Australian drinkers are becoming more adventurous. Full-flavoured craft beers are booming, gin looks likely to overtake vodka as our favourite white spirit, and there's continuing interest in 'natural' wine. Even soft drinks are evolving to emphasise organic ingredients over artificial.
This weekend's Top Shelf festival in Melbourne celebrates and examines these trends with the biggest line-up of Aussie-made spirits ever assembled.
While the exhibitors include multinationals such as Asahi and Diageo, there's a buzz around innovative concoctions from small artisan producers, says event organiser Paul Wootton.
"Over the last few years there's been growing consumer interest in quality, premium brands and local, craft products with authentic credentials and good stories to tell," he says.
"In Australia it's resulted in the emergence of a wave of new distilleries and breweries, and large numbers of interesting new products on the market."
Standing out at the bar
Wootton says the problem for the many new brands is differentiating themselves from the competition.
"Producers and marketers are recognising the power of having a genuine point of difference, in order to stand out and resonate with consumers," he says.
"There's also something about the power of marketing something very specific. People want to know more about what they're consuming – information such as where it comes from and what it's made from."
Gone are the days of simply ordering 'a beer' or 'a whisky'. Here are some of the weird and wonderful drinks at Top Shelf this weekend.
Ink Dry Gin
Husk Distillers, North Tubulgum, NSW
Husk has been making rum from its own sugarcane since 2012, but is set to premiere its innovative new Ink Dry Gin at Top Shelf. The natural infusion of butterfly pea flowers gives the gin a royal blue complexion that is pH sensitive, changing colour to a soft blush pink when mixed with tonic water, lemon or lime juice.
It contains 14 other botanicals and is a very versatile gin, according to Husk's Harriet Messenger. "The colour change element allows mixers an additional level of creativity," she says. "Our signature Ink & Tonic turns the average Gin & Tonic into a cocktail. Great for the home drinker who wants to impress."
Hopped Rye Spirit and Truffled Rye
Archie Rose Distilling Co, Sydney, NSW
One of Australia's newest distilleries, Archie Rose is bringing various different spirits including some experimental collaborations. Hopped Rye Spirit was created together with Sydney's Batch Brewing Company. For the Truffled Rye, a very limited run of Archie Rose's White Rye was infused with black truffle distillate, in counsel with local baker Black Star Pastry.
Organic Smoked Cola
StrangeLove, South Yarra, VIC
StrangeLove's traditional soft drinks include this ode to old fashioned homemade cola. "When I started investigating what colas actually were I got pretty excited," says StrangeLove's James Bruce. "I love the whole apothecary/chemistry angle – the idea that, in a time long past, some weirdo, unemployed chemist sat in a dusty room in Alabama experimenting with nutmeg, kola nut, cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon, cassia –trying to get them all to balance in some sublime, tasty suspension."
Mulled 'Real' Cider
Custard & Co, Donnybrook, WA
There's no more comforting winter scent than a pot of mulled wine or cider. 'Real' cider maker Custard & Co knows this, so has developed its own Spiced Mulling Syrup to enable easy creation of this warming elixir, which will be available to taste and purchase at Top Shelf. Custard's ciders themselves are wild yeast fermented, using whole local fruit from its base in Donnybrook, the heart of WA's apple growing country.
Probiotic Kombucha Cocktails
The Good Brew Co, Brunswick, VIC
If you've missed all the hype in nutritional circles, kombucha is a fermented tea-based beverage with various therapeutic benefits. To square the health ledger, Victoria's Good Brew Co will showcase the potential of its kombuchas as a mixer in alcoholic cocktails.
Among them is The Tyrannical Botanical, a gin-based drink also containing the sedative passionflower as well as turmeric, an anti-inflammatory. According to creator Dean O'Callaghan, the result is an "incredible wind-down drink" that allows you to "retox while you detox".
Myriad vodkas will be on show at the festival, including this one infused with ginseng. The ancient herb is famed for improving male sexual performance, among other remedies, though these benefits are not guaranteed for drinkers. "We know [ginseng] has those properties," says distiller Znaps. "But we cannot, in all fairness, guarantee any special effects from drinking the vodka. There are simply no studies made."
The distiller says the main reason ginseng is added is to enhance the vodka's gentle and smooth character, rather than providing any flavour or aromatic effect.
Stagger Lee Imperial Stout
Edge Brewing Project, West Melbourne, VIC
Brewers are also embracing the addition of herbs and spices to their beers. This 10 per cent ABV brew from Melbourne's Edge includes the addition of native spice wattleseed, which imparts hazelnut, cocoa and coffee flavours and further enhances the roasty malt character, while toasted coconut gives aroma and mouthfeel.
The beer was named after the haunting American folk song, as interpreted by Nick Cave, according to brewer Adam Betts. "This is the beer I enjoy drinking when listening to such music!" he says.
Top Shelf is at Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens on Saturday August 8 (12pm-7pm) and Sunday August 9 (12pm-6pm).
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