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To innovate or regulate | Australian distillers are pushing the boundaries of the spirit world

July 12, 2022

Australian distillers are shaking up the world of whisky with innovative techniques, but will more strict requirements for classic styles stymie this or help our products on the world stage? That's the fascinating question that Luke McCarthy poses in this comprehensive look at the Australian whisky scene's philosophical tussle with novel production methods.

Australia's rapidly expanding spirits industry now ranks among the world's best. Some significant international accolades in recent weeks emphasise that fact. Firstly, Melbourne’s Starward Whisky was named Most Awarded Distillery at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the first time an Aussie distillery had taken out the ultimate prize in the event’s 22-year history. Then, the International Wine & Spirit Competition, another of the world’s most respected comps, announced that three of four shortlisted nominees for International Gin Producer of the Year were Australian: Naught DistillingKalki Moon Distilling and Granddad Jack’s Craft Distillery.

Clearly, quality local ingredients and Australian distillers' diligence are helping their spirits stand out overseas. But shaking the scene up has been another ingredient in the Australian industry’s success – challenging orthodoxy and pushing long-established boundaries. From wine grape gins to native grain whiskies, Australian spirits are capturing international acclaim thanks to their unique spin on old-world styles.

By international standards, Australia’s loose distilling regulations and laws have encouraged this creativity. Australia’s deservedly successful gin producers, for instance, aren’t beholden to the same strict requirements that govern UK and European gins. And while our whisky, rum and brandy products must adhere to standards like a minimum two-year maturation period in a wooden vessel, such requirements are nowhere near as stringent as those governing Scottish, Irish and now New Zealand whisky products.

For the most part, this hasn’t been an issue. The majority of Australian distillers follow the definitions and production guidelines set by international laws. But several recently released spirits products have led some within the industry to question whether the regulations are adequate. They argue that a small minority of producers are taking advantage of Australia’s flexible definitions to create spirits that circumvent accepted production and labelling practices.

Leigh Attwood, co-founder of Victorian whisky and gin distillery Backwoods Distilling Co., is one producer concerned about the current state of play.

“Without knowing that these products have met the minimum standards and requirements, there’s no guarantee of quality,” says Attwood. “When we’re seeing so-called ‘whiskies’ released at three weeks or two months old mimicking products that have taken years of work, it’s unfair on the producers who are out there respecting the rules.”

He references products like Mountain Distilling’s Red Gum Single Malt. The Mount Macedon-based Mountain Distilling caused a stir last year when its just-released Red Gum Single Malt received the highest score for an Australian whisky at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, besting some of Australia’s most established whisky makers.

Unbeknown to everyone, including the competition’s judges, was that the Red Gum Single Malt (pictured above) had been ‘force aged’ with red gum wood in just 15 days. It was created using a thermal-based technology developed with the assistance of a Monash University professor.

“We wanted our Single Malt to be blind tasted and fairly represented amongst its whiskey peers for its quality and flavour,” said Michael Harris, co-founder of Mountain Distilling, following news of the award.

“So rather than revealing its production method, we let the spirit speak for itself first.”

The product has since been frequently referred to as whisky by prominent news outlets and retailers, even though the term doesn’t appear on the bottle. Leigh Attwood questions the fairness and transparency of this and thinks that retailers might be left confused and duped in categorising and selling these products.

“The producers are often setting down the category for the retailers, and it’s putting retailers in a pretty awkward position. In some cases, retailers might be unaware of what they’re selling, and not realise some of these products don’t meet the requirements.”

These products are stirring up heated debate throughout the industry. Sebastian Costello, head judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards (ADSA), says that everyone from retailers to spirits competitions are now having to think closely about how they define what’s acceptable.

“It’s a fine line between making something brilliant and making something that pushes things too far,” says Costello.

“As the industry grows, I do think we need stronger definitions and style guides, and competitions like the ADSA can help with that. But these competitions are in their infancy as well, so it’s all about continuous improvement and working with the industry to create better communication between producer and customer.”

Costello and others are looking to peak industry body the Australian Distillers Association (ADA) for guidance, and the ADA’s CEO Paul McLeay says the association shares the concerns of some in the industry.

“We have very strong concerns when people and organisations are undermining the integrity of Australia’s premium spirits products, particularly in the consumer’s mind,” says McLeay.

“We’re very mindful about it, and we want to work constructively with our members, first of all, and both retailers and distributors about raising awareness.”

McLeay also revealed that Australia’s spirits regulations came to a head recently in negotiating the Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement. The UK negotiators asked for changes to the definition of Australian whisky, as McLeay explains.

“The UK negotiators said Australia has more cavalier definitions and could potentially not maintain the integrity of what the consumer sees as whisky. To which the Australian side said that we were prepared to review our definitions, particularly of whisky, and to that extent we’re now beginning that process.”

McLeay says the Australian Distillers Association has established a technical standards project group with briefings and consultations with members beginning in August. In addition, a dozen Australian distillers recently travelled to Scotland and Ireland for formal bilateral meetings with the Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky Associations to better understand their concerns and chart the implications of updating Australia’s regulations.

The Australian spirits industry’s international recognition is now meeting international scrutiny. That scrutiny is undoubtedly a complement to the success, progressiveness and future potential of the industry. But now starts the complicated task of ensuring our innovative distillers aren’t stymied by restrictive regulations.

The balancing act begins.

Photos sourced from Instagram