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First native Australian whisky is on its way

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Adelaide Hills Distillery has taken a major step towards producing the world’s first whisky made from native Australian grains.

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The distiller this month launched a preview release of its Native Grain Spirit, which incorporates wattleseed, the edible seeds from any of the 120 species of Australian Acacia traditionally used as food by Indigenous Australians.

The small run of nine-month-old spirits were snapped up on the distillery’s website within a few days of release. The 46.2 per cent ABV bottles sold for $120 for a 700ml bottle but a further 12-month release is expected at the end of this year or early 2018.

The product will be sold as whisky when it has spent at least two years in the French oak barrels, acquired from the nearby Howard Winery.

Head distiller Sacha La Forgia said although the spirit used traditional barley malt as well as wattleseed, his goal was to ultimately produce a whisky made purely from native Australian grains.

He said the early national pre-release to test the market had been well received.

“It’s quite a big experiment what, we’re doing, so we wanted to get it out and see what people thought.

“It’s very new – no one’s ever done it before – so we wanted to make sure people would accept it and get behind it; we didn’t want to wait two or three years and have everyone hate it.

“My biggest concern was that because we’re breaking from tradition so much, I thought people might get a bit upset and riled up, but they haven’t at all.”

The Adelaide Hills Distillery has grown exponentially since launching its first product, 78 Degrees Gin, in early 2015. The gin this year was awarded Best International Gin at the American Distilling Institute Awards.

“When I made gin I took a winemaker’s approach, so I made it all around the blending, so when I started making whisky I used a gin maker’s approach of starting with a blank canvas and building layers of flavour on top,” La Forgia said.

“You do that with the way you distil it, the grains you put in the mash and the barrels you use.

“So we thought why not start making spirits that speak of place, that are Australian and are not just copies of Scotch whiskies made in Australia; they are Australian whiskies made in Australia.”

La Forgia said he went through a long process of experimenting with native Australian grains to figure out the best ways to ferment them, distil them and extract flavour, before settling on wattleseed.

However, the high price of wattleseed, which is sourced by native food company Something Wild, is currently preventing the distillery from using it solely.

Adelaide Hills Distillery partnered with Something Wild earlier this year to produce an Australian Green Ant Gin.

“Wattleseed is a really cool one because it is actually toxic when it’s raw but you can roast it and roasting breaks down the toxins and also gives it this beautiful chocolate, coffee, nutty, toffee flavours and aromas,” La Forgia said.

“We incorporate that into the mash and it’s made like any other whisky so we put the grains into the mash, we extract the starch, convert it to fermentable sugar, ferment it and distil it, and we’ve ended up with a whisky that speaks of its history but is from Australia.

“The difference is that the wattleseed itself is about 50 times more expensive than traditional barley malt, so [while] we’re working towards producing whiskies that are 100 per cent Australian grains, it’s just at the moment that would end up being about $5000 a bottle.

“We’ve done lots of trials and we’re just starting some more research, so watch this space.”

La Forgia began dabbling with distilling almost a decade ago in his laundry at home before studying winemaking and travelling the world visiting distilleries and working wine vintages in the northern and southern hemispheres.

“When I came home in 2014 I saw an opportunity to start a craft distillery and I just went for it,” he said.

“When I started studying winemaking, distilling seemed largely reserved for older men with yachts and helicopters – it was quite a difficult industry to break into but I really enjoyed the flavours and the blending so winemaking was an easy decision.

“We’ve seen in the last few years a real movement towards quality and authenticity and that’s really given small distilleries a chance to get started and it’s given them a market to sell some product.”

The Adelaide Hills Distillery began with a 100-litre copper still and will move into its new distillery, which features a 2000-litre still, in December. However, plans are already underway for a 6000-litre still to be installed in the future.

Adelaide Hills Distillery is co-located near Nairne with Mismatch Brewing and Hills Cider Company. The group will open a visitor centre with a cellar door in the Adelaide Hills next year, which La Forgia said would be provide an important boost for all of the businesses.

Mismatch combined with native food company Something Wild earlier this year to produce a Wattleseed Lager.

“One of the classic cocktails is a boilermaker, which is a shot of whisky and a beer, so now you’ll be able to have wattle seed whisky and a wattle seed lager,” La Forgia said.

This article was first published on The Lead.

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