In three decades, the Australian whisky industry has gone from boutique to award-winning. From Australian single malts to blended whisky, there’s a lot to discover.
Australian whisky is having a moment – not just here but globally, with distillers such as Tasmania’s Lark Distillery and Victoria’s Starward Whisky scooping up prestigious international awards.
Only three decades ago, locally made whisky was little more than a curio (although distilling in Australia dates back to the earliest days of European settlement). Two key legal changes facilitated this renaissance of whisky distilling in Australia, and opened the door to boutique distillers. When Tasmanian state law allowed the reintroduction of distilling in the island state in 1992 after a153-year hiatus, Lark Distillery founder Bill Lark, often referred to as the godfather of Australian whisky, soon had his first 20-litre still up and running. And importantly, he triggered a revolution of Tasmanian whiskies that has only accelerated in recent years, and spread across Australia – from Victoria to South Australia and Western Australia.
“I’ve been in the business 15 years,” says Chris. “It was relatively quiet when I started. Then, Australian whiskey distilleries got some international recognition, and we started seeing that modern momentum building off that.”
At its heart, Aussie whisky tends to follow the Scotch whiskies’ blueprint of double distillation of malted barley in a pot still, resulting in some exceptional single malt whisky as well as blended whiskies. But less stringent definitions in the Spirits Act 1906 have allowed local distillers more freedom to experiment.
Cask whisky needs to be matured for at least two years in Australia, not three like Scotch whiskies, and that makes for a different age statement. Plus, whisky casks are defined as being made of wood – not oak, as specified in Scotland, where many premium distilleries only use French oak.
It’s with those casks that Australian whiskies have arguably set themselves apart.
“It’s hard to generalise Australian whisky but… Australia makes some of the best fortified wines on the planet, and those wine casks flow through into whisky,” says Chris. So you might sip a Starward Fortis that’s been aged in American oak casks that once contained ballsy Barossa red wines. Or Lark’s Symphony No. 1, which uses a variety of old sherry and port barrels to create a rich array of flavours.
Also, the whisky industry hasn’t matured to the point where economies of scale have built efficiencies into the process. Things are left a little looser as a result.
“Fermentation might be a bit longer, generally, and distillation a little slower, and we’re maybe a bit more hands on,” Chris says. “And I think all of those things add up to an Australian style that’s bigger, brasher and less controlled. When you’re young and finding your place in the whisky world, you can do whatever you want.”
It’s also worth noting that Tasmania’s terroir lends itself to some unique peated whiskies, which have been garnering acclaim to rival Scotland’s best.
Luscious and fruity on the nose, there are notes of fresh mango, toasted pineapple, orange, vanilla and tangerines. On the palate, expect more mango, peach, apricot and toffee apple, before a lengthy, balanced finish of fresh fruit and citrus.
A rich, full-bodied, balanced whisky with a distinctively Starward smoothness. Upfront, expect notes of Madagascan vanilla pod and toasty oak. On the palate, there are elements of chocolate ganache, cinnamon, quince and muscadelle raisin, with a lingering baking spiced finish.
This modern classic starts with plenty of citrus, orange and lemon before a velvety vanilla sweetness takes over on the palate. The finish is warm and toasty with impressions of freshly buttered sourdough.