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Australian spirits versus the world’s best


Smart Sipping

In between seasons behind the stick and chasing booze around the world, drinks correspondent Luke McCarthy investigates the fermented stuff we love.

View more entries from Smart Sipping

How does Australia's emerging spirits industry stack up against the world's best and brightest?

How does Australia's emerging spirits industry stack up against the world's best and brightest? Photo: iStock

Do you refuse to drink a brandy if it’s not French? Turn down a whisky if it’s not Scottish? Many of us are slaves to the prestige attached to our favourite brands. Sometimes at our peril.

I recently witnessed an assured lad on a date proclaiming that all non-Scottish whiskies are complete rubbish. His clued-up date was interested in testing the theory, so she quietly ordered a new round of whiskies. He continued his essay on the unrivalled perfection of Scotch until she mentioned the whisky they were both relishing was indeed a single malt - from Melbourne.

It’s not just Australian whisky producers that can embarrass our palates. You can now find Australian gins, rums and vodkas winning awards the world over. So when all the marketing and history is removed from the glass, how do local spirits stack up against the world’s best?  

The blind taste test

I decided to test this question with an experiment. I invited five experts and five spirit lovers to a blind tasting. None of the participants were told the purpose of the tasting. Once there, they were progressively poured 10 spirits to evaluate: two vodkas, two gins, two brandies, two rums and two whiskies.

What they didn’t know at the outset was that in each category, an Australian spirit had been pitted against some of the most revered brands in the world. Let’s see what happened next.


Belvedere Unfiltered (Zyrardów, Poland) v Fire Drum (Cambridge, Tasmania)

Distilled from a unique Polish rye grain, Belvedere Unfiltered is often marketed as “the whisky drinker’s vodka”. How appropriate, then, that Fire Drum vodka is crafted at Tasmania Distillery, home to the now-world famous Sullivans Cove single malt, and is therefore twice distilled from a barley mash in traditional copper pot stills.

Our tasters identified the purified body of the Belvedere spirit, picking up the spiciness of the rye, but many were blown away by the malty, textural viscosity of the Fire Drum. Challenging the perception that vodka should be flavourless, both are fine sipping spirits when served chilled or on ice.

The Belvedere just got over line in the head to head, giving The World an early lead.


Tanqueray Number Ten (Fife, Scotland) v West Winds The Cutlass (Gidgegannup, WA)

Australia is now producing many quality gins that utilise native botanicals, and the West Winds Cutlass is one of the best examples. But how would it fare against one of the most respected London dry gins?

Some of our experts were torn. Trish Brew, bartender and gin expert from Gin Palace, couldn’t select a preference. She correctly identified both products blind, picking the native wattle seed and coriander so prevalent in The Cutlass, but warmed to the length, texture and spicy citrus of the Tanqueray.

However, our other participants were more decisive, and The Cutlass won the majority over in the end.


Courvoisier XO (Jarnac, France) v St Agnes XO (Tea Tree Gully, SA)

Living as we do in a country that produces such an amazing array of wines, I’m often curious as to why more brandy isn’t produced. Thankfully, the family-owned Angove concern has produced a stellar Australian brandy since 1925.

Cognacs rightfully enjoy a formidable reputation, but a look at the production methods of our two contenders reveals few differences. Both are twice distilled in pot stills and both enjoy extensive maturation in oak barrels.

There is, however, some 50-year-old stock in the blend of the St Agnes XO. Shane Randall from Nick’s Wine Merchants identified the extra ageing, noting that it created a more “rich, creamy, leathery” experience when compared to its French counterpart.

Nearly everyone else agreed on the St Agnes, and Australia hit the lead.


Appleton Estate 12 Year Old (St Elizabeth, Jamaica) v FNQ Rum Co. Iridium Dark Rum (Walkamin, Queensland)

Never heard of this far north Queensland rum? Don’t confuse it with its larger competitors to the south, because over the past two decades Iridium head distiller Mark Watkins has run an artisanal operation that creates a range of quality spirits.

Even so, the Queenslander was certainly up against it. World-renowned spirits writer Dave Broom has called this particular Appleton release “the finest aged rum from Jamaica”. Ev Liong, the bar manager at Lee Ho Fook, preferred the Appleton’s more robust structure and loved the cinnamon and liquorice notes across the palate.

Surprisingly, though, nearly all of the other participants thought differently, enjoying the Iridium’s lighter body and its sweet, lingering caramel finish. Australia surged further ahead.


Aberlour A’Bunadh (Aberlour, Scotland) v Lark Cask Strength Sherry Cask (Richmond, Tasmania)

The battle of the whiskies was always going to be intriguing. Both products epitomise a unique approach: cask strength, exclusive maturation in ex-sherry casks, and neither lists an age statement, which is a growing trend in the Scottish whisky market.

In the end, it was too close to call, with the majority of our judges declining to select a clear preference. Hugh Holds, distiller at New World Whisky Distillery, favoured the length and body of the Lark while whisky authority Leigh Oliver preferred the attack of the Aberlour and its rich, chocolate fruitiness on the finish.

The verdict

If you’re familiar with many of the fantastic spirits produced in Australia, then their strong showing in this tasting won’t surprise you.

Such a simple experiment doesn’t undermine the many incredible international products out there, nor the traditions that have created them.

What it does show is that Australian spirits are now matching it with the best in the business. And as we witness the demise of many once-proud Australian manufacturing industries, it’s a call to arms to get out to the bottle shop or the bar and support an industry on the rise.

Have your tried any Australian spirits? How do you think they stack up against the best in the world?

Follow Luke McCarthy


  • Since when was Appleton a world class rum?

    Date and time
    July 18, 2014, 3:19PM
    • Could have at least tested against a top shelf like zacapa or diplomatica. I am sure appleton would stack up pretty well against something Australian in its price range like bundaberg.

      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 5:15PM
    • Yep, not long back from Jamaica and you buy Appleton in the service stations there. I'm sure they have a prestige product but they do their street cred no good at all when servo brand rum is how they are generally remembered.

      Date and time
      July 19, 2014, 10:19PM
  • Where do we get them all? and other Aussie up and comers?

    Date and time
    July 18, 2014, 3:21PM
    • Agree Aussie spirits are really making a mark. Four Pillars Gin is a prime example. A beautiful gin produced in a small distillery in the Yarra Valley that's uses Australian botanicals to produce a world class product. Bravo!

      Date and time
      July 18, 2014, 4:01PM
      • KI Spirits on Kangaroo Island makes an award winning gin that is simply the best and a vodka that could be drunk on it's own.

        Date and time
        July 18, 2014, 4:45PM
        • Currently in Tassie and have picked up Three Capes, Nant and Lark whiskies. All are big favourites of ours and rate alongside the best of the Scottish single malts.

          Am also very impressed with the Lark Godfather Gin and McHenry Classic Dry Gin, both also from from Tassie, although Tanqueray 10 remains a firm favourite.

          Can't comment on the rum, but some Aussie spirits and liqueurs are right up there with the world's best.

          Date and time
          July 18, 2014, 5:18PM
          • Appleton is disgusting! Should've chosen Mount Gay or any venezuelan rum instead.

            Date and time
            July 18, 2014, 6:23PM
            • WOW, not sure about any of these, as far as Gin Goes, CADENHEADS 'OL RAJ is by far a better gin than Tanqueray Number Ten..
              You have taken a selective pick of Spirits and chosen No World Class Consistent Gold Medal Winners ?
              So I am not sure as to the whole point of this story ?
              Also Didn't Sullivans Cove (also of Tasmania)Win the Worlds best Whisky with their French Oak ?

              Field Marshall Dave
              Date and time
              July 18, 2014, 6:44PM
              • West Winds is not a good Gin nevermind a great Gin. Can't speak to whiskey as it's not my preference.

                Date and time
                July 19, 2014, 11:10PM

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