So, the Whisky Champs are back. This is something rather special for me personally, but also for the greater whisky community and history of whisky appreciation in Australia.
That last bit sounds awfully niche, and to many it will be.
To take a proper look at where it all began, we have to go back as far as the 1820’s. The first recorded distillery in Australia was established in 1822 by a man named George McCracken in what is now the Tasmanian town of Bothwell. McCracken’s operation produced mostly whisky and gin, but it was short-lived and closed in the 1830s. It didn’t take too long for both New South Wales and Victorian producers to really kick into gear with the 1860’s booming into action with distilleries such as Corowa Distilling Co and Warrenheip creating Australia’s first viable malt whisky.
It was around the same time in the mid-1800’s that brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, Justerini & Brooks etc were flooding into market. Products that may have been previously largely unpalatable to international audiences, along with the phylloxera crisis that destroyed the French wine/brandy industry, created the perfect storm for whisky, gin, and rum to take centre stage in Australia. A whisky revolution one could say! In fact, these aforementioned Scottish blends even picked up awards in the late 1800’s at things like the Sydney International Exhibition and Melbourne Exhibition in 1880 and 1881 respectively. Even back then, awards for spirits and wine existed: shiny award stickers on bottles isn’t a new thing!
This history of whisky in Australia has also been far more thoroughly covered by authors far more researched in it than I, including Luke McCarthy who wrote an excellent piece for the SMWS just in 2021 on that history, which you can read here. It’s the following era in whisky appreciation that really kicks us into the present and changed the landscape entirely as we know it today. I’m of course referencing the modern whisky appreciation in Australia, led by people named Norman Case, Robin Spratt, John Rourke, and David Le Cornu, among others. That last gentleman, David, is at the very genesis of the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship. Through competing whisky clubs, his proprietorship of the Earl of Zealand hotel, and some very exciting competitive spirit, the Whisky Champs were born in 1989.
“It’s worth remembering that bottling whisky as a ‘single malt’ was still wildly unpopular in the early to mid 1980’s.”
To put this into perspective of what the whisky scene looked like in 1989: you might find brands like Glenfiddich, Highland Park, Macallan, and of course all the big blended whisky names on the shelf at your local bottle shop. It’s worth remembering that bottling whisky as a ‘single malt’ (as in whisky distilled from malted barley from one distillery) was still wildly unpopular in the early to mid 1980’s. That’s not to say the distilleries weren’t doing so, as they certainly were, it was just so microscopic in terms of their output, and the single malts we did see were usually bottled by independent bottlers, such as the SMWS who pioneered these malts in their purest form of single cask, cask strength, single malt whiskies. Then the percentage gets even smaller once you realise the availability of these malts into little old Australia was tiny. Thanks to people like Norman Case who direct imported these malts, often well before their parent companies had offices here, we are able to enjoy the quite simply VAST availability today. You can read more about the rich history of Australia’s pioneers in whisky here, written by our Chairman Andrew Derbidge.
Fast forward to 2023 and we’re now 34 years since the Whisky Champs began. The mere fact we can sit in the Art Gallery of NSW, on a Saturday night, and taste & guess single malt whisky, for someone to be crowned the malt whisky champion of Australia, is simply astounding. All this history has led to this moment, and someone will take home Australia’s most important whisky appreciation trophy. And for everyone else, we’ll have a big party, drink amazing malts, and dance into the night thanks to the world’s best spirit, whisky!
Come join us on Saturday 24 June 2023, at the Art Gallery of NSW and be a part of Australian whisky history.