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Is Australian Whiskey the Next Big Thing?

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Starward distillery in Melbourne

You probably already know that we’re in the midst of a whiskey revolution and not just the one taking place in Scotland, Japan and the U.S., the world’s most popular whiskey-producing regions.

No, this new movement is growing across the globe, led by countries with no history or traditions in whiskey making: Taiwan, India, Italy and South Africa. Today, a new generation of producers are single-handedly creating new cultures around whiskey and turning out spirits that compete with those by much older, renowned distilleries the world over.

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Australia is one of these pioneering countries. Producers have entered the global whiskey scene, dynamically rising through the ranks in recent years. With the country’s oldest distillery, Lark, founded in 1992, it’s impressive to see the progress Australian whiskey makers have made in a little more than 25 years. After a look at the journey whiskey has taken in the land Down Under, it becomes easier to understand why it’s now having such success.

Lark

“It took a long time to get people interested in Tassie [Tasmanian] whiskey,” says Adam Sable, the managing director of Sullivans Cove, one of Australia’s oldest and most globally renowned whiskey distilleries. Sullivans Cove was founded in 1994, when the Australian whiskey scene was still quite bare. The team immediately focused on creating fully Australian whiskey, using local Tasmanian barley and water. “We were recognized by spirits competitions as a really high-quality product before the general public,” says Sable. “But these days, we get a universally positive response.”

Amassing awards since the early 2000s, the distillery truly burst onto the global whiskey scene after winning the award for World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards in 2014. This marked the first time a whiskey outside of Scotland and Japan had received the title. This year, in 2018, the distillery won the title of World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt.

Sullivans Cove (image: Natalie Mendham Photography)

The birthplace of some of the most well-known Australian spirits, the island state of Tasmania was home to just nine distilleries in 2014 but now has more than 30 operational distilleries—steady growth Sullivans Cove has been instrumental in. The new wave of small producers is also spreading across mainland Australia. The early 2000s saw Australian whiskey begin to grow in popularity abroad, while recent years have brought a huge rise in domestic consumption. As expected, many distilleries are not yet looking at export markets and instead struggling to meet domestic demand.

Stock is an issue, and most of the popular producers have planned expansions in order to ramp up supply. This makes sense, as a majority of the country’s distilleries are quite small. Annual bottle output often lies in the lower-five-digit range compared to the millions by most established scotch distilleries.

Staward brand ambassador Alex Hart

Aside from Sullivans Cove, Melbourne’s Starward distillery is perhaps the most globally recognized Australian whiskey brand, with its bottles exported to several Western markets, including the U.S. Starward is one of the few distilleries with a large focus on exports, but many producers are enthusiastic about entering new markets in the near future. Other well-known Australian whiskey distilleries to keep an eye on are Hellyers Road, Limeburners and Nant.

Archie Rose is one of the newer craft distilleries. Founded in 2015, it was the first distillery in Sydney in more than 160 years, born through the passion of Will Edwards. Edwards wanted to create the “spirit of Sydney,” and after many trips to Tasmania and talks with pioneers in the industry, he launched Archie Rose. The on-site bar, along with the distillery’s Tailored gin, has won the small distiller several global accolades, as the team continues to use unique methods to build the brand.

Bar at Archie Rose

“Across the board, I think Australian drinkers are very supportive of distilled spirits from Australia, which is great to see,” says Edwards. “We have not yet released an aged whiskey; however, we are nearing a point at which we can. But the innovative production, focus on provenance and focus on quality has built a good deal of anticipation for our first release.”  

When discussing recent trends in the industry, both Sable and Edwards mention the connection between whiskey and Australia’s well-known wine industry. “We’re seeing more people playing with red wine casks, which makes sense here considering our amazing wine industry,” says Sable.

Bar at Archie Rose

More than 120 distilleries are currently listed in Australia, with many others soon launching—a figure clearly showing the boom taking place across the continent. For reference, the Scotch whiskey industry lists approximately 115 distilleries across its five regions. Sable, speaking for one of the oldest whiskey producers in the country, ends our talk with some wisdom.

“The industry in general is in a big period of growth and experimentation,” says Sable. “I think over the next few years it’ll settle down and we’ll hopefully see the best new products thrive and survive. As the industry matures, we’ll see quality and consistency improve across the board, and we’ll probably see more commercial-scale production with more serious investment, too.”

Series & Type: Products Trends
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