Try to imagine, if you can, how it’s possible that the driest, and one of the most arid continents on the planet is also capable of arguably producing some of the finest whiskey. Well, that’s precisely the position Australia finds itself in. And while the country’s distillers have indeed begun capturing the industry’s attention over the last few years, they’re quick to point out that they’re only doing what they’ve always been doing… just far longer than most whiskey connoisseurs would have imagined.
Though, it isn’t a newcomer to whiskey-making. And not unlike the world’s other whiskey-producing capitals, Australia’s history with distilling has also been very much defined by its landscape; culminating in a flavour that’s uniquely attributable to the country’s mix of high adaptable barley, and then aged in a climate that’s unlike anywhere else in the world. These are the ideal conditions for the distinctive character and range of flavours that Australian distillers are known for. And make no mistake, they’re as passionate about their craft as they are about their quality.
What makes Australian whiskey so special?
It’d be tempting to let a conversation about Australian whiskey be dominated entirely by tradition – as much as it would be an absolutely acceptable starting point for anyplace else in the world – but here it’s a little bit different. Ordering from an Australian whiskey shop with a world of flavours and tastes that are uniquely native to the land means you’re truly in for a treat.
There are only 50 whiskey distillers located in the country, and if you can imagine experiencing a blend which, in addition to the tastes of malted barleys and grains, also offers up delicate bouquets of the spices, nuts and berries that could have only been derived from Australian soil, now you’ve touched the surface of this exquisite whiskey. And yet, there’s more to it than that.
Envision now how even the slightest variants in the barley grown across the land’s seven climate zones, or even at opposite ends of those zones, can affect the final flavour profile. The extent of the country’s diversity in grain growth is unrivalled anywhere in the world and it’s important to understand just how these variations ultimately come together to create the lavish earmarks of a premium whiskey you can find in the specialised whiskey shop. Now you’re beginning to understand what gives Australian whiskey its one-of-a-kind style; and fortunately, you don’t have to travel all the way to the Land Down Under to taste it.
The case of the casks
The single most notable characteristic of any whiskey is its colour; yet it’s easy to forget that alcohol actually leaves the distilling pot as a colourless liquid. From a mellow tasting tawny gold to a hot, deep shade of chocolaty brown; whiskey takes the colour of its container. Colour’s also a measure of how long a whiskey’s been allowed to acquire its special taste but Australian whiskey goes even beyond that.
Casks are the wooden barrels that spirits are stored in to draw out the natural colour, sugars, and flavours that give them their taste; and this is especially true with whiskey. It’s a delicate process of addition and subtraction where the types and origins of the wood they’re constructed from, how they were heat treated, the weather and temperature they’re stored at – and even their size – can be counted on to affect the outcome of their contents. It’s why the spirit-producing industries are inclined to share each other’s casks; and, why it’s not uncommon in more specialized endeavours for the most “well-used” casks to also be the most desirable.
When it comes to the cask, it’s the time spent aging, or maturing, and the kinds of casks they mature in, that allows Australian whiskies to distinguish themselves. For Australian distillers, casks are vessels of discovery: not bound by aging, maturation, or other trademarked restrictions, but only by their willingness to craft new flavours derived from casks previously used from wines, as well as bourbons and sherries, that can rightfully claim to be just as consistent as they are distinctive.
The result is that very often when you buy a bottle of Australian whiskey from an online whiskey store, you’re buying from a very limited number of bottles from a very limited blended batch and whose tastes aren’t defined by conventional whiskey descriptions, but by their uniqueness. For any lover of fine spirits, once you’ve tasted how distinctive this country’s whiskies are – how much more specific they are than other whiskies – others will seem mundane in comparison.
How to enjoy a whiskey
Whether it’s before or after a meal, for a special occasion, or just to relax; or whether it’s straight or in a cocktail, with ice or without; having a whiskey should be a pleasurable sensory experience and not a swilling contest.
It isn’t a cheap drink, though – an exemplary whiskey can be outright expensive – and make no mistake, after you’ve gone online, researched and acquired the perfect bottle of whiskey, you’re going to want to appreciate it, along with all the years required for its extraordinary taste to bloom.
Australian whiskies, regardless of the brand are meant to be enjoyed: both the finished product and the wealth of ingredients and components they’re comprised of. Once you’ve done your online shopping for whiskey specials, here’s what you want to do with that liquid gold once you’ve poured it out:
Nurture the desire to smell it.
Referred to as nosing, you’ll want to give your glass a slight swirl and take in the complex myriad of aromas that it’s comprised of. You’ll want to know how to distinguish as many of them as possible – how they intermingle when swirled – and be prepared to nose your glass periodically while drinking to recognize how the aroma changes. Remember, smell isn’t just our strongest and most basic sense: it’s also our most emotive. It’s always on; and it’s the key to unlocking a host of other sensations before, during and after the first taste.
Make a commitment to tasting it.
Aged whiskey is like no other alcoholic beverage – it’s the result of a process that took years to complete – and the greatest admiration you can express for it is by simply letting its taste expand in your mouth. You want to discover how the aromas you detected by smelling it actually relate to flavours as they cross your palate, or if any new aromas or flavours also begin to emerge. Breathe through your nose when swallowing to allow the taste of every sip to reveal an aspect of the whiskey’s past. With great whiskey, you’ll want to know everything that it wants to tell you.
Take the time to enjoy it.
If we can acknowledge that whiskey isn’t like any other beverage, then we can also acknowledge that it’s not a thirst refresher. If you want to harvest the most flavour from every sip, you don’t want to drink it in a rush, if you’re exhausted, or directly behind any other richly flavoured foods or beverages. Take the time to enjoy your whiskey (in moderation, of course) and see how it makes you feel. Ultimately, there’s really no right or wrong way to enjoy it, but there are certainly ways to enjoy it more.
The last word on Australia’s finest whiskies
At the end of the day, it’s not difficult to visualize how Australia has managed to distinguish itself as a major whiskey producer. That the products from the country’s finest distillers can now be purchased through a whiskey shop online and experienced anywhere in the world is an amazing testimony to the taste of Australia.
What’s most amazing, however, is that it’s not being done exclusively on the strength of one or two large distilleries, but rather on the passion and talent of distilleries whose stock and barrel (no pun intended) is the pride they continue to place on creating exceptional quality whiskey whose taste is wholly Australian. If there was ever a question about who the world’s oldest, “new-influence” in whiskey is, there’s no need to look any further than Australia.