I have 24 small vials of whisky sitting in front of me and only a couple of days in which to drink it all. But what would not normally be a completely unusual occurrence for someone in my line of work becomes startling by the fact that these are all Australasian.
I've long known that Australia and New Zealand produces whisky and have even done my fair share of sampling – though I never thought one might be able to gather 24 different bottlings. What astounds me more is in a nation known for its history intertwined with rum is that there are now 18 licensed whisky distilleries (all opened since 1992) the length and breadth of the country. For the record that's about twice the number of rum distilleries currently in operation.
The island state of Tasmania has Australia's largest concentration of whisky distilleries. A current count shows that there are ten operating on this island alone. That's more than Scotland's famed Isle of Islay. Quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality, but it's still one of a number of signs that Australian whisky is closing the gap on the world's best.
So these samples? Well, I've been chosen to judge the inaugural Australasian Whisky Awards – a competition aimed at promoting the great whisky now being produced in New Zealand and Australia. It's being run by Sydney's World of Whisky - Australia's first and only store dedicated to whisky. It's also in conjunction with The Whisky Show 2012. Being held at Sydney's Tattersall's Club next Friday and Saturday, show organiser David Ligoff tags it as "Australia's greatest whisky tasting event, featuring the best whiskies from the world's greatest distilleries including many Australian top brands."
With over 150 expressions of whisky available to sample and purchase The Whisky Show should prove to be a dram lover's dream. You'll even get to taste, no doubt, some of the liquid I have in these mysterious numbered bottles in front of me. To get you in the mood I thought I'd take you on a quick whisky trail of Australia so that come the show you'll be able to be a judge too.
The Lark Distillery, Hobart, Tasmania
Founded in 1992, Bill Lark, of the distilleries namesake, is considered the father of modern Australian whisky. The first licensed distillery to operate on the island state in over 150 years Bill and Lyn Lark had to overturn Tasmania's century and a half long ban on distilling to get started. And they have been distilling continuously ever since. All their offerings are aged in quarter cask barrels (200-300 litres) that once held Australian sherry or port. These casks allow plenty of interaction with wood and Bill Larks bottles them all as 'single cask' releases too meaning each bottle you buy will be special as it will most likely vary in character from the next one you purchase.
Hellyer's Road Distillery, Burnie, North West Tasmania
Established in 1997 on the site of the old Betta Milk Co-operative in Burnie, Tasmania, Hellyer's Road distillery was an all-new purpose built operation capable of some large scale production. Their whiskies are all produced from Tasmanian grown barley, peat cut from the Tasmanian highlands and local rainwater. After distillation the majority of Hellyer's malts are aged in ex-bourbon American white oak barrels (as are most Scotch whiskies). Keep an eye out for the distillery's 'Pinot Noir Finish' aged in Tasmanian wine barrels – it's an unusual yet highly appealing malt with a long cherry chocolate, vanilla and spice finish.
Bakery Hill, Bayswater, Dandenong Foothills, Victoria
The Bakery Hill Distillery was founded by David Baker – a former food scientist – back in 1999. Baker spent a considerable amount of time on the still set up for his distillery employing the skill of a number of engineering firms in the UK. Bakery Hills new make spirit is put aside for maturation in American oak barrels once housing Jack Daniels. The barrels are re-coopered in Melbourne to reduce the original 225 litre size to just 100 litres. Bakery Hill produces both peated and non peated variants at cask strength (around 60 per cent abv) and regular strength (46 per cent abv).
From around Australia
Here's a few more Australian Whisky distilleries to keep an eye out for:
Great Southern Distilling Company, Albany, Western Australia
Overeem, Old Hobart Distillery, Hobart Tasmania
Sullivan's Cove, Cambridge, Tasmania
The Nant Distillery, Bothwell, Central Tasmania
Timboon Railway Shed, Timboon, South West Victoria
Do you think Australian whisky can hold its own against Scotch and other great world whiskies?