Victoria’s High Country is a sweeping, beautiful part of the state, dotted with forests, mountains and rivers. It’s also increasingly home to some of the most interesting drinks producers in Australia. Anytime is a good time for a drive out to the sticks, but with the promise of bars, cellar doors and restaurants curated by keen distillers who have escaped the rush to distil, age and perfect the art of making spirits, it’s worth making plans.
Here are six reasons to head to the High Country and stock up.
Billson's Brewery, Beechworth
When they gave up the city life for the country, Nathan and Felicity Cowan decided to take over a rundown 1860s brewery and distillery in Beechworth and bring it back to life. The Billson's Brewery on Last Street is a beautifully restored, red brick tower on granite foundations, complete with taproom and cellar-dwelling speakeasy cocktail bar. $10 will get you a behind-the-scenes tour, a few samples and a chance to explore the structure’s history in the brewery museum.
With some references from an old brewers’ diary paired with modern technology, the Cowans are combining old world ideas with contemporary tastes, making everything from classic sodas, cordials, aged stouts and coffee liqueurs alongside their core beer and spirit range. Be sure to check out the speciality gins, including the strawberry gin (with a wallop of berries from local pick-your-own farmers) and the turmeric-infused Beechworth gin - a colourful reference to the rich gold mining history of the area.
Hurdle Creek Still, King Valley
Just down the road from Milawa in the picturesque wine country of Victoria’s King Valley is Hurdle Creek Still. Owners Simon Brooke-Taylor and Wendy Williams founded the distillery on the family farm in 2016, setting themselves apart from makers elsewhere by distilling their base spirit with local grain and leaning heavily on local botanicals – some even grown on-site.
Their still house is the place to be if you want to see a boutique distillery in action, with a converted farm shed housing the entire operation. Brooke-Taylor and Williams encourage visitors to come in and see the process up close, talk gin and sample the latest distillations. The grain-heavy gins include the flagship Yardarm gin, with botanicals like cardamom, lemon myrtle and hops (yes, just like in beer), and Powder Monkey, a high-proof gin that includes eucalyptus leaves and aniseed myrtles.
Kinglake Distillery, Kinglake
Just over an hour’s drive north-east from Melbourne is the beautiful bush town of Kinglake. While there is no lake (it was named for British historian Alexander William Kinglake), there is a tiny, off-grid distillery producing small-batch single malt whisky. Kinglake Distillery founders Chantal Daniels and Sam Lowe do everything themselves here, from distilling grain sourced from small farms in NSW to resting the final spirit in bourbon, port or sherry barrels (as well as some experimental batches in native timbers). Even the water used comes from a mountain stream that bubbles through their property.
Doing it all themselves means the distillery bar is only open sporadically. So you’ll need to sign up to their mailing list to get the chance to sample the whisky at the source (although if you email and ask nicely, you’re a chance for a private tasting). For those with a spare $2800, barrels of whisky are available to purchase – Kinglake will even age and bottle them for you.
Backwoods Distilling Co., Yackandandah
Backwoods by name and nature, it was after years of city living and starting a family that Leigh and Bree Attwood decided to return to their roots in Victoria’s High Country. Since their Yackandandah distillery opened in 2017, things are going so well that Backwoods has recently opened a cellar door at the Yack Station Arts Hub, a shared space that also hosts silversmith, hairdresser and artist workshops.
Backwoods make both whisky and gin, with recent additions a unique red gum-aged rye and single malt whiskies limited to 160 bottles each (jump on the mailing list for the best chance to get one). Tastings at the distillery can be booked and get you an hour slot in which to sip and sample. A 90 minute tour-and-tasting experience as well as a six-hour distiller-for-a-day course will soon be available.
Reed & Co., Bright
Trust ex-chefs to chase flavour. Hamish Nugent and Rachel Reed were running acclaimed restaurant Tani Eat Drink in the alpine town of Bright when they started distilling. The experiment went so well they shut the restaurant to focus purely on gins and liqueurs. They’ve since shifted into an old converted mechanics workshop.
Reed & Co. does gins (their ‘Remedy’ gin is a combo of juniper, eucalyptus, shiso and green tea), coffee liqueur and bottled cocktails. They’re also in the business of local collaborations – see their limited edition Gin & Juice, made in partnership with winemaker Jo Marsh of Billy Button Wines in Bright, which fused local yuzu with smoke-tainted grapes. Naturally for two chefs, the bar at their distillery door on Wills Street isn’t just drinks only. After a hard day on the nearby ski slopes, plonk down with a negroni and plate of venison tataki or freshwater trout with creme fraiche.
The tiny Swiftcrest Distillery is an entirely off-grid operation on a small farm outside of Mansfield. Hank and Carrie Thierry use a woodfired steam boiler to heat their stills, with the wood coming from deadfall trees on the property. The pure spring water flowing out from nearby Mt Buller into the property forms the basis of these spirits, which include Alpine Spring gin, flavoured with lemon myrtle and strawberry gum. Swiftcrest also does an Appalachian-inspired moonshine, flavoured with a Dutch apple pie recipe brought to Australia by Hank’s oma in the 1960s.
Tastings at this stunning distillery property need to be booked and are limited to 10 per session. It’s well worth making the trip out of Mansfield to warm your bones with some old fashioned farmhouse hospitality.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism North East.