How to drink: spirits

Published on 24 March 2022

Photo: A sensory guide to drinking spirits (illustration by Ol Elliott).

Max Allen, drinks writer and MFWF Legend, on the wide world of spirits and how to get more pleasure out of drinking them.

What are spirits?

If you take a fermented drink such as wine or beer and you heat it up to boiling point, the alcohol in the drink evaporates. If you cool this hot alcoholic vapour it condenses back into a spirit: a liquid that contains a much higher percentage of alcohol (30 per cent or more) than can be achieved naturally through fermentation.

This process is called distillation, and it happens in a contraption called a still. The raw materials of the liquid you’re distilling, the way that distillation happens, what kind of still you use, and what happens to the spirit after distillation, all determine what kind of drink you end up with – vodka, gin, whisky, brandy, rum and so on.

What are all the different spirits made from?

Grains: The most commonly-used raw materials used to produce spirits are cereal grains: barley, rye and corn are used to make whisky and whiskey, wheat is used to make vodka and gin (as a general rule). All these spirits start life the same way: the grains are mashed up with water, fermented, and the resulting alcoholic liquid (it’s kind of like a beer, as I said, without the hops) is then distilled.

Most vodkas are then re-distilled to produce as neutral and smooth a spirit as possible, but some, like the Grainshaker range of three single-grain vodkas, distilled in Melbourne, champion the different ingredients they’re made from – wheat, corn and rye– and showcase the flavours of each.

Single malt whisky is made solely from malted barley: malting is the process of germinating and then drying the barley, which helps convert the starch in the grains into fermentable sugar. Some distillers such as Bakery Hill in Bayswater and Chief’s Son on the Mornington Peninsula using malted barley that has been dried over peat smoke, resulting in a really intense, smoky spirit. Starward Whisky’s Two-Fold, made in Port Melbourne, is a blended whisky, made from both malted barley and wheat. The Gospel distillery in Brunswick specialises in whiskey made from rye, inspired by the American style of spirit (hence the ‘e’ in whiskey).

Grapes: The word “brandy” comes from the German for “burnt wine”, which is a giveaway clue to how it’s made: wine is heated (“burnt”) in a still and the resulting clear spirit is aged in oak barrels so that it picks up some golden colour and oaky flavour. Not a lot of brandy is made in Victoria – Bass & Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula are pretty much the only producers – although Pietro Gallus Estate in Warrandyte does make grappa, the Italian version of brandy, which is usually bottled without oak ageing.

Apples: Grapes aren’t the only fruit that can be turned into a spirit. In traditional cider-producing countries such as France, cider is distilled to make apple brandy, or calvados. Kellybrook cidery in the Yarra Valley has been making apple brandy for decades.

Sugar cane: Rum is made from the sweet juice of freshly-milled sugar cane or from thick sticky molasses, a by-product of the sugar-refining process. Cane farming and the sugar industry are based much further north in warmer parts of Australia, of course, but some Victorian distillers like Jimmy Rum on the Mornington Peninsula truck down the raw ingredients to make their spirits here. 

Agave: This South American succulent is used to make tequila and mezcal. Like sugar cane, it doesn’t grow in cool Victoria – but that hasn’t stopped a couple of local producers from making it: Echuca Distillery buys in agave nectar from Mexico; Melbourne’s Top Shelf International has a huge plantation of agave on the Whitsunday coast. 

What other ingredients and processes are involved in making spirits?

Oak (and other wood): White spirits like vodka and gin are bottled pretty much straight from the still which is why they’re clear and colourless. Darker spirits like whisky and brandy derive their characteristic golden colour and complex woody aromas from being matured in wooden barrels for at least two years before being bottled. Wooden casks were originally used as storage vessels for spirits, but distillers soon realised that the wood also changed the flavour of the liquid for the better.

What kind of wood the barrel is made from, and what kind of booze it had in it before it was filled with raw spirit affect the style and flavour of the finished drink. Most Australian whisky, for example, is matured in American oak barrels (American oak gives a more robust character to the spirit than French oak) that previously had fortified wine in them – apera (the Australian name for sherry) or tawny (aka port). Some distillers age their whisky in old beer barrels or red wine barrels, and this also affects the flavour: taste Starward’s Solera single malt (aged in old apera casks) alongside Starward’s Nova (aged in red wine casks) to see the difference. 

Some distillers, like Backwoods in Yackandandah and Kinglake northeast of Melbourne are experimenting with ageing their whiskies in barrels made from red gum, chasing a more Australian, less traditional flavour profile.

Botanicals: Gin is made by taking a neutral-flavoured spirit and re-distilling it along with various herbs, spices and fruits (gin people often call them botanicals), so that the evaporating alcohol is infused with the flavour of the added ingredients. The main botanical – without which gin can’t be called gin – is juniper, and traditionally, in a classic style of gin like that produced by the Melbourne Gin Company in the Yarra Valley, any number of other things from coriander seeds to orange peel to rosemary are also added, depending on what style of gin the distiller wants to make.

A growing number of Victorian distillers are including Australian native botanicals such as lemon myrtle, mountain pepper, finger lime and strawberry gum in the mix: the Indigenous-owned Taka Gin Co in Footscray spotlights native lemongrass and lemon-scented gum leaves, harvested from neighborhood trees.

Fruit and nuts: All sorts of liqueurs and flavoured spirits can be produced by steeping fruit and nuts in clear spirit and sweetening it before bottling. Don Giovanni in Melbourne’s west used fresh citrus to make Italian-inspired limoncello, mandarino and blood orange liqueurs; Marionette is a locally made range of mostly European-inspired liqueurs including cassis (made by steeping blackberries), mure (blueberries), nocino (green walnuts) and amaretto (almonds); Reed & Co distillery’s Yuzushu is a Japanese-inspired barley spirit infused with yuzu citrus grown locally in Bright; Anther distillery in Geelong produces a cherry gin by macerating cherries in spirit; Animus in the Macedon Ranges use Davidson lums to similar effect; Four Pillars’ Bloody Shiraz Gin, made using Yarra Valley shiraz, has inspired other distilleries to steep wine grapes in their gin, too ... the list goes on (and on).

Bitter herbs: There’s a whole family of spirits and spirits-based drinks that taste bitter, thanks to being infused with botanicals such as gentian and wormwood and artichoke, drunk as “aperitifs” or “digestifs” or used in cocktails. Collingwood-based Craft & Co’s amaro is very much in the dark and intense Italian tradition; Hurdle Creek Still in the King Valley make an aniseed-flavoured pastis that includes native aniseed myrtle; and the Beechworth Bitters Co has a range of digestifs that defy convention (one includes tomato and kombu in the ingredient list – delicious!).

Wine: That once-unfashionable cocktail staple, vermouth, is not technically a spirit either, being made by steeping bitter herbs and spices in spirit and adding the resulting tinctures to sweetened wine. Central Victorian vermouth producer Maidenii was one of the first to revive the style a decade ago, and has gone on to produce a number of spin-off drinks such as their Roselle wine-based bitter.

The spirit of Victoria

There’s a long, rich history of spirits production in Victoria, dating back to the mid 19th century, when entrepreneurs like Robert Dunn at Warrenheip near Ballarat followed by the Joshua Brothers in Port Melbourne established large, ambitious distilleries (both buildings still exist). In the 1940s, about a third of all the whisky drunk in Victoria was made in Victoria, with much of it coming from the even larger Corio distillery (also still standing) near Geelong. By the 1980s, though, all these ventures had fallen silent thanks to changing tastes and economics. It took a couple of decades before distilleries began to emerge again, with Bakery Hill in the late 1990s and Starward in the mid-2000s making whisky in Melbourne, and Four Pillars and the Melbourne Gin Company firing up their gin stills in the early 2010s. Since then, the growth of craft spirits has been phenomenal: Victoria is now home to dozens of distilleries across the state – from the Little Lon gin company in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD to Fossey’s distillery in faraway Mildura – producing almost every kind of spirit imaginable.

High spirits: tips for better tipples

Keep yourself nice. Don’t forget we’re dealing with potent drinks here. Most gins, whiskies and vodkas sit around 40-ish per cent alcohol – and some are even stronger. Words such as ‘overproof’ (mostly applied to rum, but can be found on other drinks), ‘cask strength’ (whisky) and ‘navy strength’ (gin), all indicate that the liquid in the bottle is stronger than normal – anywhere between 50 and 60-plus per cent alcohol. The extra booze helps pack more flavour into the spirit – but it also packs more of a punch, so go easy.

Drink better: go the fancy glassware. I know I’ve said this in every ‘How to drink’ so far, but it’s perhaps even truer for spirits, because the aesthetic appeal of a beautiful golden glowing single malt or well-made fancy cocktail is enhanced immeasurably by drinking out of weighty, finely crafted glassware such as the gorgeous range produced by Port Melbourne’s own Denver and Liely.

Think local, drink local

One of the great things about the emergence of all the great local distillers over the last decade is that we can now drink our own versions of classic cocktails that once relied entirely on imported ingredients. Take, for example, the Negroni, a dead-set legend of a cocktail that calls for one part gin, one part vermouth, one part bitters. As recently as a decade ago, you would have automatically reached for English gin, French vermouth and Italian bitters to make it. Now you can mix a proudly all-Australian – in fact, an all-Victorian – combo: Brogan’s Way Evening Light gin, made in Richmond, Castagna Classic Dry vermouth from the leading Beechworth biodynamic winery, and, from Spotswood, Autonomy Aperitivo Bitters, full of the flavour of Davidson plum. Now that’s progress.

Max Allen’s Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, filled with stories of spirits – and other delicious booze – is out now, as is Beggars Belief: Stories from Gerald’s Bar by Gerald Diffey, which Max edited and illustrated, often under the influence of an all-Australian Negroni.

 by Max Allen

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