Last week saw the release of Max Allen’s new book, Intoxicating: Ten Drinks that Shaped Australia. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly revealing portrait of this country, capturing the unexpected and reframing the familiar through just ten liquid lenses. We managed to corner Max to discuss the book, his dream of making a uniquely Australian cider and the future of the Australian wine industry, amongst other things…
YGOW: The history of drinking in this country is a long and colourful one, picking just ten drinks must have been a real challenge. But your book is a social history of the country as much as anything; how did you decide what kind of story you wanted to tell?
Max Allen: I chose ten drinks that meant something to me, in an effort to bring history to life. I’ve been writing about booze, travelling, tasting, talking to people, for almost 30 years, and have plenty of stories to tell. I figured if I could weave some of those stories into the historical research, it might resonate with the reader’s own experiences and memories and encourage them to ask, what are the ten drinks that shaped them?
YGOW: And was there anything left on the cutting room floor that you would have liked to have squeezed in? Is there an eleventh drink that almost made it?
Max Allen: Yes: at one point, I had a chapter on “mixed drinks”: from the punches of the 18th century to the incredible new cocktails being dreamed up today. I couldn’t decide on a single drink to name the chapter after, or a narrative that held that chapter together, so instead, I included the stories of five of those drinks as breakouts between the chapters: interludes you can imbibe.
YGOW: Within those limited choices, you’ve uncovered some surprising things that most people would never have heard of. Namely, the processes and ingredients used by First Nations people to make alcoholic drinks. It’s taken a long time to get proper recognition for native foods, but it’s happening; is there a bright future for native beverages as well?
Max Allen: One of the most interesting things about most of the Indigenous fermented drinks I write about is how seasonal and location-specific they are. Take the drink made from the sap of the cider-gum tree, called way-a-linah: where these trees grow, in the rugged cold of Tasmania’s central highlands, they exude enough liquid to provide a decent drop for a few people – but when they grow in other, warmer places, they don’t. So, it’s hard to see how it could be commercialised. More interesting, perhaps, is the potential for drinks producers to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to look at other, novel uses for Indigenous ingredients such as native grapes, and ensuring it’s done in an appropriate, respectful and mutually beneficial way.
YGOW: Will we see native grapes jostling for shelf space with shiraz and chardonnay sometime soon?
Max Allen: The last chapter is called ‘Wine from native grapes?’ and the question-mark is intentional: can wine be made from this amazing Indigenous fruit that looks uncannily similar to bunches of shiraz but grows in abundance in the coastal bush of south-eastern Australia? You’ll have to read the book to find out the answer. Okay, I can’t do that to you: the answer is “no” – at least, not wine as we know it. But this fruit can be used to make exciting drinks of another kind – and you will have to buy a copy of the book to find out what they are …
YGOW: What might this book look like written 20 or 50 years in the future? Nero d’avola in southern Tasmania and sparkling wine being made in Antarctica? Or might our defining future beverages describe a more optimistic outcome?
Max Allen: The depressing but realistic answer is that in 50 years’ time, winegrowing in many parts of Australia may simply be unviable, no matter how many heat-tolerant grape varieties we plant and how much water-wise viticulture we adopt. That’s not just my opinion: it’s the finding of a major new study called Australia’s Wine Future: A Climate Atlas. Other than that, it’s extremely hard to predict what the future holds: twenty years ago, there was no natural wine scene in Australia, hardly any craft distilleries, no Young Gun of Wine. Now look!
YGOW: What was the hardest part about writing this book?
Max Allen: Writing the final chapter. It tells the story of being invited to pick native grapes by Budawang elder Noel Butler, of visiting him and his partner Trish on Yuin country on the south coast of NSW, of later catching up with Noel and Trish to taste and talk about the drinks I made using those grapes. Around new year this year, as I was finishing that chapter, transcribing the conversation and turning it into words on the page, Noel and Trish’s voices in my headphones as I typed, I knew that the terrible summer fires were advancing on their house in the bush. The day after I finished the chapter, I found out that their house and almost all their possessions had been destroyed in the flames. That was hard.
YGOW: Can you pick one wine that represents the evolution of the Australian wine scene over your time writing about the industry?
Max Allen: 2019 Giaconda Amphora Roussanne. As you know, I’ve been banging on about organics, Australian terroir, non-mainstream grapes, natural wine and back-to-the-future winemaking for over 20 years. This roussanne, Rick Kinzbrunner’s magnificent “exercise in natural winemaking” ticks all the boxes and then some: certified biodynamic vineyard, nine months on skins in amphora, very few additions, utterly, utterly delicious.
YGOW: We know you make the best wine in Caulfield, but If you were going all in, what wine would you like to make and where?
Max Allen: Ha! You obviously haven’t tasted my wine – all six litres of backyard vermentino – and to be honest, you probably don’t want to. All in? If I was going to jump the fence from writing into production, I’d actually go for cider making. Don’t tell the wine industry, but cider’s my true passion. My latest dream is to make a uniquely Australian cider, only using varieties of apple that were bred here (like the Western Australian Sundowner) or grew here as chance seedlings, like the classic Granny Smith, or the many wild apples growing on the roadside across the country.
YGOW: You often write about the unsung and the almost forgotten; who deserves to be heard more in today’s wine and beverage world?
Max Allen: The next generation. The drinks conversation in this country has been dominated by old white men (or, in my case, middle-aged white men) for far too long. I don’t think we should all be put out to pasture overnight (some of still have something to contribute). But it’d be great if the people talking about drinking better reflected the people drinking. There is resistance to change, though. For example, I stopped writing for a magazine recently where I’d been a contributor and columnist for many years. When I resigned, I told the editor I felt it was an opportunity for a new voice. But they replaced me with another middle-aged white guy who has been writing for years. Ho hum.
YGOW: A lot of time is given to comparing wines, scoring, rating and pitting them against each other to see which is the ‘best’; is this important, or are we missing the point?
Max Allen: I’m all for comparing wines, rating them, finding out which are better than others. I do it myself all the time in the quest to find good wines to write about. And I recognise that scores and points are a convenient way of communicating this rating to another person (even if I don’t do it myself, preferring to rely on words). But scores and points are also easy to commodify and commercialise, and I think the balance has tipped too far that way. Wineries have become reliant on scores to help sell their wines, and critics have latched onto the power of score-giving to bolster their own brand. It’s an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship that takes us away from a deeper, contextual understanding of wine.
Max Allen. Photo by Adrian Lander.