Australian whisky used to be nearly impossible to find in shops and rarely spotted online, where miniature quantities from a mere handful of distillers sold out in a flash.
If you didn't 'know a bloke' or weren't willing to hike to a cellar door in some back-block industrial estate to snaffle some 'direct-to-public' stock, you missed out. The "quality over quantity" philosophy that has characterised the first two decades of proper whisky production in Australia has been challenging, to say the least, for local whisky lovers.
It's not only the fans who are frustrated, which led the founder of Melbourne-based distiller Starward, David Vitale, to set out to create an affordable, yet still complex whisky that could be produced at scale.
True blue flavour
Vitale, who is also the former protégé of the 'godfather' of the highly regarded Tasmanian whisky industry, Bill Lark, wanted "a distinctly Australian whisky unshackled from tradition". An injection of cash in 2015 from Distill Ventures, the accelerator fund for global spirits giant Diageo, helped to fund new facilities and opportunities.
The whisky he devised is known as Starward Two-Fold – so called because instead of solely using malted barley as the base grain, as Scottish tradition dictates, Vitale also adds Australian wheat. Rather than ageing the liquid in commonly used port or sherry casks, he procures Australian red wine barrels for the task. The mixing of barley and wheat results in a lighter whisky that allows the flavours imparted by the red wine-infused oak to shine through.
Vitale hopes Two-Fold can create a "bridge" for red wine drinkers in particular to approach whisky for the first time. "We felt it was important for us to create a flavourful but easy-drinking and approachable whisky that talks to the place it is made, like very few whiskies can," Vitale says.
The approach has so far paid dividends. Selling at $65 a bottle – an almost unheard-of low price point for an Australian-made whisky – stocks of Two-Fold sold out within hours of its release, with Starward's production team working overtime to restock the online store. Vitale also hopes to put Two-Fold on the shelves of bars around the world as the first distinctly Australian whisky.
"We believe we have an opportunity to elbow out some space and create an alternative to the great whiskies from around the world with an Australian whisky, matured in Australian wine barrels," he says.
He's not the only one thinking about the future. A raft of new distilleries are establishing themselves not only in Tasmania, the traditional home of whisky distilling in Australia, but in most mainland states. And existing distilleries are upping their game to meet demand.
Small town quality
On the Victoria-NSW border, the Corowa Distilling Co resides in a lovingly restored old flour mill and has just dropped its inaugural releases, First Drop and Bosque Verde. The former sold out in days, while the latter is still available at $180 from corowadistilling.com.au
Further north at Mendooran, in central-west NSW, the husband-and-wife team of Brian and Genise Hollingworth of Black Gate Distillery have just released a new single malt peated whisky at an eyebrow-raising cask strength of 63.7 per cent ABV. Only 171 bottles have been released at $175 each from blackgatedistillery.com, and if past popularity is any guide, they will sell quickly.
Meanwhile, back in Tasmania, an impressive purpose-built structure is nearing completion in Perth, south of Launceston, to house the Adams Distillery. Distillers Adam Pinkard and Adam Saunders (hence the distillery name) have already released moonshine and gin, and are preparing to launch their first whisky on December 15, in a late bid for space in Christmas stockings.