Scotch expert Sean Baxter demystifies whisky and some of the unfounded taboos that surround the ancient amber liquor.
Australian whisky has launched itself into the spotlight over the last few years. From Tasmania to Cairns, Albany to rural New South Wales, quality whiskies have emerged from almost every pocket of the country.
The industry has developed to such a point that the old boys – Lark, Sullivans Cove, Bakery Hill – have now been joined by a new wave of Aussie producers.
But trying to get your hands on some of these bottlings, both new and old, isn't easy. Making whisky is still a risky proposition, and Australian distillers have dedicated themselves to quality over quantity, an approach that's lifted the category to the international reputation it now enjoys.
It has also made it tricky for many of us to discover some of the best stuff out there. Price is an issue, some of which is producer-led, but taxation is also a significant factor.
To see where the industry has come from, and to find out where it's heading, here is a round-up of some top Aussie whiskies definitely worth getting your hands on now. And I mean right now - some of this stuff is limited as heck.
Mackey Single Malt Tasmanian Whisky
This compelling single malt was released in late 2015. Unlike other Tasmanian distillers, though, Hobart-based maker Damian Mackey decided to triple distil his whisky following the Irish method, and has created a lighter, more purified spirit.
But we're a long way from the delicate Irish whiskies produced at Midleton (Jameson) or Bushmills here. Each expression Mackey has released, all from single casks that have previously held Australian fortified wine (port), have shown rich, toffee, camphor, raisin notes similar to the top Overeem and Lark expressions of a comparable ilk.
But the extra distillation has wrought an additional subtlety and refinement. It's a fascinating approach, but stock is limited, so you'll have to move fast to try one of Tasmania's most impressive new whiskies.
Mackey Single Malt Tasmanian Whisky, Cask 004, 49 per cent, approx $200 (coming soon)
Limeburners Single Malt Whisky Peated
Following more international awards, it's a great time to get acquainted with the Limeburners single malts from the Great Southern Distilling Company in Albany, Western Australia. Limeburners roughly split into two camps: cask strength expressions at around 61 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), and non-cask strength expressions which have been diluted to 40–48 per cent ABV.
All of these whiskies come from single casks, mainly ex-Australian fortifieds. But an intriguing peated expression is also available, where local West Australian peat has been used to incense the malted barley the distillery mashes, ferments and distils.
There's already a slight salty note to the Limeburners spirit, possibly due to its proximity to the sea, which is just across the road from the distillery – although how a whisky acquires a salty character is a contentious topic. So if you're into the peated stuff from the Scottish west coast, you need to give this a try. Just clear a space in your wallet.
Limeburners Single Malt Whisky Peated, 48 per cent, $250
Black Gate 520s Single Malt Whisky
I was blown away when I recently tried the latest release from the Black Gate Distillery, the 520s. The '520s' refers to the five casks that were blended together by Brian Hollingworth at his distillery in Mendooran, half way between Dunedoo and Gilgandra, nearly five hours north-west of Sydney.
At a whopping 67 per cent ABV, you'd think it would be an absolute behemoth. Well, it is, but it's still achieved a remarkable balance: heavy sherry and port characters come together with that classic burnt toffee and brown sugar note you often get with Brian's spirits. It's big, fat, oily and fruity, but an undercurrent of smoke and earthiness provides plenty of structure. Worth every dollar.
Black Gate 520s Single Malt Whisky, 67 per cent ABV, approx $200
New World Projects Port Double Cask
The Australian whisky industry experienced a big moment late last year when a subsidiary of Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, purchased a stake in Melbourne's New World Whisky Distillery, producers of the popular Starward Malt Whisky. The move certainly quelled any doubt about Australian whisky having a future on the international stage.
Full control still rests with the board at New World Whisky, so their innovative approach to whisky-making will continue to thrive. Which is great news, because under their New World Projects (NWP) label, there are plenty of interesting releases well worth your hard-earned.
A recent stunner was their New World Projects Port Double Cask #1 – a marriage of two barrels of whisky that had both been resting in ex-Australian tawny casks. It's a softer, less emphatic whisky than other NWP releases, and much more refined than its counterparts here. But it still offers up plenty of floral and fruity complexity. And it's reasonably priced, too, a welcome achievement.
New World Projects Port Double Cask #1 48.6 per cent ABV, $130
Heartwood Malt Whisky
The practise of independent bottling, where an individual or company purchases casks from distilleries and bottles it under their own label, is centuries old. Cadenhead's in Scotland can trace its roots back to 1842; Berry's Bros. & Rudd in London back to 1698.
Tasmania has its own independent bottler in Tim Duckett, whose Heartwood Malt Whisky label is in a league of its own. Duckett (also a board member of the Lark Distillery) has bottled some incredible Tasmanian whiskies since his first release in 2012, and taken out international independent bottler of the year on more than one occasion.
He brings a creative, unfettered approach to his task, constantly experimenting with maturing barrels and blending them together in different ways – some if it crazy by Scottish standards. That's probably why his whiskies taste so damn good.
'Any Port in a Storm' is a recently released monster port cask-matured whisky from Duckett's inventory. One tiny sip and you'll taste it for days. And like so many other top Australian whiskies, it's well worth seeking out.
Heartwood Malt Whisky 'Any Port in a Storm' 69.1 per cent ABV, $230
What's your favourite Aussie whisky, and why? Let us know in the comment section.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.