While we head towards the summer solstice in Scotland, our friends in Australia and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere are approaching their shortest day of the year. We caught up with Julian White from SMWS partner bar Whisky + Alement in Melbourne to find out more about the whisky scene there, and how best to enjoy a dram at this time of year

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When Julian White and his partner Brooke Hayman first visited Tasmania about a decade ago, the ‘Apple Isle’, had only seven whisky distilleries. Now it has more than 55, with others in the pipeline.

The co-owners of Society partner bar Whisky + Alement in Melbourne explain that were both drawn to visit Tasmania after watching a cooking show on television by a food critic who had relocated to the island. This particular episode featured the Lark whisky distillery, so they booked their own trip to Tasmania to find out more.

Brooke Hayman and Julien White on a visit to the Vaults in Leith in 2018 to host a tasting of Australian whisky.

“We arrived in the island’s capital Hobart in January 2011, and made a speculative phone call to the distillery founder, Bill Lark,” says Julien. “To our eternal gratitude, Bill offered to show us around his distillery the next day. We also took a trip to Sullivan’s Cove distillery and then met up with Tim Duckett, from independent bottler Heartwood Whisky, and more recently Tasmanian Independent Bottlers (TIB). That was pretty much the entire whisky industry in Tasmania at that time.”

LEGACY AND CHANGE

Julian and Brooke have been back to Tasmania every year as the distilling scene has developed, and in 2018 even brought a team of 10 from their bar Whisky + Alement to meet distillers face-to-face.

“For us, that personal contact helps us all to understand the different distilleries’ visions, and is the best way to truly appreciate a dram,” says Julian. “You can still see how strong Bill Lark’s legacy is throughout the Australian distilling scene, as there’s hardly a distiller in the country that doesn’t reference his influence.”

Tim Duckett, the force behind the independent bottler Heartwood Whisky.

One common feature in Australia that does look to finally be on the wane is the industry’s reliance on maturation in 20-litre ex-fortified wine casks.

“It did seem like the ‘recipe’ to break into the industry Down Under,” says Julian. “But while these casks did produce some brilliant drams, you had to be in the bond store sampling every day of the summer, in case the wood influence took over – which can seem to happen overnight to these little casks during an Australian summer. On our most recent trip to ‘Tassie’, the team saw a shift to larger casks and a much wider variation of previous fills.”

RULES AND DEFINITIONS

Julian also explains some of the key differences between what qualifies as whisky in Australia compared with Scotland – with a less strict environment allowing distillers to do things that wouldn’t be permitted over here.

SMWS partner bar in Melbourne, Whisky + Alement, has a stunning whisky selection.

“Australia’s Spirits Act of 1906 stipulates that new make needs to be matured for two years to be called whisky, instead of the three years for Scotch,” says Julian. “Casks are only described as being wooden, as opposed to the Scottish specification of oak. Also, our Food Standards Code says whisky must be a minimum of 37% alcohol by volume, making Australia one of very few places to sell bourbons at below their legal strength of 40% abv.”

Julian also explains that until relatively recently there was some confusion in describing casks used for Australian-made fortified wines. ‘Port’ could previously cover a wide range of different styles of fortified wines, for example, while sherry had been used for wines that had only been somewhat inspired by the region of Jerez in Spain.

“Definitions were so loose it’s almost embarrassing to report, so new rules were introduced in 2009,” says Julian. “Now sherry must be called ‘apera’ and what was previously referred to as port must now be called ‘tawny’.

“But the success of the growing whisky industry means that the supply of such Australian fortified wine casks is becoming scarce. As a result, we’re starting to see the emergence of seasoned casks, so it seems that the traditional Australian ‘port’ style of whisky is no longer sustainable.”

MATT BAILEY’S FAVOURITE WINTER SERVES

As we head into an Aussie winter, our Aussie ambassador says that although it’s not nearly as cold as what happens in Scotland, it still gets properly chilly.

“At this time of year, even in Sydney it gets pretty cool, but that makes it the perfect time of year for some stunning winter serves you can try out in isolation or with a small group to make the most of the flavour profiles at SMWS. One of my favourites is what I call Cask Strength Coffee – here’s how I put it together, and I highly recommend using an SMWS whisky from either our Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits or Juicy, Oak & Vanilla flavour profiles.

  • Place two tablespoons of single cask whisky with two teaspoons of brown sugar in a mug and stir to combine.
  • Brew up a strong black coffee and fill the mug almost to the top.
  • Stir, ensuring the sugar is completely dissolved.
  • Flip your teaspoon over so the rounded side is facing up.
  • Place it over the top of the coffee and gently pour in two tablespoons of cold double cream. This will allow the cream to rest on top of the coffee.
  • Serve immediately.

Catch up with Matt’s interview with some of the legends of the Tasmanian whisky scene, including Bill Lark, in his whisky roundtable interview: