Buy local vodka – not Russian bulk brands – and get quality, Australia’s craft distillers say.
Russian products are on the nose after the invasion of Ukraine, which comes as no surprise to the makers of fine Australian artisanal booze.
“The companies stocking Russian vodka as their house vodka, it’s usually the cheapest stuff available,” Ben Osborne, founder of Local Spirit Distillery, told AAP.
Vodka, as well as gin and whisky, are made in his 300-litre still that’s capped with a Mad Hatter-shaped top.
The shining 4.5-metre column has 10 bubble plates, each with a small window, where vapour passes through and is pushed back towards the plate for more copper contact and a pure spirit.
“Either you want a super-neutral spirit that’s going to create a nice blank canvas for infusing flavours through cocktails or mixing, or you’re trying to get the best texture and mouth-feel out of it,” Mr Osborne says.
“You want some of those delicious impurities in there but the right impurities to give it more flavour and texture and be more true to the origin of the spirit.”
Imported vodka travels huge distances, which means Australian drinkers pay more in each bottle for the freight rather than any quality, he says.
The 25-year-old CEO started out five years ago with a shimmering blue-hued vodka liqueur called Unicorn Elixir.
Coloured naturally using the butterfly pea flower, it changes colour when mixed as a cocktail.
Intended as a joke, the first year’s worth of stock went viral and sold in a few days – ensuring the distillery survived.
“That’s still pumping – we’re about to take it to the Sydney Easter Show,” Mr Osborne says.
Now there’s a range of products, including a line featuring the work of Canberran Dan Power on the label.
“He’s a botanical, fine line artist. I gave him the schematics of my still and a list of all the botanicals we use and said ‘go nuts’.”
While Mr Osborne felt like a pioneer just five years ago and had to fight local by-laws that tried to classify his “hazardous” operation as a servo, there is now competition from more than 400 Australian craft distilleries.
Debbie Fabian, founder of Tasmanian-based Spirit of the Maker, says much of the artisanal production is happening in regional and remote Australia.
“Our pristine environments, clean air and water bring so much to the quality of the end product that cannot be replicated by industrial distilleries in the big pollution-laden cities of the world’s spirits producers.”
She says the world began to take notice of Australian distilleries when Hobart-produced Sullivans Cove won World’s Best Whisky in 2014 – not a distiller from Scotland, Ireland or Japan.
And it then won again in 2018 and 2019.
Now local distillers are winning major awards across all spirits and all competitions, and often focus on what’s available in their region.
The Canberra Distillery makes a costly vodka using truffles grown on nearby Mt Majura, along with other award-winning tipples.
Founder, economist Tim Reardon, says demand for vodka remains strong – despite hiccups in the supply chain.
Empty shelves during the pandemic were caused by shortages in everything from glass bottles to international shipping for the world’s large beverage makers.
But vodka is a small component of Mr Reardon’s business, with gin still the most popular – from his Earl Grey Lavender gin to native botanicals.
“One part gin, three parts economics,” is how he describes himself.
Still, take the juniper berry out of gin and you’ve got vodka, Mr Osborne says.
While many Australians think vodka is made from potatoes, most of it is grape- or wheat-based.
“In our wheat-based vodka, all of our wheat is from NSW. We employ local people, sell it in bars in our region,” he says.
“It’s better for the environment and there’s more money to be spent on the quality of the product and the distilling processes.”
Ms Fabian says small-batch production is a common feature of Australian distilleries, with seasonal releases that take advantage of local produce harvested in season.
“Distillers are a very collaborative bunch and work with other businesses in their area to maximise productivity or celebrate local events,” she says.
Southern Wild Distillery in Devonport, Tasmania collaborated with Turners Beach Berry Farm a couple of years ago when fruit fly in the area stopped them shipping out berries.
The distiller took the farm’s fruit-fly free berries and made its Dasher & Fisher Strawberry Gin.
She says excess grape crops or other produce, or unsold wines, can be brought into the distillation processes by local distilleries – significantly reducing waste and keeping the local economy fizzing.
“Staff can be found in local fields or even neighbours’ backyards and hedgerows picking produce and botanicals, de-pipping the cherries and being a very hands-on team.”
The spirit made outclasses those mass-produced that line the shelves of bottle shops, she says.
“Sustainability, carbon neutrality, zero waste, paddock to bottle, organics, artisanal, regional, supporting local are increasingly goals and practices of Australian distilleries,” Ms Fabian says.
The much bigger Endeavour Group swiftly announced it would pull Russian vodka from the shelves of BWS and Dan Murphy’s, hundreds of pubs and its online business after the Ukraine incursion.
“As an organisation, Endeavour Group is deeply concerned with the situation in Ukraine and we join the calls for peace,” a spokeswoman said.
Some 47 products of Russian origin have now been removed from more than 1650 stores, over 330 hotels and online.
But customers still have over 400 vodkas to choose from.
Taking a different route to product boycotts, Top Shelf International, the owner of Melbourne vodka distillery Grainshaker, has launched a fund-raising effort as the humanitarian crisis intensifies in Ukraine.
Its Grainshaker Stands with Ukraine campaign will donate a portion of specially-labelled vodka sales to the Ukraine Crisis Appeal, TSI says.
The appeal (ukrainecrisisappeal.org) brings together the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, Rotary Australia World Community Service and Caritas Ukraine.
Setting a target of $5 million, more than $1 has already been raised.