Australian whisky: Local whiskies booming under COVID-19 restrictions

Dram you, Dan. Only months after the Victorian premier championed the cause of Australian-distilled whisky, at the tourism-dependent Corowa Distillery Company, slap bang on the closed NSW and Victoria border, they're over a barrel again.

Keen viewers of Dan Andrews' epic press conferences will recall that to mark the end of the extended Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown the premier declared he would be reaching for a celebratory tipple "higher up the shelf".

That evening he posted on social media a photo of two shot glasses next to a Starward Distillery bottle, appropriately a Melbourne-based label and one of Australia's best-selling drops.

Back in Corowa, which shares the border with Wahgunyah, Victoria, 60 kilometres north-west of Albury-Wodonga, Beau Schlig, the dreadlocked head distiller of the Corowa Distillery Company, could do with a stiff nip. Since the border closure visitor numbers from NSW and Victoria have evaporated, yet he's surprisingly magnanimous about Mr Andrews' snap border closure and appreciative of the Victorian leader's endorsement of Australian-crafted whisky.

"Any time when a politician or someone in the public eye mentions Australian whisky, no matter the distiller, is a major benefit for the industry as a whole," says Beau Schlig. "But when people were told to up and leave when the border closed we were pretty upset, though in the end it's really the cards we've been dealt."

Border closures aside, there's much to help distilleries keep their spirits up during the pandemic. Dan Murphy's has seen a 150 per cent increase in sales in the past six months while Mr Schlig says his distillery, at a converted flour mill known as Corowa Whisky and Chocolate, had a record sales week just before COVID forced the border to close.

Beau Schlig believes interest in Australian whiskies has accelerated as more people imbibe at home due to the pandemic, and the fact that whisky production in Scotland has slowed due to COVID-19 constraints.

Since September last year, Australian-made whiskies are even commanding their own shelf or "bin" space at certain Dan Murphy's outlets. NSW and Victoria labels share space with those from Tasmania, "the whisky state", which has garnered the most international awards and recognition for labels such as Sullivans Cove.

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James Duvnjak, Dan Murphy's category manager, says customers have begun to realise that Australian whisky can compete internationally in terms of flavour and complexity.

"This is the first time we have been able to really call out and hero Australian whisky in the way that it deserves, which is really exciting."

Mr Duvnkjak says although Australian whisky is often compared to single malt Scotch in flavour terms, it is unique in that Australian distillers tend to use old wine and port barrels to age whisky more than other markets.

"One of the biggest influences on flavour for whisky is the type of barrel used to age the spirit and the time spent in the barrel," he says. "Whisky has to spend a minimum of two years in barrels in Australia, compared to Scotch which has to age for a minimum of three years."

Whiskies mature more quickly in Australia as opposed to Scotland due to our warmer climate which "makes the barrels breathe more". That leads to Australian whisky developing more complex flavours at a younger age than the Scottish equivalents.

The excellence of Australian whiskies has not gone unnoticed overseas. Sydney's Archie Rose Distilling Company's rye malt whisky has been named the 2020 world's best in its category in the coveted World Whisky Awards in London for the second time.

"There's now recognition for an Australian whisky industry and not just a Tasmanian whisky industry," says Mr Schlig. "There are now whisky distilleries popping up in Australia left, right and centre."

Left, right and centre? That's surely something Mr Andrews can relate to. In the spirit of cross-border co-operation it sounds like it's high time he sampled some of the drops north of the Murray.

The writer visited Corowa Whisky and Chocolate courtesy of Destination NSW. See visitnsw.com

ROLL OUT THE BARRELS: TOP-SELLING AUSTRALIAN WHISKIES

Archie Rose (Sydney, NSW)

Hellyers Road Distillery (Havenview, TAS)

Lark Distillery (Hobart, TAS)

Limeburners (Robinson, WA)

Nant Distillery (Bothwell, TAS)

Starward (Melbourne, VIC)

The Gospel (Melbourne, VIC)

Watkins Whisky Co (Walkamn, QLD)

23rd Distillery (Renmark SA)

Source: Dan Murphy's

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