The Australian Whisky Guide

Nick’s Wine Merchants offer a terrific collection of Aussie whiskies, in particular, Tasmanian whisky online and of course, rare Scotch whisky. We hope you enjoy this guide to the burgeoning Australian whisky scene.

"There is no cause for alarm. It is not as if we have no Whisky; indeed we have lots of Whisky,
 but indeed we also have lots of demand."
- Public notice from Corio Distillery, Geelong, Victoria, circa 1960

The last few years have seen a meteoric increase in both the popularity and quality of Australian whisky, yet by world standards, the industry is young. This comes as quite a surprise for several reasons. A taste for spirits arrived with the First Fleet (1788), as did the British Navy custom of trading and rationing spirits (beer and wine didn't keep well on long voyages). Initially, these were mainly rum type concoctions meant strictly for officers and officials and used medicinally or on special occasions. However, they quickly became an article of exchange between all social classes. Convicts and soldiers were often paid with rum, even abstainers received a ration. Given the difficult conditions in the young colony combined with an ignorance of viticulture, it's not surprising that strong spirit became entrenched as the preferred palliative well before wine and beer. Spirits were set to be big business. The privately contracted Second Fleet which arrived in 1790 sought to maximise the material opportunities of the voyage, loading ships with goods to trade at exorbitant prices - including spirits. Recognising 'New Holland' as a lucrative market, visits from other suppliers followed. With them came a diversity of peoples, many of whom brought skills and practises previously unseen to Australia, affording them the opportunity to establish businesses that could supply other immigrants with a taste of home.

One might have anticipated a scenario in early Australia similar to that which led to the birth of American Bourbon and its sister whiskies, when in the early 1700s, a combination of bad economic times and religious unrest against the established Church in Great Britain set off a wave of emigration from Scotland and Ireland. These settlers who came to be known as the "Scotch-Irish" in the new World, brought to North America their religion, their distrust of government control, and their skill at distilling whiskey.

Instead in Australia, the wine industry won out, although many early wineries did produce Brandy (an oak matured spirit distilled from grapes) in large quantities for both consumption and the fortification of wines such as Port, Tokay, and Muscat - all of which were far more popular than table wines until relatively recently. It's also noteworthy that while beer has been an enormous part of Australia's drinking culture for well over a century, whisky has not - despite the fact that the primary ingredient of beer is malted barley, also the key ingredient for Scotland's malt whiskies. One is a logical extension of the other. By contrast, the American whiskey industry was founded by immigrants who made use of surplus local ingredients, namely corn, wheat and rye (in fact, several existing American stills were originally named 'beer stills'). In short, the ingredients (grains), the knowledge (immigrants) and equipment (pot stills & barrels) have been available in Australia for a long time. As to why Australia didn't take to whisky earlier remains uncertain.

The elements of great Scotch whisky - peat (a primitive form of coal), casks for maturation, clean water and quality grains are all available in Australia. A thought for quiet contemplation next time you taste one of Australia's whiskies: If the ingredients (grain, peat), the knowledge (immigrants) and equipment (pot stills & barrels) have long been available in Australia, why has it taken over 200 years to begin producing whisky of global renown?

 A fragment from the Kelly's still. 

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Tracing Australia's distilling roots has been a difficult task. Our initial research indicates that grains, some of which may have been malted, were being distilled illegally, and made into whisk(e)y. Ned Kelly and his gang are said to have funded some of their exploits by selling whiskey made in a still hidden in the bush, some distance from their hideout at Bullock Creek, near Mansfield. A small still was installed nearby the Kelly's den as a front so that in the event that the authorities were informed, the main operation could continue unhindered. Kelly's gang grew barley & mange wurzel on their 20 acre plot to produce their whiskey. A fragment of a pot still was recovered in 1968, exactly where Ned described in would be in a letter he wrote to his mother over
eighty years earlier.

In the 1880s in Nirranda, a tiny village east of Warrnambool, Victoria, Tom Delaney distilled whisky employing a recipe and technique based on Dr Marcus Lafayette Burn's book"The Complete Practical Distiller". Delaney's Whiskey is said to have been called 'Mountain Dew' and was"as smooth as new milk"according to local farmer, Pat Delaney. The whiskey was available to sample at Job Wines' Hotel at Woodford, north of Warrnambool, indicating that there was both a demand, and that it was indeed drinkable. At the peak of production, Delaney is said to have been producing 100 gallons (378 litres) a week. Following his arrest in 1894, production ceased.

Both the Kelly and Delaney families were of Irish descent, and presumably produced whiskies in an Irish style, which is why we've used the 'e' when spelling whisky. The 'e' vanishes from this article now, as in 1928 with the founding of Australia's biggest distillery, the aim became to replicate 'Scotch' whisky, the style that has continued to inspire most of today's Australian whisky makers.


Nick’s Wine Merchants is Australia's pre-eminent whisky store. We offer a terrific collection of Aussie whiskies, in particular, Tasmanian whisky online and of course, rare Scotch whisky. Whisky lovers who also enjoy wine will note that we also carry a fantastic range of wine online. Our selection begins with an unmatched range of Australian Shiraz right through to Italian wines, French wines and more. Whatever you're looking for, remember, we ship Australia wide!