While distillers around the globe imitate Scotch, Australians are innovating to create something distinctive.
Is the whiskey world becoming more like the wine world?
These days, not only does every state in America have a distillery — Hawaiian single malt, anyone? — but so do many countries far beyond the whiskey heartlands of Kentucky and Scotland: France, Germany, India, Japan and even Taiwan and Australia all have robust distilling industries.
So does that mean we can distinguish a Highlands Scotch from an Indian single malt, the way we can tell a Burgundy from an Oregon pinot noir? That we can talk about whiskey in regional terms, as we do wine? Yes and no.
Most of these world whiskeys, as they have come to be known, are Scotch clones, made with malted barley using a traditional pot still. Just because there is whiskey made in Taiwan, that doesn't mean there is a style called "Taiwanese whiskey." And many distillers are fine with that: The people at Kavalan, south of Taipei, are rightly proud to make whiskey that is virtually indistinguishable in taste and quality from a Speyside dram.
But in other places, regional styles are in fact emerging. Distillers in France, for example, have drawn on homegrown traditions associated with cognac and eaux de vie to produce what is arguably a distinct style (with its own substyles) of French whiskey. Similar evolutions are occurring in Germany and Austria.
Nowhere is this push to develop a local style more apparent, though, than in Australia. Home to more than 40 whiskey distilleries, Australia is largely unknown as a whiskey-producing nation. Most of its distilleries are small, and almost all of their output is consumed domestically; Starward, in Melbourne, is currently the only one to regularly export in significant volume to the United States.
That's beginning to change. And as it does, the country's distillers are looking around and asking: Who are we? Their search for an answer is among the most exciting stories in whiskey right now.
Though Australians have been making whiskey since the mid-19th century, the modern industry got started only in the early 1990s, when a land surveyor named Bill Lark, inspired by Scottish single malts, successfully lobbied against a law that effectively banned microdistilleries.
Within a few years, the Lark Distillery and a handful of others, mostly on the island of Tasmania, were producing small amounts of whiskey, almost exclusively for local drinkers and the occasional tourist.
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Critics and fans loved these whiskeys, in part because they so carefully emulated their Scottish cousins. "If you ripped off the label, they could have come from anywhere," said Robin Robinson, the author of "The Complete Whiskey Course," released in October by Sterling Publishing.
But over time, certain shared characteristics emerged that set these distilleries apart from Scottish traditions, like using brewer's malt instead of distiller's malt, and aging in smaller casks, both of which affect the whiskey's flavour.
"I'd like to think there is a common thread to Australian whiskey," Lark said. "What we're getting is rich, oily malts that are different from your typical Scotch."
Then, in 2014, a single malt from Sullivans Cove, a distillery in downtown Hobart, Tasmania, took the top prize at the World Whiskies Awards, a competition perennially dominated by Scotch. The recognition vaulted Australian whiskey into global consumer consciousness, setting off a renaissance in the country's whiskey distilling — and a different way of thinking about the craft.
This new generation of distillers rejected the idea of making yet another single malt. "The existing cohort, bourbon and Scotch, didn't appeal to us," said David Vitale, the founder of Starward. "We wanted to create a modern, progressive whiskey that spoke to the place it's made" — not just a variant on Scotch, but a whole new animal.
Fortunately, Australian distilling rules, set by the government, are significantly more relaxed than those in Scotland or in the United States. "You can shoot a cannon through our regulations," Vitale said. As long as it's distilled from grain and spends two years aging in a barrel, it's whiskey. That gives Australian distilleries the freedom to mix and match with other styles from well beyond Scotland.
Australia is the world's fourth-largest bourbon export market, and several new distilleries have introduced products influenced by American whiskey, with heavy amounts of corn, rye and wheat. Gospel Distillers, in Melbourne, recently released a 100% rye whiskey, a style rarely found outside the United States.
Other distilleries, nodding to Australia's robust wine industry, age their whiskey in used wine casks. Nova, made by Starward, is aged exclusively in freshly emptied red wine barrels, which produce a fruitier, more tannic whiskey, with fewer vanilla and caramel notes, than the used bourbon barrels often employed to age Scotch.
And while many whiskey distillers around the world import their malted barley from Scotland, Australian distilleries usually get theirs from local farmers and malting houses, which they say creates a different flavour profile. So does the climate: While Tasmania resembles cool, consistent Scotland, the extreme seasonal temperature swings on the mainland, more like those in Kentucky, help speed up the aging process.
"They're not trying to make Scotch in Australia, but making whiskey that speaks to the place," said Joshua Wortman, an executive with Distill Ventures, the venture capital arm of the drinks giant Diageo, which recently invested an undisclosed sum in Starward.
Thanks to that investment, Starward has expanded rapidly in America. It is now available in 35 states, far more than any other Australian brand — for the moment. According to a recent survey by the Australian Distillers Association, 24 companies are planning to export to the United States in the next few years. (Lucky fans can already find Sullivans Cove, Lark and a few others in major cities.)
"There's no limit to the number of brands that want to come to the United States," said Raj Sabharwal, the founding partner of Glass Revolution, which is in talks to import several of them.
It may be too early to talk about a distinct Australian style; the same unregulated atmosphere that fosters innovation also fosters diversity, verging on incoherence. Draft rules are in the works to create a stricter definition of Tasmanian whiskey, but until the entire industry adopts similarly tough regulations, "you're not going to get a regional style," Sabharwal said.
It's not hard to imagine that changing, and soon. In the same way that wine regions, and winemaking countries, long ago recognised the marketing advantage of having a distinct style, whiskey makers have an enormous incentive to settle on a clear set of definitions and rules that set them apart from everyone else.
And it's not just Australia trying to capture global attention with something distinctive. A decade from now, American drinkers may be reaching past the Scotch bottles to check out the latest Dutch rye or German single malt.
"Which one of the regions will be the breakout hit?" Robinson said. "That's the arms race."
Written by: Clay Risen
Photographs by: Kristoffer Paulsen and Peter Whyte
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES