Geographically, Australia is a huge country. Beaches, valleys, rainforest, desert and everything in-between. Yes, even snakes and weird creatures too, it’s got it all. And when it comes to their distilleries that diversity is on full display.
Here’s a travel guide for those looking to visit some of the country’s producers in person…
The Australian Drinks Scene
For a long time running, most have associated Australia as a part of the world that’s seriously hung up and hungover on lager, focussing on quantity over quality and often quite problematically so.
Thankfully times are changing rapidly. Especially in cities.
Coffee and foodie culture has helped usher in a dramatic change in attitude toward drink as a whole. Craft cocktails are flourishing, spirit and food pairings are beloved and it’s now home to some of the world’s leading bars and innovative spirits brands. It’s a total U-turn in less than 10 years and one that makes it a country that is worth exploring for Spirits enthusiasts.
The thing is, the craft distilling movement isn’t new over there. In fact it may even be older than in the UK’s boom. It’s shoots first appeared in Tasmania 30 years ago with the likes of the Lark Distillery, but aside from these early names who trailblazed the birth of micro-sized distilleries, there wasn’t an instant boom.
Fast forward a few decades and two things sparked the rapid acceleration into what we see today. Gin had boomed around the world, the US saw thousands of small makers flourish and domestically, you have the likes of Sullivans Cove in Tasmania winning world’s best whisky.
The global recognition for their stunning whiskies pioneered a change in attitude both domestically and internationally. It opened people’s eyes and made many realise that Australia could produce some pretty impressive liquid. With gin makers such as Four Pillars and others showing that not only that, they could also build compelling brands too, the movement began in earnest.
There are over 300 distilleries across the country, most of which are less than 5 years old. For drinkers, this has meant a huge array to discover (and a rising quality overall) but what’s particularly great, is that no matter where you are in the country you’ll always find a distillery with an open door.
Gin still dominates the headlines, but whisky and brandy are developing at pace and mature stock is increasing month by month. With it, interest is also increasing rapidly and compared to the likes of the UK, many producers are already pan-spirit makers, which bodes well for the future resilience of the industry.
For those looking for an in-depth analysis on it, we’ve covered the Australian gin industry in our article here. From unique native botanicals to the creation of the Grape Infused Gin genre - it’s one of the most creative and dynamic.
Now that tax rebates are in place for micro-spirit producers, the volume of participants is set to increase once more. We expect to see a boom in nano-batches from wineries, looking to take advantage of the excise reform and diversify what they offer to visitors coming through their cellar door (and no doubt further expanding the grape meets wine genre as they go along – be it Shiraz Gins or other).
Australia’s distilleries are not ones to shy away from the seemingly insane either, somehow making what at first seems like flippant ideas become completely logical when served in a glass.
Wine infused gin is one, a revival of craft limoncello another but the Australian Agave plantation is one of the most ambitious projects in global spirits production anywhere in the world. What this Australian version of Tequila will turn out like is anyone’s guess, but odds are it’ll be pretty good and in time, likely to be joined by more…
The Australian distilling scene is vibrant and ever evolving, and now is one of the best times to get stuck in and see for yourself.
The Sights – Australian Distilleries to visit
Australian distilleries, much to our delight, have learned from their wineries and ensured that a well drilled hospitality offering is often part and parcel of their sites. Go to craft distilleries up and down the country you will most certainly be met with an open cellar door and a few free bar stools.
They’ve also upped the ante too - with a new legacy forming, many haven taken your standard tours and transformed them into an experience. Four Pillars host over two hundred thousand visitors a year, Seppeltsfield Road Distillers host over thirty-five thousand. Wine tourism may be big but give it a few years and craft distillers will eclipse their numbers.
Here are a few of our favourite must see’s…
Cape Byron Distillery is nestled in the hills behind Byron Bay, just fifteen minutes from the centre of town and a cheap taxi ride away. They offer three unique experiences: Distillery & Rainforest Tours, Guided Tasting Sessions & Cocktail sessions.
It’s an amazing location and between being greeted with a Gin & Tonic garnished with native finger lime & aniseed myrtle, or seeing the Brook family farm and the regeneration they have done on the property – you really get a sense of the place. Not many distillery tours take a short stroll through subtropical rainforest where you get to see, smell and touch the indigenous rainforest botanicals that are used. It’s immersive, tactile, fun and most of all – be it the gin, liqueurs or whisky, filled with lots of tasty things to savour.
If you’re in and around New South Wales and exploring what Sydney has to serve up, Archie Rose Distillery must be at the top of your list.
If you side with exploring flavour and taste rather than what goes on behind the scenes, the established bar that is only 3 meters away from the stills. Flanked by a wall of ageing whisky casks, the bar showcases their full range of spirits with a few unreleased products and an impressive selection of local craft beers and local food. With two bar areas on the menu, decorated with copper, steel, oak and concrete, it’s is the perfect place to sample, sip and savour their on-site craft.
Fancy making an afternoon out of it and trying a mini-trail? Sydney has a few distilleries on close proximity that makes for a fun day out. Amongst them are Hickston House, set in the soaring brickwork and girders of the former Saatchi & Saatchi garage, who distil creative spirits in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Not far away is Poor Tom’s bar and “gin Hall”, that’s open for walk in’s and welcome you to join them in drinking gin “to transcend reality, dissolve the adornments of our identities and become somebody else: to become “Poor Tom”. Better bring water…
Meanwhile, Brix Distillery is all about Rum and in addition to their bar, they host a selection of super fun classes and tours each week. You could also go to Kings Cross Distillery, located at the intersection of Darlinghurst Road and Macleay Street. The venue was once allegedly home to numerous covert businesses; an illegal 60s casino; a salacious club and a private bookshop - with secret tunnels and spaces to hideaway from the eyes of the law… The colourful history is the inspiration behind their gins and make for a tasty cocktail accompanied by intriguing stories.
If you are headed to Melbourne and you have a taste for gin and you want to know more, a trip to the Four Pillars Gin distillery in the Yarra Valley is a 1hour ride well spent. It’s a destination venue that rewards those who want to travel there and they know how to do tastings the right way.
On arrival, a signature G&T followed by a paddle of 5 different award-winning gins from their Bloody Shiraz to their Fresh Yuzu Gin in their private Mezzanine. See the stills, eat some food, gaze in awe as gin is plumbed in directly from the distillery to taps at the bar. Yes, gin on tap is a thing!
They lead the craft distilling movement for a reason – they do quality service, great booze and are welcoming and transparent. A great tour that sets a high bar for others to match.
If you don’t want to go out of town, Starward Distillery is nestled far closer to Melbourne’s centre and worth going tofor the sheer size and scale of their space near the Port alone. For Starward, industrial isn’t just an aesthetic and runs through their core. Expect the whirring, murmuring hum of their stills in action to challenge a new way of thinking, experiencing, and crafting Australian whisky.
What we liked most about it was that it’s irreverent and spares all the nonsense fetishisation about whisky and focusses in on what we all love about the category – it’s for EVERYONE. The bar serves long and short drinks, the tours are just nerdy enough and you leave having tasted great drinks, while being reminded that the new (more inclusive) era for Whisky was long overdue.
For those keen to tour a few in quick succession, just like Sydney, Melbourne has many open door distilleries within the city: Patient Wolf is located in the back streets of Southbank on the edge of the Melbourne CBD and is a stunning spot to sip a G&T. Craft & Co over in Collingwood make a wide range of spirits including liqueurs, grappa, amaro, limoncello, rum & whisky. The venue offers a unique experience to drink and dine in amongst the distillery and brewery operations, whilst the kitchen & bar reflects an overarching desire to support Australian producers. Great for a snack and a snoop about.
A little further out but one not to miss is Bass and Flinders. Based in the Mornington Peninsula, their modern facility combines architectural style with a bar, outdoor seating area overlooking green pastures (and a view of gleaming copper stills). They draw their inspiration from their coastal home where the sea meets the wine-growing hinterland and the results are stunning - Brandy, Gin, good times – it’s a bit further out but worth the trip.
The Kangaroo Island Spirits Distillery, south-west of Adelaide has a truly stellar line up of gins. With a bounty of botanicals so unique and abundant yet made in a way that’s sensitive to what gin is all about – juniper – they are worth seeking out. Tasting it in the context of where it’s made and where ‘perseverance permeates’, you get a sense of craft that Kangaroo Island is built on. And the fact that it really comes from the soil up.
Through their blend your own gin experience, you can explore Australia’s traditional and native botanical distillates in one sitting. Not only will you walk away learning something new but in hand you would’ve created your very own 200ml bottle of gin – now that’s a souvenir no one else will have.
Oh, and did we say they’ve started laying down whisky with some of the biggest names in Scotch recently becoming part of the team…? Time. To. Book.
Twenty Third Street Distillery have a bar and tasting room in North Adelaide, but we’d urge you to go and visit their site in Renmark, first built in 1914. What you get today is a reincarnated 21st century version where the two South Australian-built copper pot stills have been restored to their original glory.
Between their Signature Gin, the Not Your Nanna's Brandy (delicious by the way) and Riverland Rose Vodka (floral and light) – there’s lots to discover irrespective of what spirit you enjoy.
Never Never Distilling Co is also made in South Australia and operates within the Chalk Hill Collective site in beautiful McLaren Vale. They offer masterclasses seven days a week, and lets face it, their range is one of the best in the world so is on everyone’s must do lists. On the masterclass, you can enjoy a fully guided tasting and tour of the distillery, hosted by one of their resident gin experts while taking in the stunning views of McLaren Vale.
If you are in Adelaide and don’t think you are going to have the time to head out of the city -
Threefold Distilling have built their very own distillery in Glenelg East. The tasting room is a focused representation of what their products stand for and what they strive to achieve through their collective hospitality experience. Great range, great people and a fantastic place for a drink when in town.
Highlight Spirits – Australian brands to watch
Australia’s spirit scene has some competition, for coffee over in Oz is more than just about getting a caffeine hit. Aussie coffee culture is known, and Australians care deeply about the beans. Founded in 2013 by distiller Phillip Moore and designer / coffee enthusiast Tom Baker, Mr. Black Roasters & Distillers saw this and combine the love and culture of coffee and spirits together.
Mr. Black’s Coffee Liqueur is built on coffee as a ‘ritual, obsession, aesthetic, experience, and community’. Making people care about coffee liqueur and ways of drinking it as much as people care about their morning brew.
The difference between ‘something good and something great comes down to the details’ – which is why their dedication to their craft has seen their brand become one of the largest in the world.
Mr. Black is a cold brew coffee liqueur made with half the sugar and ten times the coffee of ‘old world’ liqueurs. It’s become the preferred choice for many home cocktail enthusiasts namely due to its rich and decadent flavours, that roll in the punches with big and bittersweet flavours.
How? Coffee beans are brought to the roastery from the best growing regions and cold brewed using purified water. The result is then added to Australian wheat vodka with a touch of cane sugar. There’s nothing fake, nothing artificial just an excellently crafted liqueur that is unapologetically coffee forward. We love it, and the limited editions and collabs like the Whistlepig Barrel Aged edition, the single origin series or the RE x Mr Black Recycled Coffee they do are really cool too.
Spotlight on Tasmanian Whisky
There’s a thriving Tasmanian whisky scene that has sprung to life over the past decade. Indeed, Tasmanian whisky distilleries make some of Australia’s best single malts and names like Lark Distillery and Sullivans Cove are now known far beyond the Antipodean region.
It’s no wonder either - Tasmania has all the ingredients and ideal conditions for malt whisky. There are now over 30 active distilleries in Tasmania, with even more on the way and whether you are keen on the idea of exploring Tasmania’s Whisky Trail, joining Tasmanian Whisky Week and the events taking place or just swooping in on your own time and to a specific location – it’s is a genuinely exciting place to go to if you love the amber nectar.
P.S. They make some pretty good Gin too…
So where to head?
Southern Wild Distillery is one of the island’s newer producers, and its whiskey is still sitting in the barrel. Nevertheless, the distillery’s signature gins are worth a trip alone (try the Mountain, that combines alpine herps with pepper berry and eucalypt to great effect) but if you ask nicely – you may get to taste some of the New Make Spirit and a glimpse of the upcoming single malt.
Yes, it’ll be young, yes it needs more time but it’s the kind of tasting experience that puts some context on the region – it’s constantly evolving and the promise of what’s to come is exhilarating.
Now owned by Lark, Shene Estate is one of the most picturesque settings you’re ever likely to see for a distillery (and their Gin, Poltergeist is our nod as the best in Tasmania). Meanwhile - Lark Distillery’s original site is also worth going to visit. Even for the sheer milestone nature of it – it’s the Tasmanian whisky distillery that launched the entire scene.
Founder Bill Lark was one of the first to challenge the laws, which dated all the way back to 1839 and in doing so eventually became the first legal Whisky producer in over 150 years. When they produced their first batch of Tasmanian whisky in 1992, a new chapter in the story of global whisky history begun – a phenomenal achievement.
It's a seminal place to visit for fans and those keen on understanding the history of the region’s whisky. While they also have a luxury tasting experience on Argyle Street in Hobart, it’s worth taking the time to go to the site if you get a chance.
In our opinion, the best whisky in Australia arguably comes from Sullivans Cove. From its original operation in Hobart to its new reincarnation in Cambridge, “Sully’s” put Australian whisky on the world map.
Try the French Oak Single Cask Tasmanian Whisky, winner of “World’s Best Single Malt” at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards to see what the fuss is all about. Even if you are a cynic about awards and point out that 2014 was a long time ago, that times evolve let alone consistency etc – we’re sure that you’ll be impressed by the range. It’s the very essence of what Tasmania’s thriving industry is all about and a pleasure to sip through.
For those of us familiar with Scotland’s big sites and towering stills – Tasmania has tiny distilleries and that’s a big part of the charm. One of which is the family-owned two-man operation, Devil’s Distillery. They release unique, individually selected expressions and an ever-changing line up. All releases from Hobart Whisky will never exist again – there’s no “core range” and they are constantly producing and preparing products for release. Your trip there is guaranteed to be different each time!
Equally small but for fans of Rye, when it launched Belgrove Distillery was Australia’s first and only bespoke rye distillery. The rye is grown locally by farmer-come-whisky-distiller Peter Bignell’s, and all the grain is malted on-site. The all in nature from farm to bottle is quite literal here, and showcases a rare chain of processes to be done by one person.
Another picturesque distillery that’s been a cornerstone of the Tassie scene is Cradle Mountain Whisky, which has been going since the 90’s (then under the name of Darwin Distillery). That age is on proud display in their 17yr old Single Malt Whisky, said to be one of (if not the) island’s oldest commercially produced single malt.
Tasmania is a place where you’ll find people passionate about Whisky.
You can even get local guides to take you on guided tours across several sites! The numerous Tasmanian distilleries, their personality, the people involved and the products they make mean that it’s one of Australia’s great booze destinations.
Be it due to the concentration, the human narrative that surrounds each or the comparatively small scale – it feels so personal and that passion, that raw element, is infectious. A must go to destination for all whisky lovers.