Gie him strong drink until he wink, that’s sinking in despair; an’ liquor guid to fire his bluid, That’s prest wi’ grief and care: There let him bowse, an’ deep carouse, Wi’ bumpers flowing o’er, Till he forgets his loves or debts, An’ minds his griefs no more.
So wrote the Scottish bard Robert Burns, and in case you were wondering, it’s about whisky.
Burns loathed the British government’s taxation of the country’s national drink and took up his pen in the winter of 1875 to celebrate the role it played in the life of the ordinary man – from festival days to gathering the harvest and settling neighbourly disputes (and probably causing them).
Centuries later, it seems that we in Canberra have at least two things in common with Scotland – cold weather and strong spirits.
In March this year, a stalwart of the Scotch scene, Glenfiddich, brought their double-decker Whisky Wanderer bus to Civic for just under two weeks of “intimate tastings, delectable food pairings and chats about all things whisky”.
And in the past six to 12 months, whisky sales have gone from strength to strength.
Store manager at Farrah’s Liquor Collective in Fyshwick David Winmill says the drink’s warming effect on a cold evening has something to do with it, but it’s also to do with us as people.
“Canberra has a pretty trendy populace across our food and drink culture,” David says.
“People want to drink good-quality things in Canberra. We prefer to have a few really nice drinks than a whole bottle of Jack Daniels or something cheaper. And there’s a bit more expendable cash around town.”
David says customers still have a soft spot for the Scotch and Irish whiskies, but even those distilled here in our own sunburnt country have been accruing more and more recognition on the world stage.
“Tasmania has always done a good job, but we’ve seen a big upturn in the quality in the mainland guys in recent months,” he says.
“Of the Australian whiskies, our most popular would be Headlands from Wollongong, with an up-and-coming rival in Hillwood from Tasmania.”
It’s also getting harder and harder to find quality international whiskies at the right price.
“There has been a lot of issues with shipping,” David says.
“The companies had a plan for what they thought demand would be, but it’s gone above and beyond that. It’s hard for us to get these products, making Australian whiskies a better and better option.”
Many whiskies spend 12 years or more in the barrel so companies have to predict demand years – decades sometimes – in advance.
David says a good whisky can be in the eye of the beholder, “but for me, it will be something with a bit of strength to it, something with 45-plus percentage of alcohol”.
“Enough for it to be flavoursome because the higher the alcohol the less they’ve cut it back with water – it’s going to have more of the base distillate.”
Scotch is distinct for its use of 100 per cent single-malt barley, whereas others use different grains and grain blends, including wheat and corn.
“There’s a strong love for bourbon here, which is an American whisky primarily distilled from corn.”
The Canberra Distillery has also noticed growing enthusiasm for a wee dram.
“Brown spirits are certainly much more of a winter drink than a summer drink, and lend themselves to cold nights much more than a gin and tonic,” founder Tim Reardon says.
Tim says international demand for whisky has been growing steadily since the 1980s, but more rapidly in the past decade largely due to China’s growing thirst.
“Domestically, the reputation of Australian whisky has also grown with a number of brands having won international awards and given Australia recognition for whisky,” he says.
“This has certainly helped local sales of whisky.”
The Canberra Distillery is on that list, winning bronze at the 2022 International Spirits Competition by The American Distilling Institute for their single-release whisky.
As for how to drink it, the experts aren’t in agreement.
“If you’re being a purist, have it as is,” David says.
“If you need to, adding some drops of water to it can really open up the flavours, but what you definitely don’t want to do is chill it. If you chill it down, you’ll lose flavour.”
“I put ice in my whisky,” Tim responds.
“When judges sample whisky, they tend to cut the alcohol levels down to 20 per cent because you can taste all the individual flavours best at that lower alcohol rating.”
At the end of the day, Tim’s advice is to “enjoy it the same way you enjoy any other drink – with nice company and nice food”.
Or as David says, “I don’t think there are any wrong answers – if you enjoy it, do it.”