Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia, with author Max Allen – S6E2

Veteran drinks writer Max Allen

Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia is the latest book from Melbourne-based journalist Max Allen, who has been writing about drinks for more than 25 years.

Max is the wine and drinks columnist for the Australian Financial Review, a longtime contributor to Gourmet Traveller Magazine and the Australian correspondent for – as discussed with Jancis herself, when she joined us on the podcast back in Season Four.

I’ve long been a fan of Max’s writing so I was excited to host him on the show to discuss this personal journey through Australia’s colourful and complex drinking history.

In the book, Max tastes the fermented sap of the Tasmanian cider gum, enjoyed by Indigenous people long before European invasion.

He sips ‘claret’ and ‘sherry’ in the cool stone cellars of the country’s oldest wineries, samples 150-year-old champagne rescued from a shipwreck and helps brew an iconic 1960s Australian lager.

Veteran drinks writer Max Allen
Veteran drinks writer Max Allen – picture courtesy Adrian Lander

He also shares recipes for historic cocktails to try at home (Blow My Skull, anyone?), introduces many of the characters from Australia’s boozy history and offers a glimpse of how our drinking culture might evolve in the future.

Whisky podcast episodes on Drinks Adventures
Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder: S3E3
Ed Carr, House of Arras winemaker – Australia’s Sparkling King: S5E5

Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia by Max Allen – Full interview transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Max Allen, thanks so much for joining us on the Drinks Adventures podcast. 

MAX ALLEN: Great to be here. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now this book – Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia – obviously a lot of, a tremendous amount of research has gone into it. It looks like a book that has sort of been bubbling away for quite some years now. 

MAX ALLEN: It’s been bubbling away for longer than I was comfortable with to be honest with you. I actually started planning a book about the history of alcohol in Australia, oh gee. 15 years ago, more. And was beaten by the project because it was just too big. It’s a huge topic. And so I kind of let it slide and worked on other things for a while. And in the mean time somebody else wrote that book anyway. There was a book called Under the Influence, which came out about 11-years ago. Which is a history of, you know, a straight history of alcohol in Australia. And then about four-years ago I just had the idea of focusing on a small number of drinks and telling those stories. Rather than telling like the whole story, which is huge. I thought a good way into it would just be to focus on a small number of drinks that had some kind of relevance to me. And that would be a good way of telling a snapshot of the history if you like.

Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia by Max Allen
Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia by Max Allen

JAMES ATKINSON: I’m sure that as you say in your book in the first chapter, a lot of people are going to be very surprised to learn of the Indigenous history of making fermented beverages. How did you come across this sort of unknown history?

MAX ALLEN: That was actually the other reason why the book seemed like something that was worth tackling again. Because I’d found research by Maggie Brady, who is an anthropologist at the ANU in Canberra. And she’d uncovered a number of examples in the historic literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people drinking fermented drinks prior to European arrival in 1788. And that just absolutely blew my mind. It was you know, so counter to what I’d grown up thinking about history. And I thought well there’s the first chapter you know. If I can find a drink to write about from that history, then that’s the first chapter of a history of drinking in Australia that immediately offers something new. So all the work that’s in there about Indigenous fermentation I’ve really you know, found from people like Maggie Brady and doing some research, and finding other examples. And I’d also been really interested in the  use of Indigenous ingredients in drinks making now. So the use of native botanicals in spirits, in vermouth and bitters, and things like that. But also people using native grain to make beer and whiskey. And I thought well that’s the end of the book, that’s what’s happening now. And I’ve got the beginning of the book, which is the history. So I just need to find a few drinks to fill in the middle bit. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Maybe you could just give listeners a bit of an idea of some of these Indigenous beverages that you uncovered in the book; Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia.

MAX ALLEN: So the drink that really peaked my interest and set me on this path was the Tasmanian cider gum. It’s a tree that grows in the frost plains in Tasmania. So it needs cold. It loves cold. So it’s a really location specific tree. And there are historical records of European’s in the 1830’s. 1840’s, 1850’s travelling through the Central Highlands of Tasmania, up around the Meander region, the lakes and the central plateau. And they witnessed Aboriginal people drinking the sap or the exudate of the cider gum tree. Not only fresh, but also Aboriginal people would leave this drink to pool in the hollows in the tree and cover it in stones. And come back when it had naturally fermented. And there are records of people drinking this drink and there’s one quote that says ‘and it was intoxicating’. That’s one of the reasons why we call it in the book intoxicating, because it comes from that original record. And I just thought that was fascinating. I thought well I have to taste this for a start. So I travelled to Tasmania and tasted the sap of the cider gum tree in a frost plain, on Aboriginal owned land in Tasmania. And that became the beginning of the book. Because I thought, it was a magical, magical experience. Because it really made you feel connected to generations and generations of people who’ve lived on that land and drunk this incredible tasting drink.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what did it taste like?

MAX ALLEN: I can see the cider reference. I’ve had it a couple of times and the first time I had it when somebody brought a sample over to Melbourne. You can see that apple acidity in it. You can taste that fresh lemony apple cider. It’s very mild. It would be about only two or three percent alcohol, maybe a little bit more depending on you know, how long its been fermenting. But it had this, there was also some bits of; so this sap. It’s a very light, it’s like a light sugar syrup. So when you run your finger along the syrup oozing out of the tree. It only trickles out in a very small quantity. And you run your finger along this syrup line and the breeze kind of catches the syrup and whisks it away into the air. It’s that kind of consistency. And it’s got this lemony flavour. But if its been trickling down the tree for a while it also picks up some of the flavour of the wood as well. So it’s quite a complex tasting, refreshing drink. You could see why people would taste this and want to taste it again, you know. It’s got none of the eucalyptus flavour you’d expect to see in a eucalyptus sap or something coming out of a eucalyptus tree.

JAMES ATKINSON: And it could only be made from this specific variety of gum?

MAX ALLEN: Exactly right. And it’s only really seems to flow in any meaningful way. And we really only talking, we’re not talking like a maple tree where you can get a bucket filled in a relatively short amount of time. It’s not something that is likely to be commercialised because it’s just, the quantity’s not there. And it also appears to be very climate specific. So I know people have tried planting it in other parts of Tasmania and on the mainland, and it just doesn’t perform in the same way, if you know what I mean. You know, wine people talk about terroir, this sense of the environment influencing the flavour of a drink. Well you can’t get more terroir specific than a drink that comes from a tree that only grows in one place. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Why do you think this important part of Australia’s history was lost?

MAX ALLEN: I think part of it is that early European settlers, explorers, entrepreneurs that travelled this country looking for things to exploit or to commercialise. They were looking at it through European eyes. So one of the Indigenous intoxicants, and there are a few, that was explored quite heavily was Pituri from the Central Australia. So down around south west Queensland, around Betoota, the channel country down there and into the dessert. There’s a native tobacco is what it’s described as and that was explored quite heavily because of course the commercial prospects of finding a source of mildly intoxicating tobacco in Australia was very attractive. When people found some of these Indigenous drinks and they witnessed them, they I believe, they worked out that they couldn’t make a huge amount of money from them. Because as I say they were very seasonal. They were not abundant, nobody thought about cultivating the kind of banksia’s – not that you need to, because the grow everywhere. To make a banksia, fermented banksia nectar drink. But also I think a lot of these drinks were very mild. They were much weaker than the strong alcohol that Europeans brought with them in the 18th century. And therefore wouldn’t have had the same kind of appeal I don’t think, as the rum and the spirits that they already had. 

JAMES ATKINSON: You relay some pretty incredible statistics in the book. Namely that when the first fleet arrived in Australia, it was carrying 54,000 litres of rum. Now what would that rum have actually tasted like?

MAX ALLEN: Well when you think of you know, when you picture that history, what kind of rum do you see in your flavour mind?

JAMES ATKINSON: I suppose my reference points go back as far as Bundaberg in Australia and that’s about it. 

MAX ALLEN: And that always did for me too. I thought you know, when the rum rebellion. Everybody knows about the rum rebellion and the kind of rum that was being used as currency in Port Jackson in the early 19th century. I imagined it was that kind of golden molasses based rum too. But when you look into the history, you think well actually. The first fleet arrived in 1788. They stocked up on what they called rum in Rio on the way. And of course that wasn’t molasses based rum at all, it was sugar cane rum. Much more like what we now know as Cachaca. But it was called aguardiente, which is burning water or burnt water. And there are accounts from those early settlers of how bloody awful this stuff tasted. So I just, you know, we have this romantic image I think of people arriving in this new colony and toasting the king, or whatever with golden Bundy style rum. But actually it was probably a kind of pale, rough fire water that had been you know, aged in pretty rank barrels for God knows how long on the journey. And I think that just changes, one of the things that really drove me with this book is trying to imagine what these things tasted like at the time. And that burning water image, that rank, burning water image just really kind of adds a layer of I don’t know, discomfort to that history. Which is you know, it just changes the way you think about it. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah absolutely. And that early rum, is that what they still would have been drinking when rum sort of evolved to actually become something of a currency in Australia?

MAX ALLEN: Well the first rum that we automatically think of as being typical Australian rum wasn’t really being produced until much much later in the 19th century. You know, the 1880’s after the sugar cane industry had been established up there in Queensland and Northern NSW. So for most of the first decades of the colony, all the rum was imported. And some of it came from the West Indies, but most of it came from, a lot of it came from India. It was Bengal rum. Which is probably more like Arrack and it’s the Arrack flavour. So it was made from in many cases, probably a blend of molasses perhaps, but also palm sugar. So again that changes the flavour profile of what you expect those drinks to taste like. It’s a rougher, it’s a lighter bodied you know, coarser flavoured drink.

JAMES ATKINSON: And it doesn’t sound quite good enough that I’d be happy to accept it as my salary to be honest. 

MAX ALLEN: No that’s right. Well you know, beggars can’t be choosers really in that situation I don’t think.

JAMES ATKINSON: I guess so. And who knew that Australia had an early tradition of making peach cider. 

MAX ALLEN: Isn’t that a great story? So in 1803/1805 there was such a glut of peaches in Sydney that the government encouraged people to ferment the peaches to make peach cider. C-Y-D-E-R, using the old 18th century spelling. And so there’s a lovely ad in one of the newspapers saying that the governor will award for the best hogs head of peach cider made by the colonists this year. He will award a cow in return for the finest tasting peach cider. But of course, peace cider in Sydney, middle of summer. No refrigeration. It’s going to go off pretty quickly and, which is exactly what happened. So people started distilling it in an attempt to kind of preserve the alcohol and keep it from spoiling. And a couple of weeks later the same newspaper was saying anybody discovered distilling, which was illegal, will be fined or thrown into jail or whipped, or whatever the punishment was. So that encapsulates for me that kind of attitude in early Sydney. This kind of two-faced, double edged attitude to encouraging people to drink mild drinks, as a kind of civilising influence. And then this almost immediate punishment for indulging too much in ardent spirits. Like they’re these two parallel attitudes to drinking in Australia, which I think we’ve still got today. And that’s kind of, the foundation was there in early Sydney.

JAMES ATKINSON: How would you say that that sort of attitude is still prevalent today?

MAX ALLEN: Well you, I think on the one hand we love the fact that we have a modern, mature, cosmopolitan attitude to alcohol. You know, we love our wineries. Look at how the outpouring of support and community and spirit that happened just earlier this year when you know, wine regions were affected by bushfires and drought. When regional breweries and cellar doors, and distilleries have had to close because of the pandemic. You know, we feel very connected to our sensible consumption of alcohol. And we love the fact that we can you know, it’s an absolutely booming industry. This you know, cellar door visiting weekend in local regions. Which, and we feel kind of really upset when we can’t do that. And yet at the same time, the government is, take the NSW or Sydney lockdowns over the last few years. This attitude to yes, but you can’t drink too much you know. We need to be absolutely, and we need to crack down on this wanton over indulgence in alcohol which leads to awful violence in our inner cities and other communities. And yet at the same time, that same government is handing out licences you know, for 3,000 person drinking barns. So there’s this kind of dichotomy between how much we support alcohol and sanction it, and accept it as part of every day life. And yet at the same time tax it heavily and bring in rigid rules about when we can consume alcohol and when we can’t. So there’s, it’s something that’s, it’s a really difficult relationship that we have with alcohol. That you can see that the strands of that relationship kind of stretching back through these historical stories. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you detail in the book your authentic rendition of this 19th century peach hogwash. Tell me about how that went?

MAX ALLEN: Well I just, I’d read these accounts of what this stuff tastes like. And I just think how, the only way you can get to try that is to make it yourself. One of the things about the peach cider that was a real kind of lesson for me, is that a lover of real cider made from nothing but apples or pear cider, made from nothing but pears. It’s really given me the shits how many people in Australia have been using any old fruit to make a beverage and calling it cider. You know, you’ve probably seen them, you’ve probably written about them, you’ve probably spoken about them. You know, there’s, there was a winery a couple of years ago that produced a sparkling alcohol grape based beverage. Which in my book is wine. And yet called it grape cider because they thought they’d be able to pick up a few more, you know, sales from it. And I thought well that’s just ridiculous. That’s cynical marketing. And then I came across this story of peach cider in the early 19th century and I just thought oh well, I’m wrong then aren’t I? There is a 200 and something year tradition of making a drink out of anything but apples and calling it cider. So I went to the Queen Vic market on a busy Saturday around lunch time when I knew I’d be able to get a few trays of peach seconds in the middle of summer. Brought them home, crushed them up, put them in a basket press. Got the nectar out of them. Put them in a demijohn and just left them. Now I didn’t have an old hogshead like a 19th century recipe that I found told me to use. But I had some glass demijohns. I just left it, let it do its own thing, it fermented naturally. It tasted pretty good to start off with. It tasted like peaches, it was delicious. And then the wild yeasts and the bacteria took over and it ended up tasting exactly like a contemporary account of the time said. Which is, as you pointed out, it was just hogwash. It was disgusting. It was just you know, it was too warm. The lactic bacteria had really got stuck in and produced a, I don’t know this, I didn’t test anything. I’m just assuming from, based on past experience this is what happened. And it produced, it had all the faults under the sun right. It was volatile. It was mousy. And that mousy, yeasty lingering taste of mouse piss on sawdust that you get in the back of your throat in a mousy drink. It was just disgusting. So I thought well I’ll do what they did and I took it to Seb Rayburn and we distilled it. 

JAMES ATKINSON: And that was at the Craft and Co in Collingwood?

MAX ALLEN: Yeah when Seb was there. So using their little, is it a five or ten litre still. It’s only a tiny little still, their test still. Their alembic, which you know, a copper alembic which pretty much exactly like it would have been designed and made 120 years ago. And we distilled it and that was an absolute revelation. Because I’ve tasted you know, raw spirits straight out of the still in Scotland and America, and other places. And here and you know, it’s a great experience visiting a distillery and tasting raw spirit. But when it’s something you’ve seen from fruit to fermented cider, and then you see the fractions of the flavours drip out of that still. And it’s like the distillation takes apart the rainbow of flavours, bad and good in the drink and delivers them in single colours. And seeing it, all of those colours, some of which were foul. And some of which were quite good and then at the heart of the distillation there was this, just the most pure singing beautiful essence of peach. It was just like, it was a, you can see why people call it the spirit of life. Or you know, the water of life. There’s this almost alchemical you know, distillation of the essence of something, the spirit of something. And it’s, and you know, you read those words and you understand them. But when you see it and taste it for yourself, and you see the magic. It really gives you an amazing appreciation for the process of distillation. I’m sure you’ve had that experience too you know, where you see one thing transformed into another. It’s magic. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now we move along to wine, more specifically champagne. Now tell me about the significance of the 1841 wreckage of the William Salthouse Ship in Port Phillip Bay.

MAX ALLEN: Yeah the William Salthouse, this is a story. You said at the beginning of this, this has been kind of bubbling away for many, many years. And this was, the idea for writing this book has been bubbling away. Because I’ve been writing about some of these stories for so long. One of the first stories I wrote about in the mid 90’s, ’94 I think it was, was a tasting of shipwreck champagne. So in 1841 the William Salthouse, a ship had come from Montreal in Canada and it was breaking an inter-colonial trading ban. And it was bringing with it to the young settlement of Melbourne supplies. Most of those supplies were building supplies and food. But it also had these wicker baskets full of fine champagne on board. And I just think that really encapsulated what was happening in Melbourne at the time. It was a struggling town and yet people were really prepared to pay above the odds for this luxury drink. But estate agents were giving it away for free at land sales on the banks of the Yarra, at exactly the same time that the ship sank. And then 150 years later, some of the bottles that were rescued from the bottom of Port Phillip Bay were opened and tasted by a group of wine makers and the head blender of Moet Chandon was in town at the time. And I remember writing about this story for the Age Epicure, as one of the first stories I wrote at the time. And it was just, I think that experience of tasting this drink that had been sitting on the bottom of the bay for 150 years. And it was mostly like warm oyster juice, it was pretty disgusting. But you could tell through that oyster juice flavour, you could tell that the golden wine in it, you could taste it. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why this book exists. Is that having that experience of tasting, literally tasting history, you know fires up the imagination. It was a really great experience. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Do we know much about what that champagne actually was?

MAX ALLEN: We know, this was the other thing right. Is that the shape of the bottles and the branding on the cork, which you could still see. This is 1841 that this ship went down. So the wine itself was probably you know, if it was a vintage it would have been five years previous. So it’s wine from the 1830s. The shape of the bottle and the name on the cork fairly conclusively made the researchers think it was from a champagne house called Gosset. Which actually still exists. 

JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve actually been there, funnily enough.

MAX ALLEN: So there you go. So they were really proud of the fact that this connection had been made. And they still ship wine to Australia today. You know, I’ve got a number of memories of drinking Gosset champagne on special occasions here in Melbourne before I knew about this. And subsequently. So we also know that at that time in the 1830’s it was probably sweeter, a lot sweeter than champagne we’re used to today. That was very much the taste at the time. It wasn’t until the 1870s/1880s that the taste for dry champagne really started to come in, in Melbourne. So yes, it was a sweet champagne from Gosset in, in the town of Eye. So that adds another layer of, another layer of attraction to that history I suppose. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you make the point in your book that Henry Lindeman and Christopher Penfold were both doctors. I think many people might be surprised to learn of the close links between wine and therapeutic medicine in the early years. 

MAX ALLEN: Not just wine. One of the funny thing about this is that I’ve become a bit of a collector of old bottles. I already was a bit of a kind of nerd at, with that before hand. I moved into an old house many years ago and there was some bottles under the you know, under the shed. And you know, everybody’s had that experience of finding old bottles in the garden or you know, in junk shops or whatever. But one of the most amazing old bottles that I found in the process of research, was an old bottle of Seppelt’s Angaston bitters. And bitters were vermouth, bitters, cordials. Those kind of things. The Lindeman’s company, the Penfolds company, the Seppelt company. All those big old wine companies produced these tonics in the early 19th century. It was the same time that Abbotsford invalid stout, which is still with us today was developed. Guinness, one of the most famous stout in the world was marketed from the very beginning as being good for you, as a healthful beverage. And you go back, you don’t have to go back very far into the early 20th century to see that so many drinks were, drinks companies were founded by doctors as you say. And drinks were being sold on their healthful properties, you know to cure flatulence and that kind of thing. And I’ve drunk that Seppelt Angaston Bitters a few times, because the bottle I found was remarkably full. And the bitters tasted like they were made yesterday. It’s an incredible, vivid taste of history again. And I’ve tried it a few times and I can just report that it doesn’t actually cure flatulence. And why I thought that was a really interesting chapter to write is that we’re seeing the same kind of marketing is coming back with us today. Even though there are pretty strict, pretty clear, not strict. But pretty clear codes about how alcohol is not meant to be marketed in Australia on its you know, you can’t come out with an ad like Guinness is good for you these days. It’s just not, you can’t sell alcohol like that anymore. And it goes back to what we were talking about before, about this kind of double standard if you like. Or this two headed approach to, double sided approach to alcohol. But you do see so many new drinks coming out now with cleverly worded purported benefits to you from drinking it. As you, you know, the new hard Seltzer trend of what is basically alcoholic water with fewer calories and less stuff in it. That is being absolutely targeted at the wellness oriented consumer. There’s the cannabis gin that I write about in the book, that’s made with elements that have been extracted from cannabis that are being sold pretty explicitly for their healthful properties. So one of the things, one of the themes that I just keep coming back to in the book and just generally is this kind of you know, the more things change the more they stay the same. How many trends that we’re seeing in drinks in 2020 are actually nothing new? That they’ve been around for a very long time.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are you aware of Impression Gin by any chance?

MAX ALLEN: No I haven’t come across that one. 

JAMES ATKINSON: That came out last year and I’ve got the blurb in front of me. Unlike any other gin, impression gin is infused with locally sourced natural antioxidants like dandelion, mangosteen and calendula. High in collagen and Kakadu plum, packed with vitamin C. This is gin with benefits, because life is all about making the best impression. 

MAX ALLEN: Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And just, just yesterday or the day before the, as we’re speaking right now. Yet another celebrity has launched her own wine brand in the US, Cameron Diaz. And it’s being billed as a quote “clean wine”. As opposed to all those, what does that mean? Does that mean that other wines are dirty and therefore impure and full of nasties? So you read the blurb and apart from it being made from organic grapes, it’s pretty conventional. Like it’s, it says it’s being, they actually explicitly say in their marketing that Cameron Diaz was, when she started looking into it was appalled by how many nasties are used in wine production. And she’s marketing it as this clean wine. And again, it’s all about praying on this idea that if you’re going to drink, you need to do it healthfully. Whereas you and I know that the potency of the 14% or 40% alcohol is way more potentially damaging than any of the other things that are actually in the drink. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Yeah I think there’s got to be a better way of getting your antioxidants and vitamin C than drinking gin. 

MAX ALLEN: There has, yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now Dalwood Cabernet may not be as familiar to folks at home as something like Penfolds grange. What was so important about that wine in Australian wine history?

Amateur cider maker, Max Allen
Max Allen is an amateur cider maker

MAX ALLEN: When I was putting the book together, I thought okay. I want to limit it to you know, 10 or a dozen drinks that I can really focus on. So peach cider for example, we spoke about before is the name of that chapter. The chapter is actually about home brew. So I talk about the tej, the Ethiopian mead that is made in Ethiopian communities in Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia. I talk about the cider I make in my back yard and this whole notion that every migrant culture that drinks, brings with it its drinks culture. And they make drinks at home. So that chapter is not all about peach cider but it is about the concept of making your own alcohol. So, I needed to find a wine that told the story of Australia wine. So a single wine that would kind of be the way into that much bigger story. And grange is the obvious choice, right. But I thought well (a) grange, everybody knows, kind of knows the story anyway. Certainly in the wine industry. It’s very obvious and I wanted to do something that was less obvious. And I thought about that wine – Dalwood 1930 Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot. And it’s a story that I’ve been kind of really intrigued by for many, many years. Because in 1930 John Davoren, an old wine maker at Dalwood vineyard in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney made that wine. At a time when nobody was really drinking that kind of wine. So why was he making that in the first place? He made it from grape vines that were first planted at that vineyard in 1828. So that vineyard goes right back to the beginning of Australian wine. And when he made that wine, nobody wanted it at the time so it was shipped off to the UK. That tells you a story about what was happening in Australian wine in 1930. And then 30 years later, Max Lake who was a surgeon, a wine judge. He was fascinated by wine. He tasted that 1930 Cabernet Petit Verdot blend and he loved it so much that it inspired him to plant his own vineyard in the Hunter Valley, Lake’s Folly. Which is regarded as one of the first, if not the first, certainly the first high profile boutique winery in the 60’s. That inspired dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of other people to plant boutique vineyards. Doctors, lawyers, TV producers, that kind of thing. And then Dalwood became Wyndham Estate. Which was one of the big, popular wineries in the 70’s. It was bought by Pernod Ricard, so there’s the story of corporate ownership of the wine industry. And then about four years ago it went back into private hands. So that vineyard, that single place in Australia straddles the whole history of Australian wine. Just one place. And that wine in 1930 is kind of in the middle of that history. And that wine influenced so much of what came afterwards. So I thought that’s a perfect, what a perfect intro into the whole history of Australian wine that can be told through the story of just one, one place. And when you go there, you can sit on the verandah of the original owners house, that was built by convicts in the 1830’s and 40’s. And you can look at the vineyard and you can feel that history, kind of still present in the land. And it was a really kind of amazing experience to do that. And that’s why I chose that wine for that story. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you say in the book that you developed a new found respect for Victoria Bitter. Why was that?

MAX ALLEN: Yeah that’s, so what I said before about how Grange was the obvious choice for wine. So I wanted to find something that people wouldn’t know about. I wanted to, I thought about using VB as the story for beer because I know that a lot of people who’ve read what I’ve written over the last 25 years about big company beers would be probably quite surprised that I’d chosen VB. Because I’m not CUB’s biggest fan on the whole, you know. I’ve been very critical of that breweries approach to marketing its products over the years. I don’t particularly like a lot of the beers and I’ve said that. I’m quite open about that. I certainly don’t drink them very often. But I thought VB has a huge place in my own personal drinking history, you know. As I remember drinking it a lot when I was younger. I remember family drinking it when I was too young to drink. When I worked in bottle shops VB was you know, such a huge part of what we sold. And I’m very you know, I’ve been driving through and drinking in, and you know going to parties in Richmond and Abbotsford and that kind of area for almost 30 years. So anybody who knows that part of Melbourne knows how important that huge brewery is to the landscape of that place. So I thought it’d be really great to just get inside the Abbotsford brewery and watch how VB is made. That’s what I wanted to do. And they actually came back with the idea of saying how would you like to spend a day brewing it? Now bearing in mind that I wanted to use each of these stories as you know, a way of telling the bigger story of, of Australian beer. I thought well that’s beautiful, you know. I’d get to taste the malt. I’d get to taste the famous pride of Ringwood hop in its pure form, you know. I’d get to hopefully you know, see the famous CUB yeast that they’ve been propagating and keeping going since the 1920’s I think, isn’t it? Up close and personal. What a fabulous idea. What I didn’t realise is that going in and doing all that made you, made me realise what a quintessentially Australian beer it is, VB. You know, it’s easy to dismiss the CUB. I sound like I’m, I sound a bit like I’ve come out as a CUB kind of ambassador. Maybe I have a little bit. Because it’s pretty impressive what they’ve done, you know. It’s all Australian malt. It’s the pride of Ringwood hop was developed in Ringwood, in the 1950’s. So it’s an Australian hop. And the yeast that they’ve got, originally yes it came from Carlsberg. But it’s got a unique character now obviously after being here for so long. And I think you put those three major ingredients together, with the local water of course. Which is less important in terms of flavour. And you do create a uniquely Australian beer. So regardless of whether you actually think it’s any good or not, doesn’t really matter. Because it’s the flavour profile is uniquely Australian and I think that, you know, we talk about, we talk about that a lot in wine. We talk about it increasingly in craft. Spirits producers are all over this idea of producing uniquely Australian drinks. Or drinks with a uniquely Australian flavour profile. And VB’s kind of been there, done that. And I don’t know whether you’ve been into the you know, the sensory evaluation unit there and how unbelievably hard they work and how proud they are of maintaining that flavour profile. Which again, you might not like. But you’ve got to give them respect for bloody maintaining it. I think, it was a really, that was a really great day. 

JAMES ATKINSON: I  wonder whether, now that you’re in closer contact with CUB, whether you’ve been able to get it through to them that the apples fall off the tree in autumn, rather than spring?

MAX ALLEN: That’s my next project. 

JAMES ATKINSON: We’re talking of course about Little Green Cider there. You took umbrage at the marketing of that particular product of theirs. 

MAX ALLEN: And that’s what I was saying, right. You know, when you write that kind of thing in a national newspaper, and then you turn around a couple of months later and say oh by the way, can I come in behind the scenes and can you show me the VB recipe please? Can you share with me you know, your most precious intellectual property. The fact that they actually even talked to me, I was quite surprised. 

JAMES ATKINSON: It’s sort of funny that that aspect of the product isn’t really reflected that much in the kind of marketing that we see with VB?

MAX ALLEN: That probably is an indication of how little other people care about the kind of things that I care about. You know, and this is actually to be honest with you, is a concern, you know, with the book. I’m thinking are other people going to be as fascinated with trying to recreate a 19th century peach cider? You know, that’s what I live for. I love that stuff. And it’s very, it’s pretty geeky and it’s pretty nerdy, and you know it’s a niche thing. So I think you know, the people who market VB are much better at marketing than me. They’ve probably done their research on emphasising the uniquely Australian quality of the pride of Ringwood hop is not going to play well with their core demographic. I don’t know. Maybe I’m, maybe they will. Maybe it’s something that they will look at now. I don’t, I doubt it. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now I didn’t realise the extent to which Australian wine was a laughing stock in Britain, say 50 years ago.

MAX ALLEN: Oh but you’ve heard that Monty Python sketch haven’t you, about Perth Pink and?

JAMES ATKINSON: Chateau Chunder. I had but it was a distant memory to be honest. Your book kind of refreshed that a bit for me. 

Oz Clarke with the famous Kanga Rouge wine
Oz Clarke with the famous Kanga Rouge wine

MAX ALLEN: What I didn’t realise is it wasn’t, it wasn’t a joke. It was kind of just basic reportage. That sketch came out, I think it was the early 70’s. So if, if people haven’t heard it, it’s worth checking out online. The Monty Python Australian wine sketch, it’s pretty easy to find. And it’s just a litany of, you would think, ridiculous you know, Australian wine names. Like Chateau Chunder and Perth Pink and I can’t remember the others. And yet it was actually based on real brands. So there was a Wallaby White, there was a Bondi Bleach, no not. Yeah Bondi Bleach. No that can’t be right. And the most famous one, Kanga Rouge. And I’d heard about this, I’d seen bottles you know, on documentaries and things. And I thought well that’s a fascinating history. The fact that there were Australian wines being sold in the UK, in the 1970’s called Kanga Rouge. You know where, how did that happen? Where did we come from? How did Australia go from being the most important wine export country to the UK in the 1930’s, where you know, huge quantities of so called port and sherry, and sweet white were being exported to the UK. Everybody knew Australian wine in the 1930’s. And then in the 1970’s it’s kind of being just treated as a joke. And I saw Oz Clarke, the English wine writer, with a bottle of Kanga Rouge on a documentary called funnily enough, Chateau Chunder. Which was about the history of Australian wine and its relationship with the UK. And I was in the UK last year, was it last year? Yes, last year. And got in touch with Oz, who I’ve known for a number of years and said you don’t want to, you don’t fancy opening that bottle of Kanga Rouge do you? And we’ll drink it and we’ll talk about the history. Because Oz was really instrumental in promoting wine in the UK in the 1980’s and 90’s. And Oz said yes, sure. So I went over to Oz’s place and he opened that bottle of Kanga Rouge. And it was bloody, spoilers, it was bloody awful. But we opened some other nice bottles and we had a great chat about the history. But it’s, it is fascinating to see that roller coaster and history repeating itself, you know? How in the 80’s, 70’s and 80’s, early 80’s Kanga Rouge, Australia was a joke. Then Australia became hugely popular in the UK. And now a lot of the English people think Australian wine is just you know, cheap brands with Marsupials on the label again. And there’s even another Kanga Rouge that you can buy now that’s being sold in Sweden. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Really? Under that name?

MAX ALLEN: Yeah so you can buy litre boxes of Australian Shiraz in Swedish supermarkets called Kanga Rouge. So honestly, this idea that history repeats. It literally does. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now the final chapter. Obviously I was very well aware of the use of native ingredients in distilling for example, and some beers as well. But you also had a go at making wine from native grapes I believe. What grapes are native to Australia?

MAX ALLEN: So this was really, going right back to the beginning of this conversation. Where this book came from was having this idea of writing a you know, history of alcohol. A history of drinking in Australia. And having that first chapter the, the historical examples of fermented drinks enjoyed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, before Europeans arrived. And the final chapter was inspired by a Yuan man from Southern NSW, Noel Butler, who approached me at Root Stock – the wine and food festival in Sydney about five years ago. And the first thing he said to me was why has nobody made wine from native grapes? Or do you think you could make wine from native grapes? And I thought first of all, like you I said what do you mean native grapes? I didn’t know there were any grapes that were native to Australia. I mean, I knew there were some grape like fruit but there is a particular fruit that is called the native grape that grows in the bush around where Noel lives near Ulladulla. And so it was his invitation to pursue that idea, that I thought well that would make a great last chapter to the book. As well as being a really, really interesting thing to pursue. So I went to visit him and his partner Trish in the bush near Ulladulla. Gosh, when was that? That was two years ago now. And we went out and we harvested some of these berries, which do look a hell of a lot like Cabernet or Shiraz grapes, you know. They’re remarkably similar to grapes. You can see where they got their name from. They don’t taste like wine grapes and they don’t have as much juice as wine grapes, which meant that they didn’t actually make wine. As in when you squash them up, they don’t release enough juice to kind of make a liquid that the yeast can ferment the sugar in. They kind of form a kind of squidgey mass. But if you put these grapes to other uses, you can make other drinks that are potentially quite interesting and flavoursome. So that I thought would be a really interesting way to finish the book, because that’s about potential. That’s about where do we go from here? How do we look at the last 200 and whatever it is years of, the history of alcohol in Australia. And look at all these lessons, all these stories and maybe put them to some kind of use to produce a drink that is uniquely Australian. But is produced in a responsible and considerate way. I think that that’s what that last chapter is about. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think we’re already starting to see that happening?

MAX ALLEN: I think we’re absolutely beginning to see that happening and the conversations that are being had right now in the wake of everything that’s happened this year. From the bushfires through to the pandemic, through to the black lives matter movement. I think there are so many questions being had right now about how we, how we want our drinks community and how we want our culture of drinking to be in the future. It goes back to what we were saying before you know. I think its been really, really interesting to see how the community’s have pulled together in response to the all, this kind of rolling litany of crisis that have been, you know, they’ve been subjected to since the beginning of the year. So I think there is some really interesting questions being asked at the moment about where we go to from here, yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now tell me about some of the drinks to try at home. You know, the sherry cobbler and some of these other Australian drinks. How did you uncover those and what are the chances that these could be the hip new thing in small bars around Australia?

MAX ALLEN: Some of them already have been. So at one point this was going to be 12 drinks, not 10. Can’t remember what the other one was. But one of the chapters was going to be about kind of cocktails and mixed drinks. And one of the reasons why that didn’t happen is that I couldn’t find a single drink that I wanted to focus on, because there were so many options. But also I couldn’t really find the narrative that I hope is in each of the other chapters. So I thought let’s put some of those cocktail stories or mixed drink stories in as kind of, I don’t know, little interludes in between the chapters. So the first one is the ‘blow my skull’, which is a fabulous punch really. A mixed drink which was developed by a crazy governor in Tasmania in the early 19th century. And it’s a ridiculous mix of, I can’t remember off hand. Rum and porter and brandy, and God knows what. And it’s just potent and powerful. But actually, we made it and it’s actually quite delicious. And we run through that old bottle collecting thing that I have. I found an empty bottle of Yalumba Niblick, which is a pre-mixed white lady cocktail. In a kind of hexagonal art deco bottle that acts as a shaker, that was released in the 1930’s and I just think that’s fascinating. This history repeats idea, you know. We’re all looking at pre-mixed cocktails, particularly in this pandemic time when all those bars have been shut and have been forced to you know, make pre-bottled cocktails. But actually that tradition dates back to the 1850’s in Australia. And things like the Japanese Slipper. I was told by Seb at Bad Frankie bar that the Japanese Slipper was the only Australian invented cocktail that was on the international bartenders association list of approved cocktails. It’s no longer there unfortunately. So I tracked down the guy that made it and spoke to him about it. Spoke to him about the history. So that was a great experience. To kind of get from the horses mouth if you like, the history of one of those iconic 80’s cocktails. So that, those cocktails are meant to be you know, they’re fun but also they’re delivering some history as well, that you can actually literally recreate at home. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Now do you think any of, some of the drinks that you touch on in the book. Like for example, fortified wine or brandy which have got such a rich history in Australia, could ever come back into fashion in our lifetimes? Because obviously you know, we’ve seen in the last ten years’ the comeback that Gin has had. And I just look at some of those really unfashionable drinks and wonder whether they could follow a similar trajectory?

MAX ALLEN: I think brandy at a smaller bar level is doing okay. I think it’s still got a long way to go to catch up with, certainly the white spirits in terms of retail. But I don’t see why not. I mean, again as you say, the history of brandy in Australia is I, you know, I could have gone into much more detail. Maybe the next, the next book. Ten more drinks that shaped Australia, brandy will get more of a look in. Because it deserves it. It has an amazing history and the brandy’s themselves are fabulous, you know. There’s some amazing old spirits out there. Fortified wine, I’m not so sure. But never say never. I mean, fortified wine I think has so much emotional and historical baggage. Partly because it, partly because of the legacy of the flagon of port, you know. It is seen as a cheap form of alcohol that is associated with people who misuse alcohol. So I think that’s going to be really hard to get over. And also, it is strong. You know, people, there is a very strong wellness trend that we are witnessing, that is, people are looking for lower alcohol options. And trying to sell them a fortified wine that’s 18 or 20%, is tough in that environment. No matter how organic or clean it might be. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Max, it’s been an absolutely fascinating chat. Congratulations on the book. I can tell you know, the amount of research that’s gone into it. And that narrative in each chapter you talk about, absolutely is there. So I hope Drinks Adventures listeners will go out and buy it.

MAX ALLEN: Thank you very much.

JAMES ATKINSON: Where can people find it actually, that’s a good to make? And where as the author, where would you prefer them to purchase Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia from?

MAX ALLEN: Hopefully all good bookshops from mid-July. So you know, by the end of July hopefully everywhere. Booktopia, the usual online outlets. I know that Books for Cooks are very strong supporters and if you haven’t been to Books for Cooks yet, check them out anyway if you’re mostly interested in drink and food literature. Then they’re better stocked than anybody. And also, I don’t know whether it will be set up by the time this plays, but I might be able to sell directly through my website – But any of those, any of those outlets. It all helps. 

JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic Max, well thanks so much for your time. 

MAX ALLEN: Thank you. 

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