Making whisky is a fairly straightforward exercise. You take three of the cheapest ingredients available to us, cereal grains, water and yeast, create a beer from them, distil that, fill the resulting spirit into barrels, and wait for time to work its magic.
And yet, over the centuries, this seemingly simple process has created a vast array of whisky styles and flavours. These days, consumers have a boundless number of whiskies to choose from. They're also more educated than ever before, understanding that different grains, fermentation times, still shapes, and cask types influences how a whisky tastes.
But there's one topic that tends to divide a lot of whisky folk – place. Does a whisky's flavour have anything to do with where it's made?
Finding whisky's provenance
In recent years, distillers from countries like Japan, Taiwan, India and Australia have brought this question into focus. They've defied the once unshakable notion that great whisky must hail from the Old World. Many of their award-winning whiskies have even managed to exhibit flavours unique to where they come from.
Tasmanian whiskies have succeeded brilliantly on this front ever since Bill and Lyn Lark brought the industry to life there in the early nineties. But a new breed of mainland distillers are starting to gain traction with their own distinctive whiskies.
One of the most promising is the Fleurieu Distillery in Goolwa, South Australia, about an hour south of Adelaide, close to where the Murray meets the Southern Ocean. Gareth and Angela Andrews, the owners and distillers, are convinced their single malt whiskies are greatly affected by Goolwa's geography and climate.
"We've found that our coastal climate, particularly with the cool sea breeze we get in the evenings, is ideal for maturing whisky," Gareth says. "Our location means the spirit in our barrels absorbs the surrounding environment, and we definitely think we get a unique distillery character as a result."
Distillers on the Scottish west coast make a similar argument. They even point to recent studies by universities in the UK and Europe that have found higher sodium levels in whiskies matured near the sea.
It's a similar story at the Great Southern Distilling Company in Albany, Western Australia. When I visited the distillery a while back and tasted some of the Limeburners single malts maturing there, the influence of the sea was palpable – the harbour is just across the road.
Cameron Syme, the distillery's owner, has further emphasised the provenance angle by sourcing peat from a nearby farm to smoke their barley. "The composition of the peat here is different to that of Scotland and Ireland, even to Tasmania," Syme says.
Limeburners' peated expressions recently won several awards in spirits competitions around the world, and the unique flora of Australian peat has clearly piqued the judges' interest. "It's allowing us to create whisky that's from this region and unique to this region," Syme says.
New ground to cover
But what happens if you mature whisky further inland in a drier, hotter climate? Brian and Genise Hollingworth have been studying this question at their Black Gate Distillery in Mendooran, NSW since they first laid down barrels of rum and single malt in 2012.
They immediately noticed their whisky was maturing twice, if not three times faster than it would in Scotland. The downside? Some of their casks lose 15 per cent in angel's share (evaporation of spirit through the cask) in the first year of aging – it's around two per cent in Scotland. "We just want big, bold flavours," Brian says. "Our location means everything happens much faster, but we're really happy with the flavours we're getting."
Basically, time and place. The intricacies of the whole equation are obviously more complex than that. But I'd recommend debating them with a whisky in hand.
Check out the gallery above to see three whiskies that embody local terroir.