion of the use of native ingredients, La Forgia was particularly chuffed about taking the World's Best Grain award for his Adelaide Hills Distillery 2020 Native Grain Weeping Grass Whiskey, the first time a whisky made with Australian grains has been recognised internationally. "It validates everything that we've been doing and it shows that Australia can play on the world stage with its own flavours," he says.

Adelaide Hills Distillery founder Sacha la Forgia is a champion of the use of native ingredients, taking out the World’s Best Grain Whiskey titile with his Native Grain Weeping Grass Whiskey.
Pic credit: Ben Macmahon
For Katie Spain whiskey feature, Good Food, Aug 3, 2021

Weeping grass grains. Photo: Ben MacMahon

La Forgia initially experimented with wattleseed, but had to change course. According to legislation, whisky is a fermented mash of cereal grain distilled and stored in wood, and wattleseed doesn't qualify as a cereal.

Having switched to weeping grass, a plump grain grown in Australia for thousands of years, they produced just one barrel (150 bottles) of the Adelaide Hills Distillery 2020 Native Grain Weeping Grass Whiskey, which sells for $450 a bottle.

Also try: La Forgia's award-winning 78° Australian Whiskey ($110/700ml, 78degrees.com.au), made mostly with unmalted South Australian barley. "It's a bit more of an evolution on traditional whisky, made with a unique manufacturing process," he says.

Tree change

Inspired by Victorian pioneers Bakery Hill Distillery, Timboon Distillery and Starward, Leigh and Bree Attwood swapped life in Melbourne and phased out careers in education to chase craft spirit dreams. The pair relocated to Yackandandah (near their hometown of Myrtleford in Victoria's north-east) and founded Backwoods Distilling Co. in 2017.

"We've only been selling whisky for about a year," Bree says. "For the first six months we sold it online but people have really followed our journey."

When they launched the Backwoods Distilling Co. Red Gum Special Cask Release (Casks 21 and 22) online earlier this year, 150 bottles of each sold out in 10 minutes. People travelled from Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra to buy the remaining 50 bottles from the distillery door. They also wanted to meet Stillvester​, the custom-built 1250-litre whisky still, and Backwoods' growing fleet of red gum casks.

Two 100-litre casks were specially made from 70-year-old wood that was destined to become a fence. "We filled one with single malt and one with rye, the two styles of whisky we make here, and left them for about two-and-a-half years."

The couple sources artisan malted grains from Voyager Craft Malt in the nearby Riverina region. "I know all the farmers that produce those grains," she says. "We love the single malt but add heritage rye as a bit of a point of difference."

Also try: The Backwoods Distillery Rye Whisky (American oak/cabernet cask, $139/bottle, backwoodsdistilling.com.au), which will be released mid-August.

For the love of rye

Peter Bignell from Tasmania's Belgrove Distillery inspired a generation of rye enthusiasts, among them Ben Bowles and Andrew Fitzgerald, whose Melbourne brand and distillery The Gospel is dedicated to straight rye whisky.

"We're throwing everything at rye and really backing it," says Fitzgerald, a fan of American-style whiskies. "We think there's a market for it."

Fitzgerald believes rye (a dense, hardy grain known for its bold flavour) creates a bridge between bourbon and single malt.

"It's more savoury than a bourbon but still has sweet elements to it. We use new American oak barrels for pretty much all of The Gospel rye whiskies, which gives us this sweet vanillin impact."

Flavour-wise, Fitzgerald likens it to rye bread slathered with butter. "You get these rich cereal grain notes and baking spices; a pepperiness, not chilli-hot."

The Gospel Straight Rye Whiskey ($91/700ml, thegospelwhiskey.com) contains rye sourced from a farm in South Australia's dry Murray Mallee region but there are plans to throw the net wider to regions such as Gippsland. "I'm really enjoying exploring the concept of terroir in whisky."

Also try: Belgrove Peated Rye Whisky 4th Release ($155/500ml, belgrovedistillery.com.au).

Key collabs

Collaboration is a no-brainer for the likes of Lark Distilling Co head distiller Chris Thomson. After 15 years with the Tasmanian company, he relishes the chance to team up with industry pals. "It's exciting to share different experiences and learn from your peers and it's always exciting to share good booze."

Lark's latest collaboration with Hunter Valley's Brokenwood Wines resulted in the Rare Cask Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz Cask ($1200/700ml, larkdistillery.com).

It is the third single malt whisky in Lark Distilling Co's Rare Cask Series and was finished in a cask previously home to Brokenwood's highly collectable 2018 Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz.

"You get the age of the whisky, the flavour of the initial barrels and the overtones and highlights from the cask – in this case it has produced an ultra-punchy, big wine cask finish," Thomson says.

Archie Rose Distilling Co. and Melbourne’s ST. ALi coffee roasters have combined forces to produce Blasphemy.
For Katie Spain whiskey feature, Good Food, Aug 3, 2021

Blasphemy by Archie Rose and St Ali. Photo: Nikki To

Also try: Archie Rose Distilling Co. and Melbourne's St Ali coffee roasters have teamed up to produce Blasphemy ($89.99/700ml, stali.com.au, archierose.com.au), a blend of Archie Rose Single Malt Whisky and St Ali Orthodox and Wide Awake Coffee. It's a day-maker (and day-breaker) in a bottle.

Old school

When Copper & Grain Distilling Co (a subsidiary of Casella Family Brands) launched Morris Whisky in Rutherglen last month, the focus was on heritage. Morris first made fortified wines in 1859 and the use of the fortified barrels and the resurrection of a 130-year-old still played a big part in the creation of the brand's inaugural Australian single malts.

The Morris Signature Whisky ($95/700ml, morriswhisky.com) and Morris Muscat Barrel Whisky ($135/700ml) tap into the origins of traditional whisky, while using locally grown malt and barley.

"At 40 per cent ABV, the Signature is designed to be approachable and suitable for everyday drinking," says Morris head of strategy Michael Sergeant. "The price point is competitive with international whisky, which will hopefully encourage Australians to choose local."

Also try: Corowa Distilling Co in New South Wales has heritage and locally grown ingredients at heart. The magic happens in a heritage-listed 1920s flour mill and the Corowa Characters Wine Cask Single Malt ($95/500ml, corowadistilling.com.au) pays homage to the four pals who make up the production team.

Heirloom heroes

When brothers-in-law Alasdair Malloch and Jimmy McKeown established Western Australia's Whipper Snapper Distillery in 2014, they wanted to help shape the future of Australian distilling. They're doing exactly that with their small-batch Single Grain Series drops.

Rather than putting an emphasis on how a whisky is aged and what it is aged in, Whipper is all about grain. "I grew up on Western Australia's grain belt so it was a no-brainer for me to start highlighting some of the different grain profiles we can actually use in whisky," McKeown says.

They kicked things off with a bourbon-style whiskey, the Whipper Snapper Upshot ($98/700ml, whippersnapperdistillery.com), that's 80 per cent corn, 10 per cent malted barley and 10 per cent wheat. The Single Grain Series will include a rye whiskey made using WA heirloom rye. They also make Project Q ($220/500ml), Australia's first quinoa whiskey.

"It's about different grain profiles to highlight flavour capabilities in a whiskey and conveying that provenance to farmers, especially with wheat," McKeown says.

Also try: Family-owned Mornington Peninsula distillery Chief's Son (chiefsson.com.au), Victoria's small-batch beauties Yack Creek Distillery (yackcreekdistillery.com.au) and Timboon (timboondistillery.com.au), or husband-and-wife operation Black Gate (blackgatedistillery.com) from Mendooran in New South Wales.

A sense of place

Gareth and Angela Andrews make their award-winning Fleurieu Distillery whisky in Goolwa, South Australia. The action happens in a heritage-listed building dating back to the 1870s. "Whatever the climate is outside, it's very similar in here," Gareth says. "That helps the whisky reflect the local environment."

The Fleurieu Coast extends from the Coorong's sandy surf beaches to the windswept Cape clifftops, and the moody, rugged coastal photograph on Fleurieu Distillery's label was taken by local photographer Adam Durst. "Our barrels and distillery are so close to the water's edge and we're not that far from the coast. It's just over the sandhills so we have that big, Southern Ocean influence in our whisky."

Fleurieu Distillery has won a swag of international awards (particularly in peated whisky classes) since it started distilling single malts in 2013. Try their Jabberwocky Single Malt Whisky ($182/700ml, fleurieudistillery.com.au). Just 750 bottles were made. It is a little peated and a little wild, just like the book by Lewis Carroll.

Also try: Chief's Son 900 Sweet Peat Release 6 Barrel ($210/700ml, chiefsson.com.au) – a mild, modern, sweet peated malt whisky by the family-owned and operated Mornington Peninsula distillery.

The lowdown

The spelling of whisk(e)y largely depends on where it is made. In Ireland, it's spelt with an "e" (most American producers opt for this, too). In Scotland, Japan, Australia, Canada and India, it's generally whisky but some Aussie producers opt for an "e", depending on their stylistic inspiration.

You could write a book about the various kinds of whisk(e)y but in a nutshell, Scotch is made in Scotland (mostly malted barley) and single malt whisky is made in a single distillery using a single malted grain (usually barley).

Bourbon is made in the United States from at least 51 per cent corn, while rye whiskey, a style of bourbon, must be at least 51 per cent rye.

How to drink it

Tips fom Lark Distillery's head distiller Chris Thomson.

  • First and foremost, there is no wrong way to drink whisky. Whether that's neat on ice, with soda, Coke or as a cocktail – whatever makes you happy is the right way to drink it.
  • I like to drink it neat in a chilled glass – a wine glass, a brandy glass, or a Glencairn glass – anything with that "winey" shape.
  • If you want to look like an expert, hold your glass to a 45-degree angle. Due to the high alcohol, the aromas evaporate off into different layers in the glass; as you run your nose down from the top to the bottom of the glass the smells faction out, and you're able to smell all the different flavours.
  • Adding a drop or two of water to whisky will completely change the structure and the aroma of the whisky. Try the whisky straight out of the bottle then add some water to it and you'll find a completely new experience.
  • Add ice and a little bit of soda for a totally fun, summery drink. It's social, easy drinking and not too strong. As for garnishes, a little bit of orange peel might be fun.