As the biggest weekend on the Australian sporting calendar arrives, I can bet you won't be toasting the occasion with an Australian brandy. Probably a crafty beer, a single malt, a new gin, maybe even a quality rum will be on the menu. But not brandy.
Go back more than half a century, though, back to a time when the Bulldogs won their last flag, back before the Sharks even existed, and our drinking tastes were a little different.
Australia was awash with brandy. Australian made brandy. It was the spirit du jour: we drank brandy with water, with soda and with dry, we drank brandy in Slings, Smashes and Alexanders, we drank brandy neat and over ice, before and after dinner.
But these days, brandy is more likely to be cooked with than drank. You flambé with brandy. Your nan and pop drink brandy.
And while the spirits and cocktail renaissance of the last decade has forged ahead by compulsively referencing the past, it seems there's some drinks we don't mind keeping there.
I've long thought that brandy's time might come again.John Angove
Back to the future
But change is fermenting. Head to Renmark in South Australia, about three hours northeast of Adelaide, and you'll meet an impressive new distillery that's looked to the past to take a gamble on the future.
The Twenty Third Street Distillery, a new $6.6 million venture – $2.3 million of which came from a State Government grant – finally opened its doors last week.
The distillery, constructed on the site of the old Renmano winery and distillery, is the work of locally-owned Bickford's Australia. Bickford's, under the guise of its sister company Vok Beverages, has a penchant for resuscitating famous Aussie drinks brands (Beenleigh Rum is another). It purchased the Black Bottle Brandy portfolio from Accolade Wines back in 2011, and with this new, sleek and modern distillery they're gearing up to tackle Australia's nonchalance towards brandy head on.
The experienced Graham Buller, the head distiller and old hand at producing Australian brandy, is certainly up for the challenge.
"We're being encouraged to be inventive and innovative … and in the process, reignite brandy, give it a healthy dose of cool and captivate new consumers with a drink they thought was only for their nannas."
Not your Nanna's brandy
The Australian brandy category has been in the doldrums for decades. Once a ubiquitous spirit both in production and consumption, brandy has experienced a steady decline since the 1960s, when changes to taxation and the decline of fortified wines in favour of table wines – many wineries used to keep stills to create their own fortifying spirit – led to the industry's demise.
The plight of brandy was perhaps most effectively hinted at last year with the release of the Bass & Flinders Distillery's exceptional Ochre Aged Grape Spirit. The Mornington Peninsula producers were so concerned about Australian brandy's image problem that they didn't even put brandy on the label.
The St Agnes Distillery, located about a kilometre away from the new Twenty Third Street Distillery in Renmark, is all too familiar with the problem. The Angove family have been making the highly-awarded St Agnes range of brandies, Australia's best-selling brandy, since 1925. But John Angove, managing director of Angove Family Winemakers, has always maintained a quiet hope for the Aussie brandy category.
"I've long thought that brandy's time might come again," says Angove. "So we're very keen to see how it's going to go [Twenty Third Street Distillery]. If it gets more people drinking Australian brandy and visiting Renmark, then it'll be great for the category and great for the region."
Both St Agnes and the Twenty Third Street Distillery will certainly benefit from the upswing in spirits appreciation that's been spearheaded by Australia's small 'craft' distilleries. But when it comes to potential output, both distilleries sit in a different league. Befitting their heritage, the two facilities house enormous old pot stills built by Adelaide manufacturers H. Jennings. These old pots could, if desired, produce in a day what it takes many smaller Australian distilleries to produce in a few months.
And while brandy will be the Twenty Third Street Distillery's focus, with their 'Not Your Nanna's Brandy' wryly challenging our antipathy to aged grape spirits, they've also released a tasty gin and a quirky 'hybrid whisk(e)y' which blends malt whisky with American bourbon – a great idea, even if I'm not totally convinced by the result.
Two brandies to look out for in Bickford's current range are the 23rd Street Distillery Prime 5 Brandy and the famed Black Bottle XO. Neither these or the above products hail from the Renmark site as it's not yet fully operational. But once the distillery is up and running, chief distiller Buller will be joined by Ronnie Kreher and Hugh Holds – the latter was formerly behind the successful Starward malt whisky brand.
The team, much like the distillery itself, will bring a unique blend of heritage and innovation to their task. Experimental trials will sit alongside more long-term projects, and Buller is excited about the potential of the dynamic.
"Our brief is clear – so long as we continue to produce the existing products, nothing is off the table," he says. "There's a lot of things we'll be working on. And a lot of trials that I probably won't even see come into fruition. Keep in mind, the average age of the Black Bottle XO is 34 years. I'll be, well, pretty old in 34 years' time."
Time will tell if this ambitious distillery can spark a renewed interest in Australian brandy. Either way, there's incredible value and quality to be found here – you can normally pick up a bottle of said XO for under around $130!
Sometimes it pays to back the underdog.
Luke McCarthy travelled to Renmark courtesy of Bickford's Australia.
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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