I walked into one of my favourite local pubs last week and ordered a gin and tonic. It was a musty, muggy evening and it had me pining for a G&T, but I couldn't hide my surprise when the publican replied to my order with – "happy with just the house gin?"
Naturally, I had to inquire as to what the house was, and I couldn't hide my surprise when he held up a local expression made just outside Melbourne.
When he poured the gin, that unmistakable scent of native citrus and pepper leapt out of the glass. A glance at the back bar then revealed a careful selection of Australian whiskies standing to attention next to some fine Scottish, Irish and American brands. A Tasmanian vodka was there too, as well as a rum from Kununurra up in The Kimberley.
A spirited revival
It's ridiculous how quickly times change in the world of booze. Just a decade ago, trying to spy quality Australian spirits on the shelf was like looking for an endangered species.
With the exception of a few top Australian brandies, some capricious Queensland rums, and a strange whisky from Geelong, spirits production in Australia has been a fairly stale story for the last 80 years.
Underground grog trade
But unbeknown to many, we have serious form with spirits in this country. Dip into Tom Gilling's recently published Grog: a Bottled History of Australia's First 30 Years and you'll find that distilling was rife in the early days of the penal colony.
But prohibitions soon followed. In 1796, distilling was forbidden in New South Wales to stop the sly fermenting and distilling of locally-grown wheat. Australia's first moonshiners were held up as ruinous to the health of the colony, and their crudely built stills were quickly rounded up and destroyed.
Down in Van Diemen's Land, it was a similar story. The Distillation Prohibition Act was passed in 1839 and distilling was nonexistent in Tasmania until a couple of malt whisky fans decided to change things up.
Bill Lark and his wife Lyn pioneered a renaissance in Australian spirits production when they started creating gin and malt whisky in the early '90s. Their efforts, along with amended distilling laws, have since encouraged producers of all shapes and sizes to craft a range of quality Australian spirits.
Now, massive events like next week's Junipalooza, where some of Australia's best gin distillers will be showcasing their wares alongside a number of famed international counterparts, are symbolic of the incredible resurgence in Australian distilling.
Quality gins, whiskies, rums, brandies and vodkas are now emanating from every corner of the country. A new and curious drinking public is thirsty to experience some of these award-winning creations, and there is now a real thirst for knowledge about where this industry has come from who was behind its development.
I recently penned a book on the subject, The Australian Spirits Guide, to satisfy this thirst. But for a more succinct rundown, above is a timeline of some of the early trailblazing distillers and their ground-breaking spirits. So next time you're enjoying one of the hundred-or-so Australian spirits now available at bars, retailers or maybe even your local pub, you know who to raise a glass to.
Click through the gallery above to see the top nine.
Lark Distillery, Single Malt Whisky, Gin, 1992
The idea of creating a quality Australian malt whisky first got Bill and Lyn Lark interested in distilling. But while waiting for their whisky to mature, Lyn also created gins and liqueurs using native botanicals, a decision that's influenced scores of Aussie producers over the preceding two decades. Now the Lark's are recognised as pioneers of the Australian distilling renaissance, and their generosity in helping other producers get started has contributed immeasurably to the growth of the industry.
The Hoochery, Ord River Rum, 1995
After a visit to Yarra Valley wineries in the early 90s, Kimberley seed farmer Spike Dessert decided to start producing spirits on his remote Ord River property north of Kununurra. Taking advantage of the growing sugar cane industry, he fermented and distilled local cane juice and molasses and matured it in Western Australian wine barrels on his property. The resulting Ord River Rum is now recognised as one of Australia's very best spirits.
Sullivans Cove, Single Malt Whisky, 1996
While the Sullivans Cove whisky brand was originally founded in 1996, it wasn't until current distiller Patrick Maguire took the reins in the early 2000's that the distillery hit its straps. Their win in 2014, when Sullivans Cove French Oak was crowned World's Best Single Malt – the first time a whisky outside Scotland or Japan received such an accolade – shined a light on the quality of whisky being produced in Australia.
Bakery Hill Distillery, Single Malt Whisky, 1999
David Baker, distiller and founder of the Bakery Hill Distillery in Melbourne, was laughed at in the late 90s when he told people he wanted to create an Australian single malt whisky equal to those from Scotland. But he's determination has since paid off, with some of the world's most respected whisky judges and writers now rating his single malts among some of the very best.
Kangaroo Island Spirits, Gin, 2007
Jon Lark (Bill's brother) and his wife Sarah were among the first Australian distillers to take inspiration from Australia's native botanicals and use them to create a unique style of Aussie gin. The array of amazing gins and other spirits they create on Kangaroo Island are now up there with some of Australia's most distinctive and highly-awarded spirits.
666 Pure Tasmanian Vodka, 2010
Back in 2006, Australian spirits were hardly a recognised category. But Dean Lucas, a veteran of the Melbourne hospitality scene, wanted to change that, so he approached the Hellyers Road Distillery in Tasmania's north and developed a quality Australian vodka made from local malted barley. The move paid off in 2010 when 666 Vodka won a gold medal at the highly respected San Francisco World Spirits Competition and signalled the potential for quality Australian-made white spirits.
Belgrove Distillery, Rye Whisky, 2010
Peter Bignell is the founder and sole creative force behind the Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania. The farmer, agricultural scientist, biofuel expert and ice and sand sculptor originally turned to distilling to make use of a bumper rye crop. But since then, the micro-distillery he created on his property, considered the world's greenest distillery, has pushed the boundaries of the Australian spirits category with a range of unique spirits unlike anything being produced anywhere.
West Winds Gin, 2011
When the West Winds Sabre and Cutlass took out Gold and Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition in 2011, Australian gin officially arrived on the world stage. Since that time, the West Winds team have produced a range of exceptional, award-winning gins and established themselves as leaders of the Australian spirits movement.
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. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.
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