What makes Australian whisky different is shaped by a few big environmental factors and a set of smaller processes influenced by distillers. These manufacturing variations can become significant when compared to whisky distilling practises in Britain and the Americas. Notably, the dozen operating distilleries are artisanal, not industrial. Most have been started by individuals who knew little about distilling yet came with enquiring, open minds and also an absence of tradition. They looked with modern, unencumbered eyes, for knowledge of Australia’s once prosperous distilling history vanished decades ago. Most of the pot stills were engineered in Australia, modelled on Scottish designs, although this is not regarded as a significant factor in shaping flavour, merely manufacturing provenance. Nor is Australia’s pristine water sources believed to play a perceptible role in the whisky character. The common value all distillers exhibit is the focus on the craft, versus economics. They have strived to nurture flavour and character at each step by applying slower brewing techniques and shorter cuts during distillation. Good cask wood is plentiful in Australia thanks to the historically robust table wine, fortified and brandy industries. Local cooperages refashion retired wine casks and ex-bourbon barrels allowing distillers to experiment with their own wood programs giving their expressions nuance.
The most important factor is Australia’s long and entrenched brewing tradition. Local barley strains have been bred for brewers, not distillers. New barley strains such Gairdner, Schooner and Baudin are hybrids bred to exploit Australia’s unique growing conditions. Low rainfall tolerance, more intense longer periods of sunshine, longer growing seasons and different soil compositions. Extensive broad acre plains farming versus intensive field cultivation is responsible for Australian barley displaying noticeable differentia. Malting is another important contributor. Australian distillers use brewer’s malt. Brewer’s malt is kilned at higher temperatures to remove unwanted dimethylsulfide; whereas distiller malts are kilned at lower temperatures to optimise diastastic activity. The result: Australian distillers work with marginally more flavoursome malted barley, but are penalised by attenuated conversion rates of enzyme activity from starch into sugar. Most distilleries exclusively use brewer’s yeasts, not distiller’s yeast commonly used in other countries. Brewer’s yeast yields more flavour in the wash so this malty fruit character is extracted during distillation, where every cut is closely supervised to maximise flavour capture and prevention of feints.
The fourth major influence is maturation. Australian climate is both hot and dry. Average monthly temperature variations are 10˚ to 30˚c. Similar extremes in daily fluctuations continuously pump the spirit through the wood. In warehouse conditions this can be even greater; varying by bond store location. When combined with small cask maturation, the bulk of Australian casks are 100l, accelerated flavour extraction occurs. Age statements have less meaning in Australia when flavoursome distillate work in partnership with faster maturation regimes to extract this new shade of whisky.
Whether these components will continue to be the backbone as the industry develops, time will tell. For the current crop of whiskies these are the hallmarks of Australian malt whisky.