Intoxicating by Max Allen (Book Review): Ten drinks that shaped Australia

From the late 1980s onwards, I became increasingly interested in Australian wine. I used to think I liked some cool wines, but what transformed my knowledge of the country, by its focus on Australia’s artisan producers, was a book I’ve mentioned many times. Max Allen’s “The Future Makers” (Hardie Grant Books, 2010) is a big old tome, and I could not be more grateful for the friend who gave it to me as a present, sending it via his uncle, from Melbourne. It must have taken up a sizeable part of his luggage allowance. I would argue that there still is no better book on Australian wine, especially if you are interested in smaller, low intervention producers. Exactly the same producers who were at that time beginning to be imported into the UK.

We jump forward a decade, to the summer of 2020, and I am now following Max on social media, and I see that he’s a new book due out, called “Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia”. Published by Thames & Hudson Australia, it is inexplicably not available for direct sale in the UK and this time I was blessed with help from a generous acquaintance in New Zealand, who I know from Tom Cannavan’s Wine Pages Forum. This very kind man sent a copy over with his wife, who whilst visiting family here posted it on to me around a month ago. Thankfully, Intoxicating is available in paperback, running to around 250 pages, but still, the generosity of people who share a love of wine knows no bounds (even if it took up rather less space in the suitcase).

The book is divided into ten chapters, each one highlighting a drink which has a place in Australian history and folk lore. You certainly don’t need to know every drink, nor necessarily want to drink it, to be drawn into this incredibly well researched and totally enjoyable book. Allen’s style is always engaging and he matches this with very deep knowledge, not bad for a guy who was originally born in England, though benefiting from Australian family until he moved out there in (I think) his twenties.

If the book gives a nod towards a chronology, the first chapter starts us off before the colonial period. What Allen does immediately is dispel the myth that alcohol was unknown to the indigenous people before the British introduced it. In particular, he introduces Way-a-linah, fermented from the sap of a tree known as the cider gum. The fermented sap produces (still) a mildly alcoholic beverage which apparently does taste a little like mild cider. Sadly, this tradition is at risk from climate change. The trees are very sensitive to too much heat so that even the parts of Tasmania where the trees are most prolific are at risk of becoming too warm.

As you read the book you will, I hope, be pleasantly surprised that one of several strands which run through it looks at issues around alcohol in relation to the original inhabitants of the continent, especially how the narrative has been shaped by the colonial masters to portray the aboriginals as drunkards and unable to consume alcohol without negative effects. That’s a narrative which completely ignores one place of alcohol in our own culture, as a crutch for people who have been deprived of hope. For native Australians, that deprivation has been of more than just hope. It has been of land, identity and soul.

When the first settlers arrived, life was pretty tough…and not just for the convicts. Failing to learn from those already farming the land, the British came close to starvation, but they soon sorted out their priorities and established (via one particular regiment) a spirits-racket. The drink of choice was rum, though not rum as we know it. Rum brought into Australia came mostly from Brazil. It wasn’t the golden spirit distilled from molasses we enjoy today, but aguardente, distilled from sugar cane juice. In Portuguese it means “burning water”.

The more adventurous reader might attempt to make a modern version of a drink invented by Colonel Thomas Davey, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, in 1815. It’s a blend of beer, aguardente rum, brandy, sugar syrup and lime juice. It went by the name of “Blow My Skull”.

Chapter Three covers peach cyder. Actually, Allen takes us on a journey around the traditional tipple of many of the different immigrant populations into Australia, but peach cyder became a popular drink due to a surfeit of peaches and as the author makes his own apple cider, he gives it a go. It’s a nice story, which I won’t spoil, except to state something we all know. Peaches can make a fine distillate.

It might surprise some that Champagne not only made its way to Australia, but it did so in some quantity. Even more surprising is who drank it. We read the story of Mrs Bond’s brothel, founded in Melbourne in the 1850s, where archaeology finds Champagne bottles outnumber any other type of drink by many times (along with hundreds of oyster shells). The title of the chapter is “The Salthouse Champagne”, which refers to the wreck of The William Salthouse, which sank in the treacherous entrance to Port Phillip Bay in 1839. Some bottles were retrieved in 1982 and, in 1994, subsequently tasted. James Halliday was on hand to write about it in the Weekend Australian, describing them, according to Allen, as “particularly notable”.

From here on in we begin to read about drinks we’ve probably heard of, if not always tasted. Aussie classics like Seppelt’s Angaston Bitters, 1930 Dalwood Cabernet (the birth of Australian Fine Wine), Victoria Bitter (a beer with which I have had my own personal relationship), and McWilliams Port. Although you will rightly assume that the author touches on the historical importance of fortified wine in Australia’s drinks history, this particular chapter provides an interesting foray into “aboriginal drinking” and the Native Australians’ relationship with grog.

The penultimate chapter brings us up to date. Kanga Rouge was not part of the famous Monty Python sketch, it really existed. Trouble is, the wine was a joke. But the 1970s saw the beginning of a revolution in Australian wine, a revolution which led to popularity in the UK beyond the dreams of the corporates who eventually began to dominate Australian Wine. In the late 1980s and early 1990s (if my recollections are accurate), a BBC2 programme called “Food and Drink” had millions of viewers, my very young self being one of them.

Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden introduced us to wines bursting with Australian sunshine, ripe fruit seasoned with oak (mostly real oak in those early days rather than chips or essence). We never looked back, or at least we didn’t for about a decade. I recall vividly the first bottle of Aussie Chardonnay I purchased (Rosemount), who we drank it with and the look on our faces. Rosemount was very soon joined by Penfolds in my wine racks, which made the classic reds of South Australia, from Grange at the top all the way down. We will come back to Penfolds.

Some think we in Great Britain are cheapskates. The story of Australian wine in the UK certainly does nothing to dispel that suggestion. A mass market for Aussie sunshine was established, but over the years that sunshine fell in value, especially to the supermarket buyers who saw Australian wine as a cheap drink to market to the masses in quantity.

When wine from countries like South Africa, Chile and Argentina became available for even less money, any pretence at loyalty evaporated. The market is king, always the problem for a near industrial product, much of it arriving in tankers to be bottled at the docks, made by increasingly large corporates. The artisans Max Allen wrote about in “The Future Makers” still found a market in the UK, albeit a niche one, but certainly a decreasing one too.

Australia has since found its saviour (perhaps) elsewhere, in China. In 1995 Allen quotes figures showing exports of wine to China were a mere 1% of that exported to the UK. In 2019, he says, wine exports to China were 150 million litres, worth $1.2 billion. Staggering, and dwarfing the relatively miniscule quantities of Aussie wines which now come our way.

I recently read that yet another name synonymous with Australian wine in this country, Brown Brothers, had decided to exit the UK market completely. Just a few years ago I could go to the annual “Australia Day” trade tasting in London and taste well over twenty wines from this large family company.

Ironically it appears that Penfolds has, after an absence of many years, made a comeback here. I think Majestic Wine lists around nine lines, although not all the once-famous “bins” of old. But Australian wine is changing at the corporate level.

Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife planted their original Magill Estate at the foot of the Mount Lofty Ranges, outside Adelaide, in 1844, thus starting what became a great Australian tradition by which doctors who believed in the health benefits of red wine became the producers of some of the country’s finest labels.

Since the 1840s Penfolds has gone through so many owners, it really is a lesson in the corporate world of Aussie wine. Southcorp…Fosters…Treasury Wine Estates. Penfolds may be back in the UK, I’d quite like to know how that happened. But like all of Australian corporate wine, the real market is seen as China. However, markets come and go. At the bottom of the Penfolds range has long been a wine named, in a way, after the company’s founder (via the cottage on his estate). It’s called Rawson’s Retreat. I’m sure you’ve heard of it? If I remember correctly, it was a single red blend, although now it’s a brand with several product lines.

Anyway, I recently read (on Vino Joy News, a site dedicated to China’s wine market) that Rawson’s Retreat destined for China will now contain wine sourced in South Africa. This is admittedly mainly down to the current spat between the two countries which has led to a 218% tariff being imposed on Australian wine exports to China. I am led to believe that the Rawson’s Retreat you can buy for £5 in some UK supermarkets will not move in the same direction, or maybe not yet, not that I imagine too many readers of Wideworldofwine will be overly concerned.

Perhaps the reappearance of Penfolds in the UK might just be dipping a toe back into an old market, just in case, although I know that China’s wealthiest wine lovers won’t be unduly hit by 218% worth of taxes on their Grange. Such taxes ultimately only benefit the super-wealthy because they decrease the competition from plebs like me for the unicorns.

The final chapter of Intoxicating brings us back, in a fascinating way, to what the future might hold, not in terms of markets so much as in terms of what gets made. This chapter looks at (inter alia) wine from native grapes. Yes, there are native Australian grapes. Of course, all the vinifera vines were brought to Australia mostly from Europe and The Cape. That is well documented. What even few wine experts in Australia know is that there are native species.

There’s a lovely story in there, which I won’t narrate, but it ties everything together. It embodies a spirit of adventure, an open mind, and a desire to look at Australian drinks culture with a much wider perspective than that of the colonial boozer and his descendants. What after all, as the author points out, is the difference between the French/European concept of terroir and the aboriginal “connection to country”? In sub-titling the last chapter “Drinking the Future” the author acknowledges that in a country populated for a couple of centuries by invaders who paid scant regard to the agriculture of its native inhabitants…until now…when it comes to alcoholic beverages, there’s “so much more to learn”.

I would suggest that for anyone with the slightest interest in Aussie booze, or indeed in Australia and its culture, this book makes essential reading. Although I said that the book is not available in the UK, that is not completely true. Amazon has it as an e-book for Kindle (£12.10) and also seems to be listing (as of Tuesday, at 16.25) a single copy from an Amazon Seller, second hand, for £23.93 (as of 21 July).

A Kindle edition of The Future Makers is also available (£10).

There’s one other book I would say is essential reading if you want to expand your understanding of Aboriginal Culture in Australia. It’s one of the most famous books to come out of the country in the past decade, so I apologise to the many readers who will know it.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books 2014, new edn 2018) is a well written but scholarly refutation of the “hunter-gatherer” tag which, was always applied to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. If you suggest a people does not have a settled status on the land it becomes so much easier to dispossess them of it, but aside from this, Pascoe shows that we can learn a great deal from Aboriginal wisdom, especially when it comes to regenerative agriculture and the creation of a balanced ecology in a time of climate crisis and change. So much of what he discusses is as applicable to viticulture as to all other forms of agriculture in Australia.

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
This entry was posted in Artisan Wines, Australian Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Intoxicating by Max Allen (Book Review): Ten drinks that shaped Australia

  1. frankstero says:

    Several books just added to my reading list 👍


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