We believe in miracles
Ever dreamt of rediscovering a hidden gem, an Aladdin’s lamp of a whisky, decades after it was first bottled? Luke McCarthy did just that. Here is his remarkable story
I’d been in sitting in Bar Fal for an hour – a warm, dimly-lit whisky joint in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza district – trying to make a dent in the collection of obscure independent bottlings, trying, mainly, to blend in to this understated little slice of Japanese heaven.
The owner (Kohichi Hirose, I later found out) was effortlessly mixing cocktails, pouring creamy, refreshing beers and selecting whiskies for the few solemn regulars sat at the bar. Then I spotted it: a brown, dimpled bottle hiding beneath a shrine of old bitters and whisky miniatures.
Nup. It couldn’t be what I thought it was. Surely, my brain was in fact starting to melt from too many visits to Japanese bars and distilleries over the past week. But I politely asked the owner, Mr Hirose-San, if I could take a look at that particular bottle. A little perplexed, he delicately set aside the miniatures, unearthed the bottle, and placed the discovery on the bar in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at a bottle of King’s Jubilee – a relic from a bygone era of Australian whisky production.
I’d studied this whisky when researching a book I’d written on Australian spirits, but had only ever come across it in newspaper advertisements – from about 70 years ago! I thought it was possible that the liquid inside contained malt whisky from Melbourne’s Federal Distillery, first established in the 1880s and closed in 1929. I thought I might be looking at a bottle that contained Australian whisky made almost 100 years ago. And whisky it did contain. The first thing I noticed when inspecting the bottle was how good its condition was, and that, incredibly, the seal was intact – it had never been opened.
Mr Hirose, noticing the shock and disbelief on my face, asked me what I knew about the bottle. Unfortunately, I spoke only the most rudimentary Japanese, and he, limited English. So after ten minutes of back and forth with Google Translate, I eventually got across to him that the whisky in his possession was made in Melbourne, where I lived, some several decades ago, and that this was a seriously rare piece of Australian whisky history.
I ordered a cask strength malt soon after to calm myself down. Mr Hirose, on the other hand, was standing there, gazing at the bottle, deep in contemplation. Then he asked me what I thought he should do with the bottle. I said I didn’t know, but that I believed whisky was made to be drunk. He eventually told me that he’d had this bottle for more than 20 years and that he’d never known what to do with it or where it was from.
After this, more silent contemplation. Once that finished, he walked over to me, bottle in his hands, and said, “I think… For you. Gift to you,” and tried to give the whisky to me. At first, I was dumbstruck by the kindness of the gesture. But then my mind started racing. I could bring this bottle back to the bar I work at in Melbourne; we could host a tasting with it, display it - and sell it!
But then I looked around at the smoky, whisky-soaked sanctuary of Bar Fal, and then at Mr Hirose, who’d dutifully tended this space for more than two decades. I told him (through multiple translation tools) that I couldn’t accept such a generous gift, and that, with his blessing, I’d love to try the King’s Jubilee at Bar Fal, the place that had kept it safe for so many years.
By now it was getting late – I had to be up early the next day to head north for more Japanese whisky research. I said I’d be back in Tokyo in five days and that I’d come into the bar and we could talk more about it then. Mr Hirose liked this idea, and told me to come back at 10pm when one of his regulars would be in who spoke good English.
And so I walked back to my hotel, partly stunned, partly tipsy and partly wondering if anything that just happened was actually real.
When I returned five days later, there was a much livelier crowd holed up in Bar Fal. Mr Hirose excitedly sat me down next to a gentleman who introduced himself, in perfect English, as Shinsuke Kuzuya. Not long after that, the King’s Jubilee was in front of us and Mr Kuzuya was translating what I’d learnt (for almost everyone at the bar) about the provenance of the bottle. Mr Hirose nodded attentively as the details were revealed, and then began to gently work on the bottle. Some of the cork crumbled in the process, but he pointed out that it had done its job and that the whisky should still be very good for drinking. He poured out glasses of the old Aussie liquid for some of the folks at the bar, and then we all sat there, quietly, tasting and thinking.
Our first impression was encouraging – hardly any bottle taint. The nose gave off hints of caramel, musty oak, candle wax, and a slight treacle, mince pie note. On the palate, there was a pronounced fortified wine character, whether from Spanish sherry or Australian fortified wine casks, hard to say. The finish was pretty short, but overall, held a nice balance between spirit and oak. All in all, not that complex, but an interesting balance of flavours.
By this stage, however, the room was buzzing – a window into a new place, a new past, had been opened. Mr Hirose told us how he’d acquired the bottle from the son of a Kobe banker who’d inherited the whisky. The story went that the banker had, apparently, been in Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics and picked up the bottle then.
From there, we drank and talked about the whiskies of the world: Scottish, Japanese, American, even up-and-coming Australian producers. Finally, on closing time, Mr Hirose poured a helping of the King’s Jubilee into a sample bottle – “For Melbourne’s distillery,” he insisted. I thanked him over and over again and promised I’d be back, some day, with more Melbourne whisky.
Back home, two weeks later, I was presenting that sample of King’s Jubilee to some of Melbourne’s most respected whisky producers: Bakery Hill, Starward and Melbourne Moonshine. These three, all founded in the last 20 years, are among the new brigade of Australian distillers driving the whisky category forward. Of course, they’ve benefitted greatly by the pioneering efforts of Bill and Lyn Lark, who jolted the Australian spirits industry to life in the early 1990s. At that time, the state of Tasmania hadn’t produced whisky since the Distillation Prohibition Act of 1839. Now, Tasmania is recognised as the epicentre of the renaissance in Australian spirits production: over 35 distilleries are now operating on the island state, and more than 120 can be found across the Australian mainland.
But where does the King’s Jubilee – distilled and bottled over 60 years ago just outside Melbourne (Victoria’s state capital) – fit into this story? What of the extensive history of Victorian whisky production that predates the current boom?
As I poured out the King’s Jubilee for the three Melbourne producers, they were stunned to hear how much whisky was once produced and consumed in Victoria. Australia’s first major whisky distillery was John Dunn’s Warrenheip distillery, founded in 1863 near Ballarat, about an hour outside Melbourne. Over half a dozen distilleries were then constructed along Melbourne’s Yarra River near the city centre, and by the late 1800s, the likes of the Federal Distillery in Port Melbourne had the capacity to produce more than 4.5 million litres of whisky, brandy and gin each year. In terms of production, Victorian distilleries were suddenly rivalling the largest in the world.
Further into the 20th century, the state of Victoria produced 85 per cent of Australia’s whisky output, a significant proportion of which hailed from the Corio Distillery. Corio was built by Distillers Company Limited (now Diageo) in 1929, and successfully produced whisky and gin for a variety of different brands and labels until it ceased production in 1980. The whisky selected for King’s Jubilee by Melbourne spirits merchant Stephen King Pty Ltd. – most likely a blend of malt and grain spirit – almost certainly came from Corio.
“It’s crazy to try something like this and realise that we’ve had the right conditions to make huge amounts of whisky here for so long,” said Andrew Baker from Bakery Hill after trying the King’s Jubilee. Bakery Hill was founded by Andrew’s father David in 1998, and they’re now looking to relocate their distillery to a larger premise closer to Melbourne.
“It’s been incredible, what’s happened to Australian whisky in the last few years,” Andrew says. “When dad first started selling his whisky, it was a hard slog to get people interested. Now we have to really monitor how much whisky we bottle and sell, such is the demand.”
We’re a still a long way off Melbourne’s halcyon days of whisky distilling, when around 40 per cent of the whisky consumed in the city was made in the surrounding region. But who knows, with a bit of luck, the whisky produced here will continue to find new audiences, both at home, and in all kinds of amazing places abroad.
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