When his mum suggested he put his chemistry smarts into winemaking, Paul Burnett never predicted the colourful and creative ride he was about to embark on. After 20-odd years working in vineyards, he turned his hand to distilling, joining the team that produces 23rd Street Distillery’s Australian Single Malt Whisky, winner of the Australian whisky category in the 2023 Best of Whisky and Rum Awards. Here’s how he cut his teeth and learnt the craft to create a South Australian made whisky that gives the traditional Scottish varieties a serious run for their money.
I studied chemistry at uni, then got onto oenology [the chemistry of winemaking], mostly because my mum said, ‘Why don’t you become a winemaker?’ I think she just wanted cheap wine. I did 20 years of winemaking before I joined 23rd Street Distillery in 2022 as their fortified winemaker and distiller. I came here for my love of brandy, then discovered their amazing program of whisky and rum, and I’ve been thrilled every day.
At the end of the month, we audit all of the spirits we have on site, do an alcohol check and tastings and decide if a whisky is going to be part of our single malt or our extended maturation. Just yesterday, we tasted nine different barrel groups from 2019 to 2021, talking about what style we believe they’re heading in and what sort of oak we think they should be finished in to impart some light complexity and different characteristics.
The beer that begins the whisky process is one of the most important ingredients. We work with an expert brewer, Jeff Wright, to get the yeast and flavours right and then we do the first distillation. We have really tall stills and three copper pots from the ’30s, and the warm, long Riverland summers allow for good maturation, creating intensity and flavour. [23rd Street Distillery is in Renmark, by the Murray River.] Our Single Malt Whisky is only the third whisky we’ve ever done, and we’ve really honed our skills, using Kangaroo Island barley and American bourbon barrels.
Not at all. I guess if you’re a purist, you’d drink it straight but you’ve got to identify how you really enjoy it, whether that’s with dry ginger ale, soda water, tonic or cola like my mum. You can absolutely still identify good whisky and brandy if you have it with cola – some people like the sweetness or the [reduced] alcohol.
I like to add a tiny bit of water to have it at about 35 per cent [alcohol] – which is about one-fifth purified water with four-fifths whisky – so I can experience all of the aromatics and flavour. You’ve got to have premium water – if you put tap water or hard water in it, you really destroy the flavours.
When you do your winemaking degree, you do a lot of training on palate-development and understanding oak and tannin and sweetness levels. When it comes to spirit, for me, it’s just been time. I’ve spent time with people who understand and can detail the quality and characteristics of certain distillation techniques, [then you] build confidence to identify those things in a tasting.
Oh, she’s very happy. She was happy to transition from wine to whisky!
See for yourself why this drop was the judges’ favourite Aussie whisky in the 2023 Best of Whisky and Rum Awards.
23rd Street Single Malt Whisky: Inhale the toffee and oak aroma, taste the citrus and apricot notes, and be left with a butterscotch flavour and the lingering warmth of one of the year’s most celebrated whiskies.
Products featured are available from 17/05/23 to 27/06/23, while stocks last. Some products or varieties featured may not be available in all stores.