Following on from yesterday’s look at the history of whisky distilling in Australia, today I’m going to focus very much on the present (and future) and have a chat with three people from different spheres of the whisky industry; Niko Devlin, President of the Australian Whisky Appreciation Society (and the man responsible for this blog piece!), Frank McHardy, Chief Whiskey Advisor at the Whipper Snapper Distillery in Perth, Western Australia and Mark Coburn, who is currently in the process of building the Coburns Distillery in New South Wales.
First though, let’s take a wee look at what is happening with whisky today. Fortunately things look a lot rosier than where we left it yesterday! The birth (rebirth?) of the modern Australian whisky industry is pretty much credited to one man - Bill Lark. In 1992 Lark fired up his small still at the Lark Distillery in Hobart, Tasmania, making him the first person to hold a distilling license on the island for 153 years. No mean feat, since in order to do so, he first successfully lobbied the Minister of Agriculture to change the 1901 Licensing Act requirement that stills had to be a minimum of 2700 litres. This change in law presumably paved the way for the plethora of small craft distilleries currently springing up all over Australia.
While the number of distilleries has increased dramatically since Lark was established, the volumes produced nationwide remain very small. It would certainly seem that the current crop of Aussie distillers are focussing very much on quality over quantity. According to Deloitte, Australia currently produces around 360,000 litres per annum - that’s less than is currently produced in Campbeltown’s 3 distilleries (Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia) and Campbeltown ain’t exactly a powerhouse in terms of Scotch whisky production volumes!
Just for fun I decided to do a wee comparison between these two illustrious whisky islands. You can see the results for yourselves in the table below but basically it boils down to; Tasmania is over 100 times bigger and more populous than Islay but Islay produces 100 times more whisky. To put it another way, if Tasmania had the same concentration of distilleries as Islay, it would have 882 distilleries! Even at the rate the Australian whisky industry is growing, that’ll take some doing!
While Australian whisky is not that widely available in the UK as yet (ie you’re not going to find it on special offer in your local Tesco) you can find a reasonable selection (Sullivans Cove, Lark, Limeburners, Starward and others I’m sure) in specialist retailers. One thing’s for sure - if the Aussies are anywhere near as successful at marketing their New World Whiskies as they were their New World Wines, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of them in years to come!
Anyway, enough chat from me, let’s find out what they have to say for themselves. First up is the man responsible for this whole map and blog post idea, Niko Devlin.
Why do you think so many new Australian whisky distilleries have started up in recent years?
Well our modern industry only really started in 1992 with Bill Lark leading the way for all of us. Over the past decade Australians have begun to realize we actually have a whisky industry & people have decided to get involved at all levels. There's a boom going on here now with it seeming like there's a new distillery in the works every few months.
It's very exciting to see, now if we can just get our government to help the whisky industry in the same way it's helped the wine industry, the sky will be the limit for what we can achieve.
You mentioned that you are doing a bit of independent bottling - can you tell me a bit more about that? Are there many indie bottlers in Australia?
My AWAS partner Brad O'Riley & I have put together a small batch of casks for our Australian Whisky Appreciation Society members, 3x 30L ex-port casks made with 60+yr old port staves crafted by Master Cooper Andrew Young at Seppeltsfield Winery, we also have a peated 20L mystery cask.
All of the spirit for our 1st batch comes from Archie Rose Distillery, the 1st distillery in Sydney since the 1800s, the team there does outstanding work & we feel very lucky to work closely with them on our 1st bottlings. We're working on putting together a series of larger batches with a view to build it up into a full time independent bottler business, sourcing casks & spirit county wide. We've also got a few little experiments going on, our 1st one being a Mead cask aged Rye, which I'm pretty sure is a world 1st. That was given out to the attendees at our AWAS 1st Birthday tasting.
There's only a handful of independent bottlers in Australia, the most renowned being Heartwood Malt Whisky, the owner Tim Duckett produces some of the best whisky on the planet.
Do you think Australian whiskies have any typical national or regional characteristics?.
Being such a young industry we're only in the infancy of defining our regional characteristics, with Tasmanian whisky blazing the trail for the rest of the country, it definitely has its own style, clean, full bodied & bold flavors with an oily spirit that has a fantastic mouth feel, the rest of Australian whisky follows in that style. There's loads of experimentation going on using a lot of single casks & small batch runs, taking advantage of our world renowned wine industry's barrel stocks.
Do you have any recommendations for people trying Aussie whisky for the first time? (I know it's always difficult to single out favourites but even if it's just ones that you are particularly excited about or that are easier to find abroad than others!)
I'd say the easiest to find on the international market is probably going to be Starward, it's a great representation of Australian whisky & they have a level of production that actually sees stock make it off shore. If you can find them, Lark, Sullivans Cove, Overeem & Heartwood are some of the best whiskies Australia has to offer.
How do you see the future for Australian whisky, both at home and abroad?.
Locally the industry is going from strength to strength with a large portion of releases selling out within hours. The infrastructure is slowly starting to build up to the point where hopefully over the next decade we can produce enough Australian whisky to take up shelf space abroad. We still have a long way to go to catch up with other countries volume wise, but in quality we punch well above our weight.
Why did you decide to start a distillery and why now?
The seed was planted in me 14 years ago when I visited a small distillery in Queensland. The distiller had been an early business partner of Bill Lark, the grandfather of the Australian distilling industry. The distiller had moved from Hobart to the hinterland behind Queensland’s Gold Coast and was making flavoured liquors. I was fascinated by the process. Over the last ten years I have been working towards making the leap to setting up my own distillery. Along the way I came up with the idea that I wanted to be drinking my own 20yo single malt by the time I was 70. This year I turned 49, so it was now or never.
It has taken me a while to work out where my love of distilling comes from. Note that it’s the distilling and not the whisky that came first. To put it into context let me explain; I believe that one of the sincerest ways to show love to another person is by cooking for them, I refer to it as 'putting love on the plate'. Whether it is a 36 hour slow cooked leg of pork or a breakfast omelette, I love cooking for family and friends. I am always looking for new techniques that will create a more enjoyable eating experience, regardless of the extra time or effort the process will take. Distilling comes into context when you learn that my other great passion is steam engines. I am a avid model steam locomotive enthusiast who loves to build and run working model steam engines. The thought occurred to me a few years ago that whisky distillation is the intersection of food and steam.
Why did your choose the Southern Highlands of NSW as the location?
First off, I live here! The area has rolling countryside with a proper four seasons which you don’t get in most of Australia.
The distillery site itself covers 15 acres (6.2ha), of which 3 acres (1.5ha) is peat bog. It’s the only Australian distillery with their own onsite peat for smoking the barley. There are two types of amazing water onsite: Peat filtered lake water and four pure water springs. It’s a warm north facing site for those cold winter days, 725 meters above sea level with average summer temperatures of 14-24C, average winter temperatures 5-13C (100mm of snow last winter) and average rainfall of 700mm.
As a visitors centre is an important part of the business plan, we needed to be easily accessible to nearby towns and major cities. The site we have selected is 12 minutes from Bowral, Mittagong & Moss Vale (25,000 population), 1h 45m drive from Sydney, New South Wales, 1h 45m drive from Canberra, Australian Capital.
Where are you in the process?
The distillery site is being purchased now. Currently we are working on a round of capital raising through barrel sales. We filled an early round of barrel sales and now we have a limited number of barrels in our second offering via our 'Barrel Investment program’
Very soon we will be producing product at another site while we wait for planning approvals for our new distillery to be granted. We will have licensing and planning approvals for on-site production within 12 months. The plan is that we can be releasing our first small cask whiskies by 2020-21.
Do you have a particular style of whisky in mind and how will you achieve that?
We are planning to start by putting down five expressions that will represent the four seasons of the New South Wales Southern Highlands.
Coburns Distillery will distill a triple distilled spirit. Our spirit will be produced in three separate 5000ltr stills, each still built to capture different characteristics. The three still concept is designed to give our distillers and blenders a broad range of flavour profiles in the new make spirit to then create desired style of each expression. To clarify, by having the option of a larger spirit still we hope to have the ability to cut the hearts cleanly into early, mid and late hearts thereby having the ability to be able to make distinct expressions from the new make.
Our goal is to create a single malt that captures the essence of our region. In the process, I hope to create a way of life to hand over to my two daughters in the future. Not to mention the dream of sitting on my balcony over looking the distillery drinking my own 20 year old malt.
Where do you see yourself and your whiskies in 10-20 years time?
We hope to have a substantial visitor centre trade to promote our region and add to that some international sales (and recognition) would be the dream come true.
As I am now discovering, many new distilleries have started up in Australia in recent years - do you see this as an advantage or a disadvantage for you?
We hope that we can inspire and help many more distilleries to open in this area. Joadja Distillery is the only other whisky distillery in the area, we hope to work closely with the owners Elisa & Valero Jimenez to build the region’s whisky profile. The goal is to be able to have the Southern Highlands of New South Wales defined as it’s own whisky region within Australia.
How will your whisky stand out from the crowd?
By being exceptional in every aspect of what we do. From our cellar door hospitality, to our product branding & presentation, and most importantly by making an exceptionally well-crafted spirit we hope to let what we do speak for itself.
Frank McHardy, Chief Whiskey Advisor, Whipper Snapper Distillery, Perth (formerly Director of Production at Springbank and Glengyle Distilleries, Distillery Manager at Bushmills and I forget which Speyside distilleries - Tamnavulin maybe? Anyway, suffice to say Frank has been in the industry for over 50 years and is an absolute legend!)
How did you get involved with Whipper Snapper?
Alasdair Malloch and James McKeown contacted me a number of years ago with a plan to set up a distillery in Perth Western Australia . It seemed to be an exciting project and through our discussions a friendship was developed. Following that, Alasdair and James came to Scotland, spent some time here and we developed the plan from there.
What similarities and differences have you found between starting up a distillery in Australia compared to in Scotland?
One of the main challenges to setting up a distillery in Perth are the ranges in temperatures throughout the year . Coolish in winter but extremely hot in summer. One result of the temperature range can be the large loss during maturation which over the past two years has been measured at around 5 % alcohol per annum. Maturation is proving to be relatively quick though.
Distillers yeast has to be imported.
Good comparisons are the excellent quality of grain used in the processes, the water is pure and legislation regarding the production of spirit is fairly flexible and open to innovation.
What style of whisky are you aiming for and how is that achieved?
The Whiskey produced to date has been Bourbon style and trials are being done at present on a single malt .
The majority of single malt distilleries in Australia use similar processes, that is conventional mash tuns and traditional pot stills . What we do is slightly different in that we use two mash kettles, one of 1,000 litres and the other 4,000 litres. We have 10,000 litres of fermentation capacity in 7 washbacks of varying sizes and distillation takes place in a 16 plate rectifying column still by Arnold Holstein.
At present we are using mainly new virgin American white oak barrels and producing in the region of 30,000 litres of spirit per annum.
Finally Frank, you’ve worked at distilleries in Scotland, Northern Ireland and now Australia. Anywhere else you’re going to add that list?
Currently I am also involved with Dartmoor Distillery in England and a proposed distillery in Israel . Who knows where else…could be Antartica, but don’t tell Richard Patterson - lots of ice there!!!
Good to see Frank is taking things easy in his retirement! - ed.
Massive thanks to Frank, Mark and Niko for taking the time to speak to me and help me with this blog post.
If anyone wants to do any further reading on the Australian whisky industry, I can recommend the following, which I used as sources;
Nick’s Wine Merchants has a pretty extensive guide to Australian whisky and distilleries (past and present)
The Australian Whisky Appreciation Society facebook page
Deloitte Agribusiness article for some facts and figures
Northshore and Norlane Stories website for more information on the history of the Corio Distillery
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.
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.