Making whisky hadn't occurred to John Casella when he stepped in to buy renowned fortified winemaker, Morris of Rutherglen, in 2016.
"The acquisition was made to save an Australian icon," he says. "But when we walked through the place, there was this lovely old still that hadn't been used for 30 or 40 years, and barrels that dated back to the 1800s."
Copper & Grain Distilling Co, a new subsidiary of Casella Family Brands, has this month launched Morris Whisky, giving a new lease of life to the 162-year-old Morris family winery. "We have a family brewery that could create the whisky wash, and we had thousands more wine barrels in our business that we could re-configure for whisky," Casella adds. "All the elements were there."
Best known for its critter wine juggernaut Yellow Tail, Casella has made great strides into premium wine, brewing and now whisky over the past decade.
With its resources and financial backing, Copper & Grain is able to produce whisky at a scale that allows more economical pricing. "Australia is strongly self-sufficient when you look at beer and wine," Casella observes. "Then you look at whisky and we have all the ingredients, but we don't have serious local competition for the imports."
While Australian whisky has grown strongly over the last 12 months, the local industry remains largely comprised of micro-distillers that are way too small to compete on price with the big Glens of Scottish single malt.
With many pricing their wares upwards of $200 for a 500ml bottle, Australian whisky remains largely confined to the domain of enthusiasts, according to Copper & Grain's Michael Sergeant. "A lot of Australian single malts are at the higher end of the market and therefore not accessible to people who want to try them," he says.
Morris Australian Single Malt Signature Whisky ($95 RRP) joins Nova Single Malt ($96 RRP) from Melbourne distiller Starward as the only Australian single malts you can buy with a $100 note.
"It was really important for us to position ourselves under $100," says Sergeant. "It's great to see that Australian whisky enthusiasts are willing to invest [at current pricing], but we feel there is an opportunity to share some of the products with a bigger market."
Copper & Grain has retained veteran Scotch distiller John McDougall to assist Morris head distiller Darren Peck, formerly of Diageo, to refine its production processes.
"The resources that I had to make the perfect premium whisky were amazing," says Peck. "It's an absolutely unique still. We've played with it to get the perfect spirit to make a great whisky. "We've got 100-year-old muscat casks. People don't have access to these sort of casks normally, and the expertise of the team at Morris in maturing fortified wines is simply world-renowned."
Kelvin Low, owner of The Elysian Whisky Bar in Fitzroy, Victoria, welcomed Morris's entry to the Australian whisky scene. "I've been lucky enough to get a sample and it's good stuff," he says. "More than that, the price point is amazing."
Alex Gondzioulis of Sydney venue The Wild Rover says price remains the biggest barrier for Australian whisky, which has already proven its quality on the world stage. "Our distillers have won world's best awards over many years," he says.
"But it is a challenge for bars to be able to afford to pour some of these whiskies at a price a consumer is willing to pay."
Adds Low: "I think it's a really exciting time to be a whisky drinker in Australia. Whether you're drinking scotch or Australian whisky, there has never been this many products in the market to explore."
Five (moderately) affordable Australian whiskies (all in 700ml bottles)
Morris Australian Single Malt Signature Whisky, Rutherglen VIC, 40% ABV ($95)Made with Australian barley and aged in ex-wine barrels prior to finishing in Morris fortified casks. Its stablemate, Muscat Barrel Whisky ($140), is a step up in richness and complexity.
23rd Street Distillery Batch No.1 Single Malt Whisky, Renmark SA, 46% ABV ($119)Produced on a historic still in the Riverland region, previously used for making fortified wine, this whisky is made from Australian malt and matured in American oak ex-Bourbon barrels.
78 Degrees Australian Whiskey, Adelaide Hills SA, 44% ABV ($110)Recently named Best Australian Blended Malt at the World Whiskies Awards, 78 Degrees is distilled from unmalted barley supplemented with specialty malts.
Dugite Whiskey, Porongorup WA, 40% ABV ($99)A blend of premium single malt whisky with mixed grain whiskey, aged in American oak barrels for a minimum of three years.
Archie Rose Single Malt Whisky, Sydney NSW, 46% ABV ($119)A single malt showcasing six different malts, matured predominantly in Australian apera (sherry) casks. Currently sold out, but more stock is expected to become available in August.