The New World
The year was 1788 and it was a chilly December night in the Scottish village of Auldgirth. Snow fell on the banks of the River Nith, near the Ellisland Farm residence of Scottish poet and lyricist, Robert Burns. Inside, Burns sat in front of an open fireplace which filled the cottage with warmth and permeated the air with the reek of peat smoke. For Burns and his visiting neighbours, the fire gave relief from the elements outside, but the whisky in the cask he just opened would warm their insides. The following day, Burns would write to Mr. John Tennant, farmer and family friend from whom he had acquired the cask, to thank him and remark:
The whisky of this country is a most rascally liquor; and, by consequence only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants
–Robert Burns, letter to Mr. John Tennant, Dec 22nd, 1788.
At that same moment in time, but on the opposite side of the globe, Captain Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, stood in the blistering heat of Sydney Cove. He kicked the dusty soil of a failed wheat crop with his boot and considered the impending food shortage threatening the fledgling British colony. Further inland, James Ruse, a First Fleet convict and experienced farmer would soon successfully cultivate wheat and barley (a key ingredient of whisky) at Rose Hill (near modern day Parramatta).
Less than two and a half centuries ago, the new colonies that would eventually become Australia, could not have been more different than the Scotland that Robert Burns called home.
To fully appreciate the history of distilling in Australia, it is best to understand a little about the history of the country itself and the influence of European settlement. The vast island continent of Australia was unknown to European explorers until it was discovered by the Dutch in the 17th century. Spurred on by the loss of thirteen American colonies in 1783, the British Empire jumped at the chance to lay claim to this new continent and use it as a convenient destination for citizens sentenced to ‘Transportation’.
Transportation was a relatively successful policy of forced exile, that resulted in convicted criminals (some for very minor offences by today’s standards) being shipped to the other side of the world and forced into involuntary labour. At the conclusion of their sentence, convicts were often given the opportunity to settle in the new colonies, often picking up where they left off, employed in a familiar trade.This provided the British with a means to colonise far off lands and to forcibly remove a portion of the criminal element from Great Britain.
No doubt, a part of the ‘most rascally’ inhabitants to which Robert Burns refers to in his letter to John Tennant, made their way to the new southern colonies; bringing with them a thirst for distilled spirits and for some, a knowledge of how to make it.
In colonial Australia, traditional currency was in short supply, so being paid in goods rather than notes and coin was common place. It wasn’t long before Rum (a term often analogous for any distilled spirit) became the unofficial currency of the early Australian settlers. Initially, this liquid resource was mostly controlled by the powerful NSW Corps who as a result, would soon come to be known as the Rum Corps. Twenty years to the day after first settlement, the NSW Corps would overthrow the government in the Rum Rebellion, which was more about decisions concerning the future direction of the colony and less about rum than the name would suggest.
The Australian Spirit
European settlers were accustomed to drinking distilled spirits, which had enjoyed a boom in popularity during the 17th century and with it, an increase in drunk and disorderly behaviour. Although the British frowned upon excessive alcohol consumption, the government encouraged distilling for the potential tax revenue it produced. Much of the distilling first conducted European settlers, pre-dates the formation of modern Australia, which occurred some 200 years after British settlement began. Prior to Federation in 1901, British colonies on the Australian continent were subject to the laws of the British parliament; distilling without a licence and paying an excise on spirits produced was illegal.
In Australia, the term ‘sly-grog’ was used to refer to distilled spirits produced via illicit stills, denying the tax man his cut.
Unlicensed clandestine bush pubs, often no more than a few tents, were called sly-grog shops and their temporary construction allowing for a hasty getaway if word came of approaching law enforcement. Some of Australia’s most well-known outlaws operated their own illicit bush stills or ‘jigger stills’ as they were commonly known.
In October 1878, Ned Kelly, his brother Dan and their friends, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart headed for Bullock Creek (now Tullamore, in central New South Wales), where they hoped to raise money by running their own jigger still. The money would have been used to appeal Ned and Dan’s mother Ellen’s recent sentencing for aiding and abetting an attempted murder six months earlier; Ned was accused of shooting a police officer in the wrist at their family home, while trying to prevent Dan’s arrest for horse theft.
Shortly after Ned, Dan and their friends arrived, they received a warning that four policemen were attempting to track them down. Camped near Stringybark Creek, Ned rode around the surrounding areas and found sets of horse tracks leading close to where the men was camped. Constables Lonigan and McIntrye were standing around a fire when Ned, Dan, Joe and Steve ambushed them. Ned shot and killed Lonigan and McIntyre surrendered. When the other two policemen (Sergeant Kennedy and Constable Scanlan) returned, they refused to surrender. In the gunfight that followed, Ned killed Scanlan and, later, Kennedy. From this moment on, these four men were officially outlaws: the notorious Kelly Gang.
Sly Grog Part Two: The Rise of Commercial Distilling in Australia (coming soon)
 www.robertburns.org.uk/assets/documents/8burn10.txt accessed on 3pm, 11 Jul 2017
 The History of Alcohol. History. UK.com website. history.uk.com/history/history-alcohol-1690-1920-alcohol/