Alcohol consumption is dropping in Australia but there's one market that's booming nationwide
Kanebridge News
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Alcohol consumption is dropping in Australia but there’s one market that’s booming nationwide

As Australians develop a taste for craft distilleries — and their products — the local industry is meeting the growing demand with exceptionally good drops

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Jun 26, 2024 1:00pmGrey Clock 6 min

From the Winter issue of Kanebridge Quarterly magazine, on sale now.

It never used to be this complicated to order a drink. Less than 10 years ago, requesting a whisky, a gin and tonic or even a vodka martini was a fairly straightforward affair with a choice of international brands, from Glenfiddich single malt whisky to Absolut vodka and Bombay Sapphire gin.

Now, the drinking landscape is somewhat more complicated — and that’s good news for locals who like a dram of whisky or a cocktail or two.

The Australian distillery industry has gone through rapid growth in recent years, from 30 distilleries nationally less than 10 years ago to more than 600 now. And that’s despite the overall levels of alcohol consumption falling over time across Australia.

CEO of the Australian Distillers Association, Paul McLeay, has a simple explanation.

“Australians are drinking less, but better — and patterns are changing,” he says. “Cask wine sales are down. They’re drinking less boring beer and more interesting products.”

While the distillery industry was already growing, McLeay points to COVID as the impetus for the increasing appetite for flavourful spirits.

“Tastes changed after COVID,” he says. “That home cocktail culture took off as people realised they could make interesting drinks at home — and post photos of them on Instagram.

“That notion of drinking less but better, the idea of fewer drinks on fewer occasions made it feel more special.”

While the Australian wine industry was valued at $5.7b last year, the distillery market is making headway, coming in at $2.5b. However, McLeay says it differs from the wine market, especially in terms of production profiles. For starters, without the need for vineyards, he says the distilleries are equally split between city and regional areas. This is a key advantage for small craft distilleries looking to connect with their local market.

“If you live in Marrickville (in Sydney), you’ll be proud to be drinking a local gin,” he says. “When someone comes to visit, you want to give them something to take home. Spirits allow you to give them a taste of the locality — you can buy it in a bottle.

“For travellers, if people remember the Hellfire Bluff Gin they had on a night out in Hobart, that’s a positive association with the area as well.”

At the moment, he says there are about 500 gin and vodka distilleries around the country, about 100 whisky producers and 50 making rum. With each product having its own flavour profile influenced by local conditions, from the region’s botanicals to its barley, the quality of its rainwater and even the way it is aged, it is good news for consumers seeking variety. McLeay says most distilleries are making multiple spirits to increase commercial opportunity and get product to market quickly.

“The ‘brown’ spirits have had more time,” he says. “Whisky looks clear like gin and vodka initially but over three or four years of maturation, it turns brown. It only takes about a month to make gin, which is why a bottle of gin is generally less expensive than whisky.”

While it might seem as though the homegrown whisky, gin and vodka market has appeared out of nowhere, credit for the modern distillery industry in Australia largely falls to Bill and Lyn Lark from Tasmania who lobbied their local MP in 1990 to change antiquated federal laws that outlawed distilleries that were smaller than 2,700L.

Following the change, LARK Distillery opened in Tasmania in 1992, capitalising on the state’s reputation for growing high quality barley, its clean water, as well as providing the perfect climate for ageing single malt whisky. Support for the Larks’ efforts also followed from  government, as well as mentorship from John Grant from Scottish label Glenfarclas, with their first whisky sent to market in 1998.

Bill Lark says while he knew it was a delicious drop, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the business kicked up a gear.

“The early 2000s was a period where we and the few other distilleries had to prove their credibility to the market,” he says. “When LARK first won a major award in the World Whisky Awards in 2009 I think it gave the confidence in others to get involved. From day one, inspired by such greats as John Grant from Scotland, I encouraged as many new distillers as possible to become a family of distillers where hopefully we would all be producing a world class product in sufficient numbers for eventually Tasmania and Australia to be recognised as a significant whisky producing region.”

In March this year, LARK was recognised by the World Whiskies Awards in London for crafting Australia’s Best Single Malt and Best Blended Malt.

Bill Lark says the local market really started to accelerate when Australian whiskies began winning awards.

In the intervening years, Australian distillers far and wide have heeded the Larks’ call to create their own spirits, from small family operations focusing on a single product to larger businesses with their eyes firmly set on the world stage.

Fellow Tasmanians Suzy and Cam Brett from Spring Bay Distillery share a passion for whisky and were inspired by their travels and the Larks’ example to start their own business.

“We remember very clearly being told by Bill Lark to make sure you make bloody good whisky!” says Cam. “I think there has definitely been a change in consumer habits.

“People are more engaged with what they are drinking, how it is made, where it comes from and that has increased the popularity of all spirits.”

Suzy says she first experienced whisky while working in Edinburgh in the 1980s. She’s been a fan ever since.

“Whisky is the king of drinks because of the complexity, the ageing and the romance,” says Suzy. “The time it takes the whisky to mature is influenced by barrel size, bond store, location and climate. The larger the barrel, the longer the maturation.

“Some of our large barrels may take 10 years or more to mature and it is a case of ‘it’s ready when it’s ready’ and won’t be rushed.”

Suzy Brett from Spring Bay Distillery says she was inspired by Bill and Lyn Lark to produce an exceptional whisky. Image: Joe Chelkowski

Jake and Tess Eagleton started their Wagga Wagga label, Riverina Gin, in February 2023, after years of discussions, as well as travelling around gin distilleries in the Scottish Highlands, where Jake grew up.

“There are lots of gin distilleries popping up in the Scottish Highlands — I was surprised to see so many,” Jake says. “We started visiting them and often they were on people’s farms and you’d get the chance to meet the maker.”

The couple, who now have three children, were inspired by the notion of a family-run business and, with the help of local winery, Borambola Wines, who offered them a shed, focused on a one-shot distillation method. They have a simple philosophy of making one product really well.

“We try to stand out by not standing out too much — we use fresh organic oranges from the local region so the flavour is citrus forward,” says Jake.

They have also called on connections in their local community, partnering with Paper Pear Gallery in Wagga Wagga to host the Riverina Gin Club events. Expansion will be slow but steady.

“We made sure people knew we were a family-forward business,” says Jake. “We have seen a lot of peaks and troughs with the economy and we have been adaptable because we do a lot of the work ourselves. We have one gin that has been well received.”

Brand director and co-founder of Never Never Distilling Co Sean Baxter has bigger ideas for the business he started with friends George and Tim, with plans to further its expansion into Asia and Europe. Unlike other distilleries that sell via bottle shops as well as online, Never Never is focusing on the hospitality industry to reach bars and hotels. It’s not a surprising strategy given Sean’s former life at Diageo, the peak company for brands such as Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray, Guinness and more.

“I worked as a contractor for Sweet&Chilli as a national brand ambassador for Johnny Walker,” Sean says.

“That gave me access to so many amazing venues and bars and I met a lot of people. I was standing in front of so many people telling incredible brand stories and it sunk in — I wanted to do my own.”

The Adelaide-based business now offers more than a dozen gins and sees the relationships with bartenders and hospitality providers as key to their success.

Co-founder of Never Never Gin, Sean Baxter

“We collaborate with international bartenders to promote the brand in Hong Kong and Singapore, and over the past 12 months we have moved into France,” he says. “That’s been a real eye opener, taking our oyster shell gin to the French — it’s an exciting push.”

The ultimate goal is to create a global brand.

“We didn’t build Never Never Distilling to be small.”



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However, overall global wealth growth is down, from an annual average of 7% between 2000 and 2010 to just over 4.5% between 2010 and 2023, the report said. This equates to a reduction in global wealth of almost one-third.

The remaining growth seems to be continuing on pace in the world’s most developed and already prosperous nations. In the U.S., average wealth per adult grew by nearly 2.5% and the country accounts for 38%, roughly 22 million, of all millionaires worldwide.

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Wealth in the Asia-Pacific region grew the most—nearly 177%—since the report began tracking data 15 years ago. The Americas come in second, at nearly 146% growth. Surprisingly, Turkey has enjoyed the most wealth growth per adult of any individual nation in the last 15 years—more than 1,700% in local currency.

The world’s wealthiest class continues to be a small, tightly concentrated group. According to the report, only 12 people hold between US$50 billion and US$100 billion and just 14 people hold US$2 trillion of the world’s wealth. The U.S. and Canada are home to individuals holding 44% of this wealth, while another 25% is held by people in Western Europe.

UBS data suggests that global wealth will continue to grow most in emerging markets, with some countries experiencing millionaire growth of up to 50% over the next five years.

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