Adelaide Hills Distillery has just released what is arguably the most innovative Australian whisky to date.
Since founding the distillery in 2015, Sacha La Forgia had the goal of creating a whisky using 100 per cent native Australian grains.
He experimented with distillation of grains including kangaroo grass, spinifex and salt bush, eventually settling on wattleseed as best suited to the project at this stage.
"Wattleseed was grown by the Aboriginal people in a huge grain belt through the centre of Australia that was destroyed shortly after colonial settlement," La Forgia says.
"It was a staple grain in the Aboriginal diet and there is proof of a 65,000 year old stone mill that was found in the Northern Territory.
"This suggests that the Aboriginal people were milling their grain and perhaps making bread. If this is the case the Aboriginal people would have been the first culture to make bread in the world!"
Grains of local wisdom
So La Forgia argues that while it may not be internationally recognised as such, wattleseed is a cereal grain just like barley, wheat, corn and rye.
And he believes it could be the future of Australian whisky, which to date has largely taken its cues from Scotch whisky's long established norms and traditions.
"We've been so lucky to have the whisky makers that have come before us in Australia, because they've given us an opportunity to start a distillery," he says.
"But if we want to be taken seriously and have an edge in market overseas, there's no point trying to be Scottish. We need to try and be Australian."
La Forgia says the biggest barrier to distilling whisky from wattleseed is the cost, which is $80 a kilo, as compared with $1.20 a kilo for malted barley.
As such, the debut release Native Grain Whiskey has been distilled from a grain bill composed predominantly of barley, with a smaller percentage of wattleseed.
"The end goal is to have something that is 100 per cent native Australia grain, but it's probably not going to happen in the next ten years," La Forgia says.
"There hasn't been the same level of research and development into Australian foods… it's probably going to be more like 20 years until we can make them a crop that's easy to farm, yields well and can be automated and mechanised like barley is."
The wattleseed is roasted and ground, prior to being mashed in with the malted barley, to bring out its intense flavours.
"It has a beautiful chocolate and nut character that matches really well with whisky," La Forgia says.
Native Grain whisky has been matured in 100-litre barrels for the minimum two years required under Australian law for it to be called 'whisky'.
A younger release of the product, dubbed Native Grain Project, quietly picked up the gong for Best Australian Grain at the World Whiskies Awards 2019.
The judges said: "Funky fun. A little mustiness alongside some oranges and red fruits. Fresh lemon juice. A little yeasty, with some slight industrial metallic quality beyond. It's unusual. Some cherries and slipping into Bourbon territory with vanilla. Cinnamon and oak spices on the finish."
Just 141 bottles are available of this first batch of Native Grain Whiskey at an RRP of $450.
But Adelaide Hills has more stock undergoing maturation for future releases, and La Forgia is bullish on the potential.
"We want to see other distilleries adopt this approach and even use other grains and create a new category that is truly Australian whisky," he said.
"We've seen it in the gin industry, our biggest advantage is the botanicals we have here in Australia that no one else has.
"You go to the UK and try and sell a London dry gin, and they're not interested. But you go over there and say this gin's got lemon myrtle, strawberry gum and finger lime, and people say, 'that's amazing, I'll buy that!'"
James Atkinson is creator of the Drinks Adventures podcast and a previous editor of Australian Brews News and drinks industry publication TheShout. A Certified Cicerone® and 2017 winner of the Australian International Beer Awards media prize, James regularly contributes to other publications including Halliday, Good Food, QantasLink Spirit and more.