When the Corowa Distilling Co released their inaugural small batch of whiskey in August last year, all 320 bottles sold out in just 24 hours. This is not an uncommon story: such is the feverish enthusiasm for craft whiskey in Australia at the moment – and so good is the quality of many of the new whiskies emerging from small distilleries across the country – that supply simply cannot keep up with demand.
Corowa co-founder Dean Druce doesn't see that demand falling off any soon. In fact, he's banking on it continuing to grow. The distillery only filled its first barrel with raw new spirit as recently as early 2016, but is now filling up to 200 barrels a year, and has the capacity to make 10 times as much.
"At the moment, we're only bottling and releasing single barrels of whiskey at a time," says Druce. "But even at $180 a bottle, selling single-cask whiskies is not a sustainable business model. We're aware that when someone buys your whiskey today and then in three months' time finds it's sold out, there's a danger you'll lose them to another brand. So, in August, we're looking to release a larger-volume, single-malt $95 whiskey, and an even more affordable blended whiskey down the track."
Corowa is a good illustration of where whiskey is at in this country in 2019: after starting small and limited and expensive, catering mostly to the hardcore collectors and whiskey tragics, the burgeoning craft industry is now entering a new, more commercial phase of larger-volume production, aimed more at everyday drinkers, sold at more accessible prices. In many ways, this is a case of history repeating: for much of the 20th century, Australia boasted a substantial – albeit now almost forgotten – local whiskey industry.
Corowa Distilling Co is housed in a four-storey former 1920s flour mill located just a few hundred metres from the Murray River in southern NSW. The impressively industrial building recalls the huge Corio distillery, built in Geelong's northern suburbs in the 1920s, which in its heyday produced two million litres of whiskey a year and was the largest distillery in the southern hemisphere. Corio stopped making whiskey in the 1980s, but it's possible to get a feel of what that grand old building must have felt like when it was still operating by visiting Starward distillery in Port Melbourne, where production continues virtually round the clock to keep up with demand.
Last year, Starward released a very good $65 whiskey called Two-Fold, a blend of (more expensive) malt and (less expensive) grain spirits designed to compete with big-name Scotch and Bourbon brands on the bottle shop shelf. Starward founder David Vitale says that sales exceeded expectations and, as a result, an "already ambitious" production upgrade to the distillery planned for later this year has been expanded by 20 per cent. And Vitale is also launching Two-Fold in the US this month.
"Consumers have really embraced the ability to have an everyday Australian whiskey," he says. "Which is exactly why we created Two-Fold in the first place." Construction recently finished on a new facility at Botany, in Sydney, for the Archie Rose Distilling Co, whose long-awaited award-winning rye malt whiskey is due to hit the shelves later this year. Archie Rose is already one of the larger Australian whiskey producers, with more than 1500 barrels maturing at its existing warehouse in Rosebery. But founder Will Edwards tells me the new Botany plant could see production increase tenfold. And with economy of scale will come greater affordability of product.
This is mostly still in the future, of course. For the moment, Australian whiskey is primarily about craft: small-batch and high-price. As a teaser for their upcoming core-range rye whiskey, for example, Archie Rose recently released just over 1000 bottles of chocolate malt for $150 each: made using dark-roasted rye, it's a super-complex, spicy and delicious whiskey with heaps of distinctive character.
And earlier this year the Adelaide Hills Distillery took Australian spirits in a new direction with their extraordinary Native Grain Whiskey. Made from a blend of malted barley and wattleseed and matured in an American oak barrel that once held "port" and a French oak barrel that once held cabernet franc, this dark, rich, bold spirit tastes like no other whiskey I can think of. And it's about as rare and expensive as Australian whiskey gets: just 141 bottles were released, with an equally bold price tag of around $450. Even at that price, though, by the time you read these words, it'll probably have sold out.