- Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia, by Max Allen. Thames & Hudson. $32.99.
In the late 19th century, the town of Braidwood in southern New South Wales was home to a thriving cider scene. The early settlers began planting apple trees in the 1830s, but it wasn't until an English couple built the area's first cidery in Reidsdale a few decades later that things really took off.
Charles and Hannah Wilton modelled their trend-setting cidery on ones they remembered from home, and while it has definitely seen better days, their homage to the cideries of Somerset is still standing.
Max Allen, the veteran wine writer and Australian Financial Review columnist, travelled to Reidsdale when he was researching his entertaining new history of drinking Down Under, Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, and the trip didn't disappoint.
An enterprising Englishman named Gary Watkins-Sully has set up shop on the Wilton's old property and is making cider much the way they would have, "by allowing the wild yeasts on the fruit and in the atmosphere to ferment the golden juice spontaneously". What's more, he's doing it with some pretty special fruit.
Remarkably, some of the 180-year-old trees planted by those early settlers, and later by the Wiltons, are still fruiting. On his visit to the historic site, Allen sampled what was probably a Golden Pippin, a very old cultivar dating back to at least the 1600s.
"Biting into the apple's rough-textured russet skin released a rich, dense flood of sweet golden flavour... I felt for a moment as though I was travelling through time and space, from now, back through colonial Australia, all the way to Elizabethan England," he writes.
Intoxicating is brimming with these evocative little vignettes, like the one that sees Allen travel to Seppeltsfield, the 19th-century Barossa Valley institution, in search of a 100-year-old restorative bitter.
At the end of a cellar that was dug out in the 1850s, Bill Seppelt retrieves a dusty bottle that is wrapped in paper marked "B. Seppelt & Sons, Angaston Bitters", and pours out a pungent glass of the stuff. "I hold the glass to my nose and a cloud of dank herbs and brown spices and wet bark fills my nostrils. This old liquid is full of life!" enthuses Allen.
Of course, this is much more than a collection of amusing anecdotes. Intoxicating is a fascinating history of Australia's relationship with booze, and one that, thankfully, doesn't avoid the elephant in the tasting room.
The notion that Aboriginal people had no experience with alcohol prior to European settlement and that they are, therefore, uniquely susceptible to alcoholism, is one that has been allowed to take hold in the popular imagination. It turns out the "dry continent" myth of Aboriginal Australia is just that - a myth.
Allen introduces us to Way-a-linah, a sugary fermented drink harvested from the Eucalyptus gunnii, that has likely been enjoyed for thousands of years by the traditional owners of the land. Aboriginals also enjoyed a variety of other fermented drinks, such as mangaitch, which is made from soaking banksia flowers in water, and tuba, which is made from the fermented juice of palm-tree buds. These drinks were typically enjoyed seasonally, but Allen's point is clear.
Alcohol consumption got off to a flying start in the colonies. By the 1830s, per capita consumption stood at 13.6 litres, a figure that eclipses our current intake by the best part of a litre. To moderate consumption, and quell unrest, the authorities employed two main approaches: taxation and prohibition, the latter of which, according to social anthropologist Maggie Brady, meant that, "Indigenous people missed the opportunity for a long-term familiarisation process". Sadly, they're still missing out.
University of Melbourne anthropologist Professor Marcia Langton didn't pull her punches when she spoke to Allen about the harmful effects of alcohol on Aboriginal communities. "The alcohol industry - I've got to say this very clearly to you - has opposed sensible policy reform... in order to sell more alcohol," she said. It's no accident that there's an endless supply of $6 bottles of Poker Face wine for sale in Australia's most remote communities, and the fact that these wines are often produced by some of the country's most respected winemakers rightly gives Allen pause.
"I find it hard to reconcile my personal positive view of those companies with the fact that their wines are also sold in remote communities with large Aboriginal populations - despite the winemakers repeatedly being told by people in those communities how damaging their products are," he writes.
It's a serious point that warrants further discussion, yet it doesn't change the fact that Allen's perfectly palatable prose has me left me thinking I could go a drink - and it's only 9:30am. In the words of the song, "Matter o' fact, I got it now".