History of Whisk(e)y in Australia

It is widely believed that whisky arrived in Australia with the Scottish and Irish settlers, who brought their love for spirits with them, but the first legal distillery wasn’t opened until 1822. Sorell Distillery (1822) in Hobart was the first of 16 distilleries that opened in Tasmania before state Governor John Franklin enacted the Prohibition Distillation Act, banning spirits production in 1839.[1][2] This was at the request of his wife Lady Jane who pleaded “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine.”[3] Considering Tasmania’s current standing in the world of Australian whisky, incredibly, whisky production did not resume here again until 1992 when Bill Lark had the Distillation Act 1901, requiring distilleries to produce a minimum of 2,700 litres, overturned.[4]

Some people argue that had Tasmania been given the chance to flourish unfettered by the law, it could have become one of the world’s great whiskey regions. Instead, distillation continued apace in the rest of the country and for a time Victoria was the epicentre for whisky making.

The Victorian Distillation Act of 1862 was introduced in order to tighten up distillation in the state, prohibiting many small-scale distillers from obtaining a licence.[5] The Warrenheip Distillery (1863) near Ballarat was the first large scale distillery to come as a result of the law.[6] A couple of decades later, Federal (1888) was built by the Joshua brothers in Port Melbourne and at the time became the third largest distillery in the world.[7]

Whisky history in Australia - Warrenheip Distillery BallaratWood engraving of Warrenheip Distillery, near Ballarat, October 20, 1863 // IMAGE: Samuel Calvert (State Library Victoria)

Overtaking as Australia’s biggest distillery, Corio (1928) was built north of Geelong by Scotland’s Distillers Company Limited (later known as Diageo).[8] It’s ‘5 Star Whisky’ was aged in oak barrels for five years and caused quite a sensation when it was first released in 1956. For a short while domestic whisky sales overtook imported sales!

Whisky history in Australia - Corio 5 Star Whisky The Age Geelong Melbourne
Print newspaper advertisement of Corio 5 Star Whisky, May 10, 1956 // IMAGE: The Age Melbourne

From the 1960s, when excise prices were raised to the point that the price advantage of domestic alcohol became negligible, the Australian whisky industry entered a downhill period. By the mid-1980s, most local distilleries had closed. Luckily, the Tasmanian revolution was just around the corner. In 2014, Sullivan’s Cove won ‘World’s Best Single Malt’ at the World Whiskies Awards, well and truly bringing Australian whisky to the global stage.[9]

Despite Tasmania emerging as the core whisky producing region of Australia, Victoria still remained on the scene. Some consider Bakery Hill (1999) in East Melbourne Australia’s first craft distillery and Starward (established in 2004 as New World Whisky) in South Melbourne the first commercial scale single malt distillery in Australia. There are several other Victorian whiskey distilleries that exist today including, of course, our rye whiskey distillery in Melbourne.

Nowadays there are close to 330 distilleries across Australia - most making gin, however, a lot are ageing whisk(e)y.[10]

Whisky history in Australia - Federal Distillery Port Melbourne
Worker at Federal Distillery in Port Melbourne c. 1913 // IMAGE: T. W. Cameron (State Library Victoria)

MAIN IMAGE: Bond Store at Corio distillery north of Geelong in 1975 // PHOTO: Stuart Penberthy

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[1] Sorell Distillery - https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1089816?searchTerm=Sorell%20Distillery

[2] Prohibition Distillation Act - https://www.parliament.tas.gov.au/tpl/PPWeb/1857/HA1857pp85.pdf

[3] Lady Jane Franklin - https://www.taswhiskyandspiritstrail.com.au/tasmanian-whisky-spirits/

[4] Distillation Act 1091 - https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2004H01100

[5] Victorian Distillation Act 1862 - http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/hist_act/tda1862183.pdf

[6] Warrenheip Distillery - https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/112885760

[7] Federal Distillery – https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/6117986

[8] Corio - https://intown.com.au/historic/the-corio-distillery.htm

[9] Sullivan’s Cove - https://www.thedrinksreport.com/news/2014/15341-2014-world-whiskies-award-winners-announced.html

[10] 330 distilleries - https://thewhiskylist.com.au/distilleries/australia