The world’s independent distillers and bottlers were the highlight of the show in Melbourne.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, one of the heights of Scottish cuisine is macaroni cheese. What CalMac ferry trip isn’t complete without a serving of it? How can anyone pass up on the chance to bite into a macaroni pie?
The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle has taken this into a different dimension. The process is relatively straightforward. First, take some macaroni cheese. Put it in a waffle iron. Close said waffle iron.
While waiting for it to become just sufficiently crunchy, if you are lucky, you might be allowed to climb on a ladder to fossick about for unusual drams among the mass of bottles on the upper shelves.
I managed to find an old Signatory Clynelish, for example. Apologies for not recalling which specific vintage it was. It was already late, and there were other things on my mind. The mac ‘n’ cheese waffle, for one.
Welcome to the world of Hats & Tatts in South Melbourne, where you can drink beer, listen to dodgy anthems and shoot pool – but also sip on great cocktails and chose from said wide and wild whisky selection. A dive bar, but done in an Aussie way.
The day had been spent talking, tasting and listening to Australians talking about their maturing new whisky industry: its highs, its challenges and its opportunities.
While there were plenty of opinions (as there should be), there was consensus that if Australia is to build on its early successes, it is time for producers to start producing in volume. An industry which has been built on the template of small still, small cask, single barrel releases needs to take that next step.
Local colour: Cardrona in New Zealand is already developing its signature style of whisky
Volume would give greater reach, consistency and cash flow. It would also, hopefully, bring costs and prices down. Making more affordable, characterful whisky is not a bad plan.
It would also, conceivably, help to increase diversity within the styles being made, offering an alternative to the rich, wood-driven whiskies of the present by creating a consistent, distillate-driven spirit aged in larger casks – but one which is still identifiably Australian.
Melbourne’s Starward knows this; one reason why it, for me, is leading the way. The same city’s Bakery Hill has it in terms of consistency, Sydney’s Archie Rose is showing huge potential, as are Black Gate in New South Wales and Adelaide’s Tin Shed, while the rye from Tassie’s Belgrove is something to behold.
It’s not a simple task to find your identity. Even in Melbourne’s singular climatic conditions, it will still take four or five years before a balanced maturity emerges.
Whisky cannot and should not be rushed. It is ready when it is ready. The key is finding that sweet spot where spirit and oak cease to be two sides of the coin and become one.
That, inevitably, means gaining a deeper understanding of your conditions. It is different making whisky in South Australia compared to Tasmania, different again in Victoria or Western Australia, or New South Wales.
Climate, maturing temperature, cereals, yeast strains: all the diverse elements which impact on a whisky’s final character have to be appreciated, captured and then delivered in a consistent and characterful and compelling way. It’s the same for any whisky-making country – including Scotland.
Charlie MacLean, Alex Bruce and I had arrived in Melbourne after a week in New Zealand, a trip which had culminated in a few days near Wanaka at the Cardrona distillery.
Melbourne’s pride: For Dave Broom, Starward is leading the charge for Australian whisky
The conditions here are different again. The low rainfall, for example, and huge variations between summer and winter temperatures play a significant role in the creation of their emerging style but, though it only started production in 2015, that signature is emerging.
It is different to the powerful estery fruit and spice of Starward, more restrained, cooler even, with a honeyed, sweet almond, fruit element in all of the casks we tried, be they (Spanish) Sherry butt, American barrel or, for me the most exciting, local Pinot Noir casks.
The fact that both Starward and Cardrona are (or will be) examining refill as a way of giving a greater range of flavour options, as well as amplifying distillery character, shows a deeper thinking in terms of flavour development.
Again, it’s about understanding your environment and working with it. Cardrona’s head distiller Sarah Elsom comes from a wine background – she knows yeasts, ferments and lactobacillus, and the way in which a spirit should do the same as a great wine and exhibit a sense of place.
Her approach is different to that of David Vitale at Starward with his brewing background, but Cardrona isn’t in Port Melbourne, while Central Otago Pinot is very different to Australian red wine, or Apera (aka ‘Australian Sherry’) casks.
Both distilleries make spirit (and whisky) appropriate for their location, in no small way thanks to the laser-guided vision of their founders: Vitale in Melbourne, Desiree Whitaker in Cardrona.
They are doing the same things as other great distillers all around the world, but doing it differently, though never just for the sake of it. Diversity is key. Taking that recipe and making it appropriate to your context.
Just like the macaroni pie and the mac ‘n’ cheese waffle.
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