What does the future look like for Australian whisky? Luke McCarthy has his ear to the ground, and it's hard to miss the enthusiasm In this piece, the latest in our Kaddy Commentators series.
For those new to his writing, Luke is a graduate of Melbourne’s Whisky & Alement and wrote a longstanding national drinks column for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on the drinks and bar trade. A judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Aussie spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books. You can catch more of his excellent work at Oz Whisky Review.
For anyone interested in where Australian whisky might be heading, Melbourne was the place you wanted to be on a recent Sunday in early April. The whisky industry came together for two events: The Australian Whisky Show, described as the first festival dedicated entirely to Australian whisky, and the Australian Distillers Association (ADA) conference, the annual gathering of the peak industry body and its 350+ members.
This was the first time so many people involved in Australian whisky had been in the same place since the start of the pandemic. Where only months prior, Melbourne’s Pullman Albert Park was a quarantine hotel for returned travellers, now it was packed with 400 distillers, and whisky lovers crowded around stalls at the inaugural Australian Whisky Show. 110 Australian whiskies were on pour from more than 30 different brands. Currently, just over 80 Australian distilleries have whisky on the market, so this was a strong showing from almost half the country’s producers (see the pic below).
Once the show had finished, distillers and industry folk made their way to Starward distillery in Port Melbourne for the ADA conference welcome party.
I write about and review Australian whiskies every week, so it was giddying to finally catch up with friends and acquaintances from every corner of the country after two plague-ridden years.
Virtually all the major players who have helped to develop and grow the industry were at Starward that night. Bill Lark, one of the pivotal figures in the local spirits boom of the last three decades, was there doing the rounds. The founders and leaders of other influential whisky distilleries like Great Southern Distilling’s Cameron Syme, Sullivans Cove’s Patrick Maguire and Starward’s David Vitale were also on show.
Everyone from the old guard to the new was in town. People like Kristy-Booth Lark, owner of Killara Distillery and daughter to Bill and Lyn Lark, and Jane Overeem from the eponymous Hobart distillery – second-generation distillers who are now driving Tasmanian whisky forward.
Then you could talk to Sacha La Forgia, founder of 78 Degrees Distillery in the Adelaide Hills, for a more progressive take on what Australian whisky can be. His Native Grain Whiskey project, with its use of indigenous grains like weeping grass, has riled up many in the industry. But La Forgia is on a mission to go beyond copying old-world styles and create truly Australian whiskies using ingredients from our own backyard.
Leigh and Bree Attwood, owners of Backwoods Distilling Co. in the Victorian high country, share similar ideas. They produce a range of single malt and rye whiskies using heritage grain varieties and specialty malts. But it’s the Backwoods red gum cask whiskies that polarise nearly everyone who tastes them. Some find the earthy, spicy eucalyptus flavours extracted from the red gum unpleasant and overbearing. Others think native wood-matured whiskies could help to establish a unique Australian flavour profile in what is a very crowded world whisky market.
I also talked to Sebastian Raeburn, master distiller at Top Shelf International’s Ned Whisky Distillery in Melbourne. Ned is an affordable Bourbon-style sour mash whisky aimed at an entirely different consumer to those being targeted by Australia’s mostly small owner-operator distillers. Ned Whisky has Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam and motorsport-loving RTD drinkers in its sights, and the ASX-listed Top Shelf is hoping to wrest 5 per cent of the market from conglomerate brands that dominate whisky sales in Australia.
That vision would be welcomed by the local retailers, distributors and bar operators I talk to. Many of them love to get behind emerging Australian whisky producers but find that high prices and intermittent availability hold them back. They want Australian whiskies that can consistently measure up to quality Scottish single malts and American bourbons and ryes while landing at a similar price point.
The price being asked for Australian whisky is a subject of perennial and heated debate. Australian producers have shown that, in terms of sheer quality, they can challenge and even best the top whiskies made anywhere in the world. But the larger question now being asked is: can our whiskies compete on price point and scale with the big international brands?
Can the industry reverse decades of supremacy by overseas producers and recapture 10, 20 or even 30 per cent of the local whisky market? And what are the export possibilities?
Can Australian whisky follow in the footsteps of the Australian wine industry and become an attractive proposition for consumers in the UK, Europe, the US and Asia?
In the early 1900s, Australia was the fourth-largest whisky-producing nation in the world. By the late 1920s, local products accounted for 40 per cent of the whisky consumed in Victoria and just over 10 per cent in states like New South Wales and South Australia (today, Australian whisky accounts for a mere 2 per cent of the local market).
So where to from here? If you asked some of the whisky distillers in the room that night, you would’ve heard quiet confidence in how the category is tracking. “I know we can do this,” Starward’s founder David Vitale said to me. He’s currently based in the US full-time to promote Starward to curious Americans, and if his steely determination, and those of his peers, is anything to go by, Australian whisky is only just getting started.