Australian Whisky: Part 1, History
A few months ago I got a facebook message from a guy called Niko Devlin, who is the President of the Australian Whisky Appreciation Society, which went something like, “Hey, I like your distillery maps of Scotland. You ever thought of doing one of Australia?”. Now, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t even thought there were enough distilleries in Australia to fill out a whisky map! I knew there were a few in Tasmania, but turns out that was a bit of understatement. There are currently 11 whisky distilleries in Tasmania and 24 in mainland Australia. Who knew? Not me. So, with a LOT of help from Niko and a fair bit of jiggery pokery with distillery locations (there being a total dearth of distilleries in that top middley bit of the very big country that is Australia) I did up a distillery map of Australia.
When you think about it, it’s not really surprising that Australia has a thriving whisky scene. In fact, I think Dave Broom summed it up pretty well in his ‘World Atlas of Whisky’, “The most surprising thing about the Australian whisky boom is that it’s taken so long to happen. This, after all, is a country that was widely settled by Scots, is rich in malting barley and culturally is known to like a drink”.
You could say that the history of spirits and distilling in Australia dates back to the arrival, if not of the First Fleet in 1788, then certainly of the first free settlers in the 1790s. Rum and brandy appear to have been the spirits of choice; Sugar plantations were established in Queensland in the mid 1800s and rum production followed shortly afterwards. Maybe the taste for rum was brought over by the British Navy with the First Fleet? It would appear to be a lasting taste too; in the 1995 book ‘Classic Spirits of the World’, rum is quoted as being, “Australia’s second drink to beer, with the leading brand, Bundaberg, outselling Johnnie Walker by two to one”. (Incidentally in the same book, Australian whisky didn’t even get a mention!). Brandy making grew from a need for a grape based spirit to produce fortified wines (much more popular at the time than table wines). The knowledge of wine making as well as presumably brandy distillation had been brought over by early European immigrants. The number of brandy distilleries grew throughout the 19th century and in 1901 the first laws were drawn up to regulate the burgeoning industry.
Despite the large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants though, and the wide availability of grains and beer, whisky distilling (of the legal type at least) didn’t really seem to gain a major foothold. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that whisky distilleries didn’t exist. They did. In fact, the first legal whisky distillery in Australia was established way back in 1822, in Tasmania. That’s 2 years before the Glenlivet, the “distillery that started it all” in Scotland. However, unlike in Scotland, legal distilling in Tasmania was to be a very short lived affair. In 1839 the Distillation Prohibition Act banned colonial distillation altogether and it was to be another 153 years before anyone was granted a distilling licence on the island.
By 1954, Corio was apparently the largest distillery in the Southern Hemisphere, having produced, in its first 25 years of existence, some 12 million gallons (about 48 million LPA) of whisky and 5 million litres of gin. This accounted for two thirds of the total Australian whisky trade and half the gin market!
Quantity does not always equate to quality though, and it would appear that, certainly latterly, Corio’s reputation was questionable at best. One description I saw compared it to motor oil, another described it as “rot-gut” and apparently instructions from HQ (that would be DCL) were to produce something “no better than the worst scotch whisky”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. The distillery continued in production right up to the 1980s though, when it was closed following massive financial losses. It’s reputation not withstanding, the Corio distillery, through its comparative longevity if nothing else, clearly had an important role in the history of the Australian whisky industry. The article I read described the Corio brand as “leaving behind a twofold legacy; firstly, it was proof positive that whisky could be made in Australia, and on a large scale, and; secondly, that if it was ever to be done again the focus would have to be on quality rather than quantity. Thankfully that’s exactly what those in the present day industry have realised.”
So there you have it. I’m still none the wiser as to why the Australian whisky boom took so long to happen but I am slightly better informed as to the history behind it. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the rebirth of the Australian whisky industry in the 1990s and what’s happening now.
It’s all the more remarkable then to think that at one point in time, Springbank was considered to be at the forefront of innovation and modernisation! In an article that Hedley G Wright, the current Chairman of Springbank, wrote for The Wine and Spirit Trade Record in 1963, he stated, “Springbank Distillery today has changed in several features from olden times. The company has been one of the pioneers of mechanisation within the distilling industry and the movement of barley and malt is now performed entirely by belts screws and elevators…The actual maltings have been rationalised so that there is only one set of floors and one kiln where formerly there had been two independent maltings…The green malt is dried on a pressure kiln of modern design and this item of equipment has been found to give a superior quality of malt and also effect considerable economy of time and fuel"
Then fermentation, “The actual washbacks are made of Scottish ‘boat-skin’ larch wood, for it is the belief of the proprietors that a steel wash back, although less expensive to install and maintain, gives a distinct taint to the final whisky, in an analogous manner to the distinctive tone given to a violin by the use of steel strings.”
Then distillation, “The wash is pumped into a large copper still which is heated by a coal fire underneath and also, simultaneously, by an internal steam coil through which superheated steam is passed. This method of heating a wash still is the traditional Campbeltown technique and has been used at Springbank for as long as records indicate; it is thought that no distilleries outside Campbeltown use this method.”
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.