How We Drink in 2019

The Australian drinks landscape is unrecognisable today compared with a decade ago. Natural wine, craft beer and hyperlocal spirits are the new normal, and there’s been a groundswell of non-alcoholic innovation. But how did we get here, what role did Sydney play, and where are we going?

Published on 24 May 2019

A laser-sharp wine guru, a rambunctious chef, and a drinks-media whiz walk into a bar. They decide to upend the way we judge and reward drinks in this country.

Mike Bennie (journalist and co-founder of Rootstock natural-wine festival and P&V Wine & Liquor Merchants), Duncan Welgemoed (head chef and co-owner of Adelaide’s much-lauded restaurant Africola), and Tamrah Petruzzelli (drinks-media specialist and director of creative agency Super Assembly) launched the inaugural Drink Easy Awards in May.

Drink Easy is the first awards of its kind for a plethora of reasons, not least because it allows any Australian maker of any kind of alcohol to enter. In fact, in an Australian-first even those producing booze-free drinks (kombucha, soda, non-alcoholic beer) can submit their product for judging. This funneling of all beverages – wine, beer, cider, spirits and non-alcoholics – into one arena is unprecedented but says a lot about the way we drink in 2019.

The trio use words such as “inclusive” and “egalitarian” and “creativity”, immediately putting their new event at odds with traditional drinks competitions.

“This is for everybody,” says Mike Bennie. “I would love to see [natural wine-maker] Ochota Barrels alongside Jacob’s Creek.”

Drink Easy will better answer the question: is it delicious? And it won’t discriminate on how that’s achieved or by who. The inclusive judging criteria makes room for non-traditional producers – those making natural wine, wild-fermented beer and unfiltered spirits – who don’t tend to fare well in traditional competitions but who have changed Australia’s drinking landscape for the better, and for good.

Natural wine, for instance, found few fans in traditional award set-ups in recent years despite becoming a larger and larger part of Australia’s wine industry.

“There was no point [in natural winemakers] having their wines denigrated in a system that simply didn’t understand them,” Bennie explains, noting that natural wines are often seen as “faulty” in those contests. “I appreciate technocratic wine judging, it’s been of great benefit to the Australian wine industry … but increasingly the need for a more diverse judging panel is essential.”

Left to right: Drink Easy founders Duncan Welgemoed, Mike Bennie and Tamrah Petruzzelli | Photography by Jiwon Kim

Drink Easy, therefore, will be less about the technical opinions of a chosen few and more about drinkability, complexity and personality as judged by savvy people from a range of industries. Chefs will assess spirits alongside distillers. Journalists will examine ales alongside professional beer and cider judges.

Bennie also says the awards will be less about fault-finding and more about adding context to the technical, science-based analysis most other drinks awards hinge on. A best-of list will be generated in each category, which in partnership with Broadsheet will be made available online as a permanent resource. And in another unprecedented move – and in stark contrast to most mainstream drinks awards – all producers will be given notes on the products they entered, and judges will be paid.

Bennie and co want to reflect the way people actually create, drink and talk about beverages right now. Not only for the natural winemakers who may have started out making “fun, picnic wines”, Bennie says, and which are now “helping recreate fine-wine culture through a natural-wine lens”, but for our drinks makers in general. The way we drink in Australia has radically transformed over the past 10 years. The way we judge it should, too.

How did we get here?

Imagine it’s 2009. What did you beeline for at the bottle-o? Which wines were on the list at your local bistro? Which beers were on tap at the pub? Which spirits lined the back at your favourite bar? (And were you even really paying attention?)

At city bars, imported spirits reigned supreme and vodka was the go-to spirit. Entry-level wine-drinkers tended to play it safe with big-name drops from labels in the Jacob’s Creek and Taylors realm, or whatever was wallet-friendly. The more informed defaulted to classic styles from classic regions. Eskys brimmed with lagers or equally classic styles, save for the “odd foray into hyper-hopped craft beers from America’s Pacific Northwest”, Bennie says. In other words – we weren’t that adventurous, save for the odd overseas beer.

Many early millennials were “seguing into Marlborough sav blanc from Bacardi Breezers”, Bennie says.

Behind the bar, “you would’ve been hard pressed to find any Australian spirits except maybe a dusty St Agnes [brandy] or some neon liqueurs from Vok”, says Luke Ashton. An alum of top Sydney cocktail bars Vasco and The Roosevelt, he opened Darlinghurst bar This Must Be The Place in 2015.

In wine-making, those who weren’t making tried and tested drops weren’t considered serious, or quality. And those outsiders were intimidated, says Caitlyn Rees, an acclaimed sommelier and the wine director for the Mary’s Group (Mary’s, The Lansdowne, The Unicorn). “If you didn’t know the rules you kind of didn’t know anything about wine.”

Then a crew of established South Australian winemakers – Anton van Klopper of Lucy Margaux Wines (often considered the godfather of the Australian natural-wine movement), James Erskine of Jauma Wines, Tom Shobbrook of Shobbrook Wines, and winemaker and more Sam Hughes (from Sydney) – started do-ing things differently. They formed a collective called Natural Selection Theory that brought its progressive wares east. They ran around Sydney, “wearing hot-pants, playing instruments, pushing wheelbarrows of natural wine … into fine-dining venues”, Bennie recalls.

Their wines – lo-fi expressions of fruit from organic and biodynamic vineyards – met a lot of naysayers who, Bennie says, suspected they were poor quality, made in backyard sheds, or were simply a marketing ploy.

But it didn’t faze them, nor a growing number of their peers who joined their avant-garde movement. Compared with the established wine market, these makers were younger and their bottles cooler looking, emblazoned with playful, attention-grabbing labels that attracted a younger demographic.

The natural-wine movement brought “bright, refreshing, simpatico styles” that Bennie says slotted perfectly into our almost-always-in-the-sun lifestyle.

But it was just one element in a much larger shift towards locally made, small-batch products, and away from the large-scale brands that previously dominated Australian bottle shops and wine lists.

“In rolled a hens party, cock straws and all, screeching, ‘Where’s your orange-wine list?”

Mike Bennie

Watershed Moments

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Sydney’s interest in more sophisticated spirit drinking came in 2007, after the New South Wales Government announced legislation that made small-bar licensing less expensive. Much to the chagrin of the Australian Hotels Association and its president, John Thorpe – who famously said Sydneysiders didn’t want to sit in small bars reading poetry and drinking chardonnay – it “loosened things up” for a new era of single-minded operators, says Sophie Otton, a leading sommelier, wine consultant and co-owner of Newtown bar She Loves You. The city’s offering diversified, and a trickle of small drinking establishments arrived. Shady Pines Saloon, which opened in Darlinghurst in 2010, totally redefined the cocktail and booze scene. The Baxter Inn and Bulletin Place – now two world acclaimed bars – came along in 2012.

Young Henrys, one of Sydney’s original craft breweries, lead the charge away from conventional lagers. They were soon joined by a vanguard of makers that Bennie says were unperturbed by “an older generation’s opinion about what beer should be”. Young Henrys, as an example, has grown a fiercely loyal following since it launched in 2012 and is now on tap at hundreds of pubs around the country and gets delivered to music festivals by the pallet.

Sydney was also instrumental in moving the needle on Australian wine culture, and natural-wine festival Rootstock was largely responsible. In its five-year tenure (which ended in 2017) it was a pulpit unlike any other for natural winemakers not just in Australia but worldwide. They converged on Sydney to pour their wines, get face-time with consumers and industry folk, and pressure-cook ideas with like-minded producers.

Aftershocks of the festival, co-founded by Bennie, Giorgio De Maria and James Hird, reverberated across the city. Forward-thinking wine importers, such as Andrew Guard and De Maria, chased down minimal-intervention wines from overseas that were mostly unknown here. Those importers are not peripheral to this story. “If it wasn’t for an importer bringing in [cult Italian natural-wine label] Radikon all those years ago,” Bennie says, “Sam Hughes wouldn’t have shown it to [Erskine, van Klopper and Shobbrook] and blown their minds.”

Among the first Sydney bars pushing the natural-wine agenda were Love, Tilly Devine; 10 William St; Monopole; and the now-closed 121 BC (co-owned by De Maria). They helped make the wine world more approachable for people who may have previously felt ostracised by the lingo, or who didn’t have prior wine knowledge. Natty-wine-dedicated retailers such as P&V in Newtown, The Oak Barrel in the CBD, Annandale Cellars and online merchant Drnks (which recently opened bricks and mortar in Waterloo) also helped big-time.

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This was all happening, of course, as discerning consumers became increasingly conscious of and educated on provenance and process. As a country we began to edge towards smaller producers in food, and drinks followed soon after.

Ten years ago, “We were just cottoning on to the fact we needed to think about [booze] in a similar way to food” and champion a product’s terroir, says Bennie.

“People want more of a connection with what they’re consuming,” Caitlyn Rees adds. Rather than peddle mass-produced wines, she finds customers “soak it up” when a sommelier dives into the intricacies of a boutique wine or winemaker’s story. A South Australian Basket Range Riesling fermented on gewürztraminer skins “normally thrown away in the wine-making process” is no longer too much information – it’s fun.

Sophie Otton says over-the-bar experiences tend to be more casual and personal than they were too. “You’re speaking to customers more like friends,” she says. And where it was once the younger generation intimidated by wines outside their ambit, “it’s now the older people” she says. Crafting an approachable wine list is now as fine an art as ever, given what constitutes “approachable” has changed so fundamentally.

“Ten years ago, if you had natural wines on a list you had to put a little leaf or moon symbol to let people know,” Bennie recalls. Now they’re peppered throughout wine lists among traditional blends and makers.

Bennie recalls an afternoon two years ago at Love, Tilly Devine. “In rolled a hens party, cock straws and all, screeching, ‘Where’s your orange-wine list?” That’s what he calls critical mass.

The new scientists

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One of the most exciting things for consumers about drinking in 2019 is that boundary-pushing operators and producers are not experimenting for experimentation’s sake. They understand there’s “no point being experimental … when what you’re making isn’t delicious,” says Luke Ashton.

Rosebery distiller Archie Rose’s new limited-run riff on the Australian breakfast spread shows how far the boundaries are being pushed. Its ArchieMite release is a buttered-toast-flavoured spirit. Marrickville distiller Poor Toms went spittoon-scouring at Rootstock in 2016 and made grappa from spat-out wine. At Tasmania’s Hartshorn Distillery usually discarded sheep’s whey (left over from the cheesemaking process) is distilled into vodka. These are not back-alley scientists making new drinks without thinking of their wider appeal and drinkability – their products line backbars across Sydney.

At the city’s most inventive cocktail bars, such as Scout in Surry Hills and PS40 in the CBD, the product, vision and invention is world class. The former makes its own wine by fermenting bananas, watermelon and citrus, and distils peaches to make gin. The latter brews and bottles its own sodas from scratch with their lab-like set-up – something you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Distillers are “forging an identity that is iconically Australian” using native botanicals and fruits, says Bennie.

We now have upwards of 100 distilleries across the country (compared to fewer than 50 six years ago) and they’re not just making gin and whisky. Moonshine, absinthe, rum – if it’s a spirit, we make it. And we tend to get recognised globally for it too. Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove is considered the world's best single-cask single malt, and that’s just one of a plethora of local spirits that have won big at awards overseas.

At Marrickville brewery Wildflower experimentation isn’t the exception but the rule. Where others use commercial yeast and rely on malt or hops, its beers are fermented with wild, indigenous yeast collected all over New South Wales. In some ways they’re more like minimal-intervention wines – tart, slightly pungent and incredibly complex.

The brewery is in Sydney’s inner west – arguably ground zero for the urban craft beer movement in Australia and a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide. Upwards of 10 microbreweries, all within a few minutes’ drive, “is probably a world record”, Bennie wagers. Last September the NSW Government launched a 12-month trial that, for the first time, allowed craft breweries to trade as small bars (accommodating up to 100 people rather than just offering tastings). “Truffles, mussels, oysters, honey, chilli,” Bennie recites. “All are being piled into really interesting [small-batch] beers.”

And you’ll now you’ll find beer makers working with vineyards; distillers work-ing with cheese producers. Wildflower recently teamed up with SA wine label Brash Higgins to concoct a brew with disused grape skins. In Victoria Yarra Valley distillery Four Pillars makes its sell-out Bloody Shiraz Gin primarily with grapes from surrounding wineries. The release has sold out every year since it launched in 2014.

“There weren’t enough [small-scale producers] to give this a foundation 10 years ago,” says Bennie.

So we are drinking well, and more intrepidly, but some of us are also drinking less. And lemon, lime and bitters no longer cuts it for the savviest teetotalers. Kombuchas, shrubs and sodas (often fermented or steeped in-house, and which can be served as-is or spiked), regularly appear on bar menus.

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You’ll also find carefully curated non-alcoholic drinks pairings at Momofuku Seiōbo and Quay in Sydney, Biota Dining in Bowral, and Attica in Melbourne. Seiōbo was one of the first to do it in 2012, says general manager Kylie Javier Ashton. Then-head chef Ben Greeno got acquainted with the concept while working at Rene Redzepi’s acclaimed Noma, in Copenhagen.

Melbourne’s Brunswick Aces has followed in the footsteps of UK-made Seedlip (the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit) with its non-alcoholic gin. And Indigenous-owned Queensland brewer Sobah makes zero-alcohol craft beer.

Drink Easy – which will be held countrywide in November – ensures these booze-free beverages, which contribute to many Australians’ drinking experiences, will now be acknowledged and rewarded.

Bennie predicts the next phase of Australia’s drinking evolution will be a spike in niche venues to accommodate the swell of just-as-niche products. Sydney’s already seen a surge in spirit-specific bars, such as tequila spot Tio’s Cerveceria in Surry Hills in 2012, and rum-focused Lobo Plantation and gin bar Barber Shop, both in the CBD, in 2013. Even cognac gets some love at Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern. And the Tio’s crew opened Cantina Ok!, a 20-person capacity, standing-only mezcal bar, earlier this year.

Even with its controversial lockout laws, Sydney has cemented its spot as a landmark city for drinking, globally.

“I can list 15 venues in Newtown alone that sustain themselves on natural wine or small-scale producers,” says Bennie. “That’s in about one square kilometre. You don’t even find that density in Tokyo or London or Paris or Copenhagen.”

This story originally appeared in print issue 18.