Enjoying a drink in Australia today is very different from 20 years ago. Where we once gravitated towards trusted local brands and premium imported labels, today we’re more curious in our tastes.

So says Mike Bennie, wine journalist and co-founder of the Drink Easy Awards. He claims we’re increasingly drawn to brewers, winemakers and distillers creating innovative products that we haven’t seen on the Australian market before. “People are [now] wildly experimental and don’t stick to one brand,” he says. “They’re constantly craving new and interesting things to try.”

It’s part of a broader change in Australia’s drinking culture. In an era where the provenance of the products we consume is front of mind, alcohol is increasingly seen as something to be savoured – not skolled. “A great bottle of something can be an experience shared, and that can be the event itself,” says Bennie.

It’s a cultural shift that also corresponds with a growing awareness about health and wellbeing. “Younger-generation drinkers approach alcohol with an eye on higher quality but lower consumption,” he says.

We’re keen to try products that align with our values, whether it’s organic, additive-free or local. At the same time, producers are applying a holistic approach to their craft and creating drinks that have more personality than mass-produced beverages.

Epitomising this new dawn in Australian booze production is the paddock-to-bottle movement. In Tasmania, Ashley and Jane Huntington from Two Metre Tall brew craft beer from ingredients grown entirely on their farm. In northern New South Wales, Husk Distillers produce Australia’s only paddock-to-bottle rhum agricole (cane-juice rum). “These are really rare, exceptional things that Australia is excelling at,” says Bennie.

Broadsheet chatted with Bennie about the local hotspots where producers are pushing the boundaries to create booze with plenty of personality.

The “prodigious reputation” that Australia built in the 1980s and ’90s as a producer of fine wine came undone in the early-2000s when we flooded the market with low-cost wine, says Bennie.

Today, a new generation of natural-wine producers is appealing to the gatekeepers of international markets in places like the US, UK, Japan and Scandinavia. “People are beginning to draw their gaze back to Australia,” says Bennie, thanks to the work of these innovative, small-scale producers.

Bennie nominates Basket Range in the Adelaide Hills as a leader in avant-garde winemaking in Australia. Also deserving of special mentions are regions like Tasmania, Canberra, the Great Southern in Western Australia, Queensland’s Granite Belt, and cool-climate areas in central Victoria, including Gippsland and the Macedon Ranges.

Craft beer
Sydney’s inner west is arguably the craft-beer capital of Australia. The 15 or so breweries that call the area home are a diverse bunch, says Bennie. Young Henrys “has siphoned off rock’n’roll Newtown culture into a chugging beer brand of high quality, alongside Wildflower, one of Australia’s only wild-ferment breweries.”

Both Mountain Goat and Gage Roads Brewing Co are set to open marquee venues in the neighbourhood. “It’s such a dynamic scene that’s drawn in so much interest – now the big players are coming in to have a sniff around,” says Bennie.

It was Bill Lark of Lark Distillery who put Australian whisky on the map when he took home a trophy at the World Whisky Awards in 2009.

“You can’t mention whisky in Tasmania without the incredible groundwork laid by the Lark family,” says Bennie. (In fact, when the distillery opened in 1992, it was the first in Tasmania in 153 years – Lark had to campaign to overturn a 19th-century ban on distilling.) “Tasmania’s championing of distilling has been formidable and very valuable to the Australian premium-spirit market, and they continue to excel.”

Bennie’s hands-down-favourite producer, however, is Belgrove Distillery, a paddock-to-bottle operation run by organic-grain-grower Peter Bignell. His “exceptional” whisky is “produced with a very gentle hand,” says Bennie. “He produces his own biodiesel from spent cooking oil from the local roadhouse, he harvests water off his roof, he hand-built his own still from foraged copper plates. He’s the MacGyver of distilling.”

Bennie is most interested in cider producers like Small Acres Cyder near Orange, which is moving away from clinical, commercial styles made from apple-juice concentrate towards distinctive, wild-fermented farmhouse ciders.

At Lobo in the Adelaide Hills, Warwick Billings and apple-grower Michael Stafford produce cloudy, unfiltered cider made with real apples and natural yeast. Bennie describes Billings, a Somerset-born cider-maker, as “a legend of the cider industry”.

The craft-distilling boom in Australia has seen the rise of a new crop of small-batch distillers who are reshaping the local industry. “I like some of the interesting, more esoteric independent producers that are coming out of the woodwork,” says Bennie, singling out Hurdle Creek Still in Victoria’s King Valley and Melbourne’s Marionette (an offshoot of Maidenii) for particular praise. “[They’re] remaking classic examples of cocktail spirit staples, but through an Australian lens.”

Local gins are continually evolving too. “I like the move away from hyper-Australian native botanical gin to local London dry gin,” says Bennie. A good example is Adelaide’s Never Never Distilling Co, which produces “strong, juniper-driven gin styles".

Submissions for the Drink Easy Awards close Friday September 27. For further information about how to enter visit the Drink Easy website.

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