Oi, what's that ya drinkin? – Australia's best spirits (that aren't gin)
Thursday December 1, 2016·
In the time it’s taken me to write this article over a thousand distilleries have sprung up in Australia alone. Okay, perhaps not that many, however, the fifty or so operating distilleries are set to double in the next couple of years. Gin and single malts in particular have drawn interest and acclaim from around the world, leading every man, his dog (and the fleas on it’s back) to decide to open a distillery, winery or brewery. It's led to some really exciting re-imaginings of familiar spirits by the local cowboys'n'gals of the booze biz. Australian spirits can be pricy (how pricy? How much can the government tax a piece of string?). But this week I have sacrificed my avocado smashes and rent money to give you this introduction to the strange world of ‘strayan spirits.
Wait a minute… doesn’t Moonshine blind you? As long as you’re not imbibing through your eyes, this stuff will only put the hustle back into your muscle. What started as a passion project between two engineers has developed into a fully-fledged operation down in a little warehouse in South Melbourne. Though the boys have only been “distilling legally” since 2015, Head Moonshiner Ben is a true son of the South. Growing up in South Carolina he was building stills with his family before he could muster a moustache. Though Moonshine can be made from just about anything, these guys have invested in pure Victorian corn and a pretty neat set of Portugese copper stills. It's resulted in a smooth spirit with notes of grass and confectionary. To draw a comparison, it’s more like a pisco or tequila than a whiskey but can work in a variety of whiskey cocktails too.
They've also created some gosh darn delicious flavoured moonshines to suit the seasons and are patiently storing their hooch in some barrels for a rainy day. Using old family recipes they've made a delicious 'apple pie shine' using spices, fresh Victorian apples and brown sugar. Their 'sweet tea shine' is exceptionally well-balanced. It's made from Australian-sourced black tea and a touch of sugar.
Recommended Serve: the sour mash is a darn tasty bit of booze on it’s own. But in the summer it works best with a good lemonade or as a substitute for gin, pisco, vodka or white rum in most cocktails. If you’re feeling adventurous you can infuse some tasty fruits or botanicals in there and get a little creative. The 'apple pie' is perfect on the rocks, in a julep or recipes that call for calvados or applejack on a hot day and is pretty hard to rival in a hot toddy when the weather turns which, of course, it could at any moment. Sweet tea, like the apple pie works well on the rocks or in juleps but also plays well with gin, vodka or brandy and citrus.
Visiting the distillery: Unfortunately the distillery is not open for public tours as of this date. Get in contact via the website and you might get lucky! Suffice it to say, however, for two stills and two guys in dungarees these boys have done a hell of a job redefining the art of shining.
Hidden in plain sight on the less travelled side of Smith Street, Craft and Co specialise in homemade everything. The folks there are whipping up cheese, deli meats, beer, gin and small batch experiments and allow guests to immerse themselves in the creative atmosphere of the space.
The place is run by Master Distiller (and former Lord of the Bartending World) Sebastian Reaburn. Sebastian has been behind some of the finest establishments in Melbourne including 18o6 and Lui Bar and has now set his sights on the production side of things. He is like the Walter White of the Melbourne bar scene. He is the danger. Though he's just launched his very own artemis gin, his recent experiments include a red IPA distillate and a merlot grappa.
Not unlike moonshine, grappa has an image problem. It's likely many people encountered grappa for the first time as I did – while attending an Italian friends family gathering as a teen and being offered some of the finest spiderweb-vintage hooch. At that stage of life you're pretty sure tinnies are all class and potable alcohol comes in two colours: fluorescent and cream. Seb's grappa however is one of those spirits that peak interest in a category for me. Made with Yarra Valley merlot grapes, the nose is fruity with a real savoury olive oil character. Though the spirit is 45 percent it's extremely gentle with oiliness almost akin to white fish. It's also got a very crisp finish. It gives you a sense of eating fresh-caught seafood by the beach and then realising you left the lights on at home. But you decide you're too comfortable and reckon the environment could probably take another one for the team.
Though the grappa is likely the best grappa I've ever tasted, what's truly unique is the red IPA spirit. Made using a variety of hops and malts, it's like the quiet sister of gin. Gin of course being the loud, beligerent party-goer all hopped up on juniper yelling about how the 'British Empire gets a bad wrap nowadays'. The scent of the spirit is alluring and subtly floral with a hint of malt. The palate is slightly sweet and fruity at first and drops off into a bittersweet floral finish (reminiscent of breaking into the hortus botanicus on a night out to get someone flowers because you know you're in trouble).
Recommended serve: it's a great idea to throw the red IPA distillate into a vesper martini instead of gin, drink it by itself, drink it by yourself, drink it with friends, just drink it. Trust me, it'll put the hop back in your step (trademark pending). For the grappa, I'd have it with some grilled seafood. Maybe snapper just so you can take some poetic license and invite people round for some 'Snappa and Grappa'.
Visiting the Distillery: This joint is open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch and Thursday through Sunday for dinner, but you can see the feckin' still from the street. It's like a distiller's zoo. The fine proprietors also offer some incredible little classes on their craft so take a look at their website to see what's cracking.
This won 'Best Craft Whisky' at the coveted San Francisco Spirits Awards. Better known in casual circles as the producers of Starward Malt or 'those guys who won an award or something', these cats know what they're doing. Originally operating out of an aircraft hangar in Essendon, they have since uprooted the racket and settled in Port Melbourne.
Aside from their delicious single malt, the new world distillery has revived korenwijn – a spirit that doesn’t get a lot of action or traction outside of the Netherlands or Belgium. Though most are unfamiliar with the juice, it is the forefather of gin and the cousin of whisky and was once the lifeblood of the mighty Dutch Navy. In fact, up until the twentieth century, it was up to six times more popular than any other style of gin, and was likely the base for many of the early 'gin’ cocktails. Korenwijn has to be primarily comprised of malt distillate and contains Juniper but can also contain un-malted grain and other botanicals. In this incarnation they have taken pilsener malt and triple distilled it before adding juniper, caraway, aniseed and coriander. Similar to their flagship starward malt, they have aged it in Australian fortified wine barrels to give it a distinctly Aussie character.
Straight away you get a spicy aroma and a malty waft. There's a lot of viscosity and sweetness upon first sip, followed by a gentle whisky character that finishes with a dry and herbal smack.
Recommended Serve: This is a very limited bottling so you'd likely want to drink this neat. Perhaps grab some fresh herring and a pilsener for good measure. Alternatively, you could most certainly use it in a Martinez or Holland House cocktail.
Visiting the Distillery: Their new distillery is open for business and they do regular tours. Luckily, it's around the corner from Melbourne Moonshine so if you've had some luck on the ponies you might want to give the boys a call too.
Though these chaps aren't technically a distillery we'll forgive them because they deserve a mention. It should also be stated that 'vermouthery' is not yet a term, but they're doing their best to make it stick – that's how much trail they're blazing. Beyond their range of native botanical vermouths they have also conjured 'The Amer Nocturne' – Australia's first commercial amer. The first batch was so popular it sold out faster than you can google 'what the duck is amer'. Luckily, they are just about to release their next batch just in time for Christmas. For those unacquainted with amer or amaro, they describe bitter digestifs that are normally enjoyed post meal throughout the Mediterranean and in other parts of Europe or by bartenders whenever they meet another bartender.
With the same philosophy as their vermouth, they have sought inspiration from local and native products. The base wine is sourced from central Victoria macerated with black truffle and gentian, and other native botanicals, fortified and sweetened with grape concentrate.
The aroma is heavy on the good herb with a bitter citrus tinge. The flavour is intense and savoury and makes me imagine following a truffle pig by the light of the moon, arm in arm with a dark seductress. There is also some citrus. It ends like most of my relationships, smooth with some residual bitterness.
Recommended Serve: Ice cold, maybe with some fancy ice and a wedge of grapefruit. If you're feeling wild, add a touch to spice up a Manhattan or even your Hanky Panky. I must clarify for legal reasons that the Hanky Panky is a cocktail, but I can’t tell consenting adults what to do in the privacy of their homes.