From the moment they land at Sydney Cove, the First Fleet start bootlegging spirits. The Australian distilling industry is born. And it’s immediately more valuable than anyone could expect.
With coins and notes in short supply, and rum rations for both troops and convicts, trade in spirits is all but encouraged by the new colony’s authorities. State-produced spirits soon become currency, though many prefer to ‘print their own’.
All distilled spirits at this time are generally referred to as ‘rum’, though it’s probably more likely to be a kind of vodka or new-make.
It’s not an elegant start nor a tasty start, but from this point on, the Australian spirit is in full flow.
Highlights of History - Australian distilling
1795-1800: the colony’s second governor, Captain John Hunter, issues multiple orders to stop distilling and sales of spirts. What a killjoy!
1819: Governor Lachlan Macquarie changes the laws of legal distilling when he realises people are going to make spirits regardless, so the colony might as well make a few quid from excise.
1822: the first legal distillery - Sorell Distillery in Hobart - is opened by Thomas Haig Midwood.
15 more distilleries open in Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) until state Governor John Franklin bans small-pot distilling in TAS in 1838, all but killing the industry there. This law somehow will become national law some 63 years later.
1824: Sydney Distillery in Paddington, NSW opens, changes names a couple of times then turns into a tannery.
1828: Bathurst, NSW sees Australia’s first inland distillery open by ex-convict Japheth White. His namesake is a limited edition gin from Stone Pine Distillery in the same town almost 200 years later.
1862: the Distillation Act of 1862 - a long-winded 52-page document - restricts the minimum quantities of spirits made per hour in the state of Victoria, which stops many small-scale distillers getting licences. It’s a sad sign of things to come.
From this point on, only large-scale distilleries are able to afford expensive setup costs and can produce enough liquor for their licences.
1888 for example, sees Melbourne’s Federal Distillery form. This distillery can produce over one million litres per year.
Late 1800s: the colony tries hard to stamp out illicit spirit-making. Hard-liners like Victorian Inspector John Christie manage to catch some bootleggers.
1901: the loathed 1901 Distillation Act comes about, which increases minimum quantities even more and puts in place many ageing regulations in dark spirits similar to what’s used for Scotch whisky. This is now national law. Governor Franklin must’ve been stoked.
1928: Corio Distillery in Geelong, VIC is built. A year later, it’s producing almost 2.3 million litres of whisky per annum.
Interestingly, Corio was built by Distillers Company Ltd, later to become Diageo, the world’s largest spirits corporation.
But while Corio is producing so much whisky, Australia all but stops drinking Scotch. Before this, we were one of Scotland’s biggest customers. For the first - perhaps the only time, Australian whisky outperforms imported spirits.
1960s: the Australian Federal Government hoists excise tax on Australian-distilled spirits and drops import taxes for international distilleries.
The Australian distilling industry bottoms out and finally, in 1989, even Corio closes.
1990: Bill Lark - the ‘grandfather of Australian spirits’ and a genuinely lovely man - gets to work and successfully overturns some of the laws in the 1901 Act that make it impossible for small craft distilling companies to operate.
1992: Bill Lark opens Lark Distillery in Tasmania, kickstarting the dormant Australian distilling industry.
1994: Sullivans Cove Distillery opens, also in TAS. With a lot of help from Bill and his friend Patrick Maguire, a few changes of the guard, and 20 years of hard work, Sullivans Cove goes on to win World’s Best Single Malt Single Cask at the World Whisky Awards 2014.
2013: Nip of Courage is born from a dream to connect the dots between exciting small distilleries in out-of-the-way parts of Australia and discerning drinkers looking for superbly crafted gin, whisky, rum and vodka.
The dream’s still going strong, and even though there are now over 300 craft distilleries in Australia’s cities, towns, mountains and outback, still no more than 1% of all spirits we drink here is made here.
It’s at this moment we realise we’re not looking back at history, we’re living in the middle of it.