“The beauty of Victorian whisky is there’s a bit of freedom there in defining the category ourselves,” says Andrew Fitzgerald, co-founder of The Gospel Whiskey distillery in Brunswick. “I think that’s the best part. If you’re in Tasmania and you don’t double-pot distil, age in a small cask and finish in a fortified, you’re kind of an odd one out. Whereas in my opinion Victoria doesn’t have that boundary.”
Along with Ben Bowles, a South Carolina native, Fitzgerald is a long-term disciple of distilling. The pair run Gospel from the backstreets of Brunswick, where a six metre high continuous column still and bespoke copper pot still turn out a straight rye and Solera rye that sits on the top shelf of some of the city’s very best bars. As well as a range of bitters and liqueurs, it’s all made from local ingredients.
An unofficial ambassador of the Victorian distilling community, we asked Fitzgerald to tell us what’s so interesting about whiskey being produced in the state – and four drops to try.
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Melbourne’s weather is actually a benefit
Victoria’s varied climate really affects the way its whiskies age. Traditional centres of distilling like Kentucky and Scotland experience relatively stable temperatures. But the Victorian (and particularly Melbourne) climate is famously variable – and makes a stark difference on producing whisky.
“You see an impact on whiskies being a lot deeper and richer in a shorter period,” says Fitzgerald. “For people that are wanting eight- or twelve-year-old Scotch whiskies, or a four-year-old rye whiskey out of the US, we’re delivering a similar quality after [only] a couple of years because of those changes in the climate.” It means that, generally speaking, whiskies aged just 24-36 months in Victoria can have maturity far beyond their years.
Gains in the grain game
Despite Tasmania’s established house style, there aren’t too many restrictions on whisky production in Australia. It just needs to be aged in some sort of oak for at least two years, and it has to be made from a cereal grain. The state’s varied climate also has on grain production.
“We’re finding that grain grown in the outer regions of Victoria like the Mallee and Gippsland – where in the last few years they haven’t been getting these late rains – is giving quite a pronounced grain character coming through in the whisky,” says Fitzgerald. It produces grain of vastly different flavours and characteristics.
The rise of regional distilling
Between Bakery Hill opening in Bayswater North in 1999 and Starward emerging in Port Melbourne in 2007, Victorian whisky distilleries were pretty thin on the ground. While those pioneers of the local genre are still going strong, regional Victoria that is emerging as a new frontier of whisky production.
Most regions of the state now produce whisky, such as Loch Brewery & Distillery in Gippsland, Timboon in the state’s southwest, and, most excitingly for Fitzgerald, Kinglake Distillery to Melbourne’s north.
“I’m really excited by what Kinglake as a distillery is doing,” says Fitzgerald. “There’s a theme with a lot of Australian distilleries to over-oak. But they really balanced out the spirit with the oak and it’s just a cracking whisky. I think they’re a good representative of a regional place.”
Andrew Fitzgerald’s four Victorian whiskies to try
The Gospel Straight Rye Whiskey: “We’re the first distillery in Australia to really honour the term ‘straight’, meaning new American oak – an American definition,” says Fitzgerald. “We’ve really adopted that.” Aromas of fresh rye bread and creme caramel make this a great sipper, but Fitzgerald also loves it in an Old Fashioned.
Kinglake Distillery Single Malt: Deep and rich is the name of the game here. “They do it as a batch-by-batch release,” says Fitzgerald. “But certainly their first release and their second release were well balanced between spirit and oak, with a perfect mash bill of pale malts and some darker malts.”
Morris Muscat Barrel Single Malt: A Victorian stalwart producer of fortified wine, Morris has recently released two whiskies with instant success. “I think Morris has hit it out of the park in regard to a traditional Scotch whisky,” says Fitzgerald.
Starward Solera and Twofold: Fitzgerald sees Starward, along with Morris, as one of Australia’s frontrunners right now. “I love their Solera, which is the first Starward I ever tried and is still one of my favourites,” he says. “Twofold is a classic drinker for someone who might like a Jameson, a lighter whiskey. I would reach for a Twofold first.”
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