Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the whiskey industry had developed in Australia and not Scotland? Have you ever wondered what that might have looked like?
This is a question that has intrigued Sasha La Forgia from Adelaide Hills Distillery over the past couple of years. And it’s an intriguing question. If that had happened in Australia, how would we have done it?
“Obviously for the Whisky being produced in Scotland, they use Barley because they have a lot of it,” La Forgia explains. “But it turns out that before colonialism in Australia, there was a vast grain belt right through the middle of the country that was farmed by the Aboriginal people.
“They found a stone mill that they have dated to 65,000 years ago, so 65,000 years ago the Aboriginal people were milling grain. There is no evidence of bread making, but if they were making bread, it would be the first culture on the planet to make bread so the French can bugger off with their baguettes.”
La Forgia’s point is that if, as a culture, you make bread, then you are probably making beer. And the natural progression from that is that if you are making beer, then you’re probably also going to be making whiskey.
Although there isn’t any evidence of what was being milled or why, the idea that whatever the Aboriginals were milling, could eventually have been used to create a native grain Whiskey is intriguing.
Most of today’s distilleries in Australia will use traditional Barley. This, of course, makes sense as Barley is the second largest grain crop grown in modern Australia. Barley though, is not a native grain on our continent, so the question remains, ‘what were the Aboriginals milling?’
Research has shown that at that particular mill they were working with Kangaroo Grass, but La Forgia is quick to point out that it is not only hard to farm and hard to harvest but also really doesn’t work in Whiskey.
“But another popular grain with Aboriginal people was Wattleseed,” he continues, “and Wattleseed is a beautiful crop in Australia. It is a crop that is not only drought resistant but also high in starch and high in protein.”
To celebrate World Whiskey Day, Adelaide Distillery will be doing a limited release of their aged Native Grain Whiskey. The mash for this malt will consist of a balance of Barley Malt and lightly roasted Wattleseed, hand selected from the outskirts of Darwin.
Although they have already done a release of the unaged version, this release will have been aged for over two years in a single cask that has been mellowing in ex-Cabernet Franc French oak barrels from the nearby Howard Vineyard.
While the Whiskey is not purely made from Wattleseed, La Forgia is quick to point out that eventually, that is the aim; to finally create a Whiskey that is strictly native grain.
“It’s more of a 20-year project to have whiskey that is 100% Australian grain,” he explains. “We need that time to develop the grains to a point where doing that is commercially viable. And there are lots of people working on it; it’s not just us; it’s not just our industry.”
The issue, of course, is that Wattleseed although increasing in popularity has not had the hundred or more years of investment, research, crossbreeding and selection that grain, like Barley, has had. Although the interest in commercially farming native grains exists, at this stage it’s a relatively small concern compared to European gains.
But there is definitely a demand. The ABC has recently reported that even existing Wattleseed growers are struggling to keep up with rising demand for this nutrient-rich native bushfood. And the interest in Wattleseed is not only coming from top chefs but also the food manufacturing industry, both domestically and abroad.
So while at present the mash consists of a balance between Barley and Wattleseed, La Forgia sees the percentage of Wattleseed increasing as time goes by. This increase in future releases is not only due to issues of sustainability and national pride but also the taste that this native grain gives to the Whiskey.
Although raw Wattleseed is not very palatable when roasted, it develops a develops nice nutty, chocolatey and caramel toffee character. Which means it’s flavour matches Whiskey perfectly.
“So there is a pretty distinct Wattleseed character to this Whiskey, which is beautiful. You get those flavours of nuts, chocolate, toffee and even coffee. On the nose, you get marzipan, honey and beeswax with a nice, spicy French oak, in which it has been aged.”
Now while the makeup of the mash is essential, there is not a Whiskey drinker alive who won’t also point out that the water quality used is almost as vital.
“There is a giant aquifer under our feet,” Le Forgia says. “That’s the water that we use, so the grain comes locally, the water comes from directly underneath our distillery, the power comes from the solar panels on the roof, and that’s our ethos; to try to make everything as sustainable and ethical as possible.
“There is really strong marketing in being able to offer a sustainable, ethically produced product. I think people would rather know that the bottle they are buying isn’t destroying the planet, rather than the bottle that is using stream water from the Alps or somewhere.”
There is something truly inspiring about Adelaide Hills Distillery’s move away from European ingredients to create a Whiskey that is uniquely Australian. It will take time, but this first release is undoubtedly a step in the right direction both for native ingredients and our spirit industry.
“Yes, the goal is 100% Australian grains. It is not achievable right now, but over time it will become achievable. Luckily, myself and my partners are at least still 20 years away from retirement so that we can invest in it over the next 20 years and one day it will be a real thing.”
The Nature Grain Project will be available from today through adelaidehillsdistillery.com.au