Australian whisky: do you want consistency or character?

I'm sitting in one of Melbourne's top bars with five glasses of Australian whisky in front of me. All five are from the one distillery, the New World Whisky Distillery in Melbourne's north-west.

But the liquid in the first glass stands out – it's as clear and pure as water. It's raw, unaged spirit, and because it hasn't spent two years sucking in colour and flavour from the barrel, under Australian regulations, it can't wear the 'whisky' title.

Even still, it's a refreshing experience. Its punchy, wild fruitiness hasn't been tamed by maturation, hasn't been coloured by age and its inevitable complications. 

That can't be said of the other four. All of them wear a deep, blood orange glow, and each one has a fascinating story to tell about where Australian whisky is now, and where it might be heading.

Australia in a cask

"There's no one right way to mature whisky, because each approach produces a different result," says Paul Slater to a group of enthusiasts seated before him for a tasting.

Slater is the brand ambassador for New World, which produces the Starward malt whiskies on show.

In one glass, for instance, there's a whisky Slater pulled straight from the cask that afternoon. "This is a beast of a whisky, and it's completely unique," he tells us.

It's been matured in an Australian apera (sherry) cask for six years, comes in at 64 per cent alcohol by volume, and when I first taste it, rich tannins and heat explode in my mouth. It's like Sichuan hotpot; spicy, bold and boisterous, and reminds me of some of the big Tasmanian malt whiskies currently being enjoyed at the inaugural Tasmanian Whisky Week.

But I also think it's a bit overcooked. It lacks the complexity of the two flagship releases we previously tasted, the Solera and the Wine Cask Edition, which have been carefully blended together from a range of casks to achieve a consistent product every time.


Being single

This brings me to an internal conflict I've been having about Australian whisky in recent times. What do consumers really want? A more consistent product like the Starward offerings, which allow the producer to blend out any quirks that might occur between individual barrels? Or the more variable single cask offerings that connoisseurs revere?

The New World Whisky Distillery is actually unique in this regard: 90 per cent of its output is funnelled into two flagship expressions, with the other 10 per cent set aside for limited, experimental bottlings. Most other Australian whisky producers - Tasmanian Distillery (Sullivans Cove), Lark, Overeem, Black Gate, Tin Shed Distilling Co, Mackey and Timboon, to name a few - predominantly release single cask expressions.

The great thing is, many of these single cask whiskies are utterly exceptional – when you can get your hands on a bottle. Some are even among the best whisky you'll find anywhere in the world.

But occasionally, a single cask won't perform as well as others, and some punters can get a bit riled by the discrepancy.

A complicated marriage

Such reactions caused WA's Great Southern Distilling Company, producers of the award-winning Limeburners single malt, to change things up.

"For me, as a bit of whisky geek, I still love the variability that comes from different single cask whiskies," says Cameron Syme, founder of Great Southern Distilling.

I was lucky to visit the distillery in Albany a while back, and had the rare treat of sampling this variability straight out of the casks themselves. Of course, some of the casks were bloody ethereal; but, naturally, some weren't as good as others.

"We're a small company, and we listen and take to heart what our customers are telling us," Syme tells me. "And the feedback we were getting from some consumers was that they wanted more consistency, and our Infinity Solera bottling is a response to that.

"Luckily, we're now at the size where we can marry barrels of whisky together in order to cater for that section of the market, while still maintaining our cask strength, single cask releases."

Size matters

The limited portfolio of stock many Aussie whisky producers have to play with is crucial here – we're still a drop in the ocean on the global stage.

But you've got to start somewhere, and Perth's Whipper Snapper Distillery is a fine example, having just released its highly-anticipated bourbon-style corn whiskey, Upshot. The distillery only has limited quantities of mature whiskey, so for now, each release will be bottled from a single cask.

"Single cask definitely adds to the uniqueness of what we're producing over here in the west," says Jimmy McKeown, Chief Distiller at Whipper Snapper.

"But in the future, when we start bringing out other special release products, probably three years from now with our current production levels, you'll probably start seeing casks being blended and batched."

Worth the wait

At The Fleurieu Distillery in South Australia, which will release its first single malt whisky from a marriage of six barrels this October, it's a similar story, with distiller Gareth Andrews weighing up his options.

"It's an interesting point, because you definitely see that sometimes there's an element of hit-and-miss with single cask Australian whiskies. Sometimes you get a great barrel, sometimes you don't," Andrews says.

"Here, we're still scratching our heads trying to figure out which way we're going to go. We haven't made a decision just yet, but my feeling is that we'd like to develop something fairly consistent into the future, alongside some other limited bottlings."

So whether you're into consistency, or you don't mind finding a new experience every time you open a bottle, the great experiment that is Australian whisky is constantly evolving and maturing.

And like all things worth waiting for, patience is key.

How do you like your whisky - smooth and consistent? Or potentially characterful, but with a chance of being a dud? Let us know in the Comments section.

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, will be released in October.

Follow Luke McCarthy