The Australian whisky scene is constantly evolving, and this was certainly on display at Melbourne's recent Whisky & Dreams festival. The third iteration of the event run by local importer Baranows Emporium, it has quickly developed into Australia's most dynamic whisky show.
Held at Starward's Port Melbourne distillery, Whisky & Dreams showcases the independent, lesser-known producers that rarely grace standard bottle shop shelves. For a particularly reasonable $65, attendees were let loose on the various stalls, which offered close to 150 different products on pour.
Here, respected whisky names from the UK like Gordon & MacPhail, Adelphi and Berry Bros. & Rudd, and the more recently established North Star Spirits and Rest & Be Thankful demonstrated the strength and flair of the independent bottling trade.
Australian distilleries were also on show, with Tin Shed Distilling Co from Adelaide, Black Gate and Archie Rose from NSW, and Victoria's Anther Spirits and Timboon also represented.
The status of this year's event was also elevated by some esteemed guests. Fresh from New Zealand's DramFest whisky show came Dave Broom and Charles MacLean, arguably two of the world's most respected whisky and spirits authors. Their presence, along with the release of Adelphi's The Brisbane by industry legend Alex Bruce – the first official Scotch-Australian whisky blend out of Scotland – gave the event a more globally connected feel, and shone a spotlight on the emerging Australian whisky industry.
The unveiling of The Brisbane by Adelphi was one of the focal points of this year's Whisky & Dreams. The latest in Adelphi's Fusion range, which started in 2015 with The Glover – a Scotch-Japanese blend – these bottlings pay tribute to Scottish figures who've made significant contributions to other nations.
The Brisbane commemorates Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, the Scottish general and astronomer who served as governor of New South Wales between 1821 to 1825 (prohibition on distilling in the colony was even lifted during his tenure). It's comprised of Scotch malt whisky from the Glen Garioch and Glen Grant distilleries which has been blended with three Starward apera (sherry) casks.
In the final blend, you get the rich, toffee and tropical fruit notes consistently found in Starward's Solera cask bottling. But with The Brisbane, Alex Bruce has created an intriguing balancing act by unifying some of the dense oak characters often found in Starward single cask whiskies with the Scottish malt.
For Bruce and Charles MacLean – the latter also assists Adelphi with the selection of their whiskies – the sophistication of Starward's approach won them over years ago.
"When Charles MacLean and I first went to Starward in 2010, it blew us away," says Bruce. "They were making whisky for the Australian climate. They'd planned for the short term maturation window, they were playing around with yeasts, they were completely rethinking the distillation process for Australian conditions. The end product speaks for itself, so it was a bit of a no brainer to work with Starward on a Fusion project."
The heat is on
The developing Australian whisky industry was another hot topic in masterclasses with MacLean, Broom and Bruce. Recurring themes were with the high price and limited availability of many Aussie drops.
"What seems quite clear," MacLean argued, "is that in order to bring down the price of Australian whisky and really put it on the map, you're going to have to expand capacity and volume of production."
These sentiments were echoed by Dave Broom.
"The industry's crying out for two or three major producers to take that step, and it's a bold step, but I think the category's well enough established now. It's been exciting to see what's happening here but it's also been frustrating from an international perspective because you just can't get your hands on Australian whisky."
Broom also wants to see more distillate-driven Australian whiskies that strike a better balance between spirit and oak.
"Your identifying characteristic shouldn't be driven by the cask, it should be understanding and working with your conditions to produce something that's compelling and complex so you don't end up with a good distillate being over-cooked by wood."
All three industry giants, did, however, speak of their admiration for the quality and creativity driving Australian whisky forward.
"The positive for the Australian industry is the capacity to experiment. Using different yeasts, grains and processes and working with the Australian climate, and the fact that you're not so tightly legislated, all of this allows for experimentation," noted MacLean.
Festivals like Whisky & Dreams and collaborations like The Brisbane are now helping to spread the Australian whisky story across the globe. Hopefully, bottles of Australian whisky will soon follow.