Here in Australia, we’re so lucky to have a thriving food and drink industry. We’re a nation of foodies – getting together with our loved ones and sharing a delicious meal is one of our favourite pastimes. And you know what pairs well with loved ones and great grub? A knockout drink. You heard it here first: we’re a nation of drinkies (yep, just made that up). Some of you will no doubt know I like a cheeky cocktail (check out 10 of the best here!), and how earlier this year I had a “gin-troduction” to how to make the perfect gin and tonic, with a visit to some Sunshine coast gin distilleries. But whisky? I’ve not really dabbled with it, to be honest. So it was time to get out there, start exploring the burgeoning Australian whisky industry and check out the hype for myself.
I’m a total whisky noob, gotta admit. And, if I’m being really honest, I’ve always seemed to associate it with older men, pipes and slippers, and roaring fires – well, probably all those things taking place at once in the Scottish Highlands, actually. Nothing against that, of course, but it’s not really my vibe!
So when my good friend and drinks connoisseur Trish Brew, award-winning bartender and Fever-Tree ambassador, suggested we go on a little road trip to Melbourne to sample some ‘new-world’ Australian whisky, my curiosity was piqued. (Our ride for the day also helped… check out these wheels!)
Check out our ride for the day!
If you were breaking this question down to its simplest form, you’d probably say whisky (or whiskey, depending on where you’re from) is a distilled alcohol beverage made from grains. But that’s about as far as my knowledge stretched – I didn’t realise quite how many varieties there are, or how complex the flavours are… there was a whole whisky wormhole to fall into.
And so began my education.
Ned Whisky creates a uniquely Australian bourbon style of whisky.
Who doesn’t like a tot of whisky for breakfast? Yep, our morning started by heading to Ned Whisky, where we met with master distiller Sebastian Reaburn. He explained the process they undertake to create a truly unique drink that’s a nod to American bourbon, but made Australian.
Master distiller Sebastian shows me and Trish how to best enjoy Ned Whisky.
“Bourbon is like the national whisky of America – it’s what they made their own,” explained Sebastian. “It uses predominantly corn, mostly always sour mash and it’s [aged in] new American oak. What we do here at Ned is use predominantly corn, sour mash, and mostly oak, but with a few other tweaks and tricks. We actually brew a single malt, mash a bourbon and distil half and half. So we take the best of both worlds to make something truly Australian.
“Our job, when we distil our spirit, is to make something that people will drink,” he added. “It’s made for sharing and enjoying.”
Getting into the whisky spirit!
Must say, I was pretty sold from the first sip – which wasn’t what I was expecting! It tasted clean and smooth, and there were hints of vanilla, spice… even coconut! Delicious as it was neat, the new generation of Australian whisky drinkers are also having fun with it by adding mixers, or incorporating it in cocktails.
Sebastian showed us by making us an Old Fashioned with a twist, by replacing the traditional bitters part of the cocktail with cola. Cola is actually full of botanicals, like cola nut, clove and nutmeg. And it went down a TREAT.
“Whisky is delicious,” he says. “You don’t have to be worried about it or scared of it. You may have encountered it in other ways, but when you put it in a glass and add a good mixer, it’s really tasty.”
The Gospel makes a rye variety of Australian whisky.
Fuelled up and ready to find out more, we headed north of the CBD to Brunswick, a really cool area that’s full of street art, cute cafes and great places to eat. And it’s also home to The Gospel, which creates a rye variety of whisky.
We met co-owner Andrew Fitzgerald… once we found the place, that is. With a rather unassuming door and no sign of life from the outside, I totally thought we were in the wrong place. Turns out as well as making a mean whisky, they’re also the creator of the hidden distillery!
We got to take a tour of the inner workings at The Gospel to see how they make their style of Australian whisky.
The process behind the rye whisky at The Gospel sees multiple barrels working together in what Andrew calls a “continual maturation”.
“You put whisky in the top barrel and you draw it down through the bottom barrel,” he explained during our visit. We saw how one of their whiskies is first aged in new American oak, goes through a second-fill, and is then finished in Australian wine barrels.
“The travelling down through the different oaks allows us to ‘salt and pepper’ the flavour profiles of the whisky, so instead of just going into the one barrel and sitting there for three years, it enables us to really curate the flavour that we want,” he said.
And that flavour was fantastic: a perfect balance of sweet and savoury, crisp and smooth, and notes of cinnamon, dried fruit and… is that… pepper?! Mind. Blown. Who knew whisky-making could have those links to what I’m doing myself in the kitchen with all this seasoning business?
Whisky is at the heart of some delicious cocktails… and I would know!
OK, you got me. I’m a whisky fan. But lessons aside, how do I know what to order at the bar?
“Besides enjoying it neat, a highball is a new way of drinking new-age whiskies,” suggested Andrew. “Drink it with dry ginger ale or ginger beer in a tall glass with ice.” Verdict: delicious!
We finished up at Starward, which makes a classic, single-malt but modern whisky.
Our final pitstop of our Australian whisky road trip was somewhere that specialises in more of a classic, single-malt kinda drink. We rounded off the day by heading to Starward, where we met with brand ambassador Matty Follent.
Matty gets to work crafting a delicious whisky cocktail.
“Starward was founded by David Vitale close to 15 years ago, who really wanted to make an accessible Australian whisky,” explained Matty. “If we jump back 10, 20 years ago, Australian whisky as a category was almost always top-shelf, ultra premium and pretty hard to get your hands on. Starward is the epitome of what Dave wanted to create from the get-go. It’s accessible, delicious, uniquely Australian whisky – one everyone can enjoy, whether they’ve just started their whisky journey or they’re well on their way.”
All this whisky education business is thirsty work…
I kinda feel I’m ticking both those boxers: I may have only started my journey today, but I’m well on my way to being a seasoned whisky drinker! Especially after Matty made us a cocktail loosely inspired by the jungle bird drink, which included whisky, campari, pineapple juice, rum and dry ginger ale.
Verdict: I’m liking whisky.
After all my tasting, I felt much more clued up on Australian whisky (and, truth be told, a little warm and fuzzy!).
At the beginning of the day, I was a total whisky novice. I didn’t know what I liked, and thought whisky was very serious. Now I feel a lot more confident about whisky drinks – the different types, what they taste like and what to mix it with. “Whisky doesn’t have to be so serious and stuffy,” agreed Trish. “You can totally have fun with it.”
And I’m excited about another fun round – just maybe after I sleep today off…
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