“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





27 May 2014


It's something about dress-ups:
a discussion of uniformity with
a bloke who knew all about it

Like a rather hungry rottweiler-mastiff-ridgeback cross I once lived with, I've never taken much of a shine to people in uniform. Something about dress-ups; something about folks who need to look alike; something about the notion that if you design a uniform, be it spiritual, martial or whatever, some pretender will very quickly swell to fill it.

I was always nervous about the Salvos, who appear to have had a bad few weeks in the bullying/paedo/murder allegation stakes.

Poor buggers are discovering message drift.

Their uniform is obviously martial masquerading as spiritual, or vice-versa. 

Whichever way, it's a dangerous combination which to me seems to leave a large inviting door open to people who to me would seem to be pretty much my opposite.

Which is not to deny that in the golden overcrowded smoking years of The Exeter, I always made a donation to old Norma the Salvo when she'd do the Friday night rounds of the East End, perfectly uniformed, rattling her donation bag up and down the street from one bar to another, her crusty old civvy-clad cloth-capped knuckleboxing husband always hovering in her wake, just to keep an eye on the money. He carried a very heavy walking stick.

Norma's bags would get so heavy they'd leave them behind the bar at The Ex while they cleaned up the other pubs and bars in the street. I carried one once to their car. It was a lot of money.

One morning when publican Nicholas Binns was on holiday, I shared the front bar with a bloke who'd obviously done a runner from the hospital for a quiet spell with a smoke and a beer. That was commonplace behaviour for many patients. He was down the billiard table end of the bar in a hospital robe with his head bandaged like a mummy. Looked bad. I was up the front, at what was then the dart board end. The elder Binns, Spencer, was covering for his absent brother behind the jump. There was nobody else there.

Spencer poured me my breakfast stout.

"See that bloke down there?" he asked in a stage whisper. "Who do you reckon that is?"

"I dunno. Rameses II?"

"Nah", he said, leaning forward, polishing a glass."That's the most wanted man in Australia. That's Jimmy Coleraine."

I'd barely had a chance to ask how Spencer could recognise the most wanted man in Australia dressed as a mummy when the bloke under discussion came determinedly up the length of the bar, pulled up a stool and sat in next to me.

"Hullo," the mummy said, putting his hand forward. "I'm Jimmy Coleraine. How the hell could you tell who I am?"

I said I had no idea who he was. Spencer went down the other end and polished glasses.

Jimmy, a cat burglar and master escapee, was famous for escaping from everywhere. His championship was somehow evaporating from the horrid maximum security division at Pentridge Prison, now long since shut for humanitarian reasons. He did that H-Block jump again. Jimmy could slither out of anywhere. He had the screws jinxed: it seemed he could pass through a locked door like a spook.

We talked that morning about uniforms, and the types who tended to inhabit them. Salvos, priests, coppers and screws. Et cetera.

Turned out in that his years on the streets and in prisons, Jimmy'd been bashed so much by so many that his face - he pulled some of the bandages to the side to show me - had become such a cobweb of scars it looked like a lace doily. It was time to do something about it.

He'd read in the newspapers in Pentridge about the excellent work of the Royal Adelaide Hospital plastic surgery team led by David David, and had checked out and made his way across the border to have his face sorted. Once he'd scored his initial appointment, the doc took one look at his face and became transfixed on one of Jimmy's cheeks. In the midst of all that scarring he'd spotted a melanoma.  So instead of smoothing the countenance of my charming drinking companion, they'd scooped out half the poor bastard's cheek.

Not happy.

That week I gave Jimmy my Salvo donation many times over once his mysterious government stipend had siphoned itself into Spencer's till. In return, he gave me the first chapter of his autobiography, which I still have.


Jimmy taught me a lot about dealing with people in uniform. Obviously a bloke with such a miserable income combined with his wantedness and need for lots of smokes and drinks would find it a bit tricky to stay in the Hilton. So he stayed round in Whitmore Square, with the homeless drunks and the Salvos. 

He'd be locked in there for a week in their drunk tank, fed and watered, until the day his mysterious cheque came in, when he'd bring it round to The Ex and drink it all in one hearty session, then wander back and surrender again to the uniformed folks to clean himself out. He patiently performed this ritual until his face was vaguely presentable and all the dressings came off.

Before Jimmy'd finished his next week in the safe arms of the Salvos, there was a Grand Prix ball, when all the ladies of Springfield got their diamonds out of their safe deposit boxes, wore them to the Hyatt and went home to collapse dribbling fizz with the ice left on their bedside tables. Somebody went through the bedrooms of Springfield that night and cleaned out mansion after mansion, tip-toing around the slumbering drunk rich.

I never saw Jimmy again. But I got back at the uniformed Salvo bully who went inexcusably nuts when I once smuggled Jimmy in a can of VB and a packet of Escorts.

I conducted a huge champagne tasting for Christmas publication, I think in The National Times. Between pours, my stewards anxiously eyed the great stack of expensive bottles building up in the cool room. Hundreds of 'em. 

I'd bought a shipment of stopper corks, so once I'd sampled my glass from each bottle and made my evaluation, and the stewards had had a sip, the stopper went in and the bottle went back in the fridge.

At the end of day two, Howard Twelftree (writer) and Timothy John (painter), who made perfectly good stewards without uniform, helped me stack all the cartons on the back of Tim's truck. We drove into Whitmore Square, straight across the lawn to a large circle of recreational drinkers, sitting there around a flagon beneath a Moreton Bay fig. They eyed us suspiciously, thinking we looked like trouble from the Council or somewhere.

We pulled up. I wound the window down.

"You blokes drink champagne?" I asked.

Cynical grumbling. Nobody looked up.

"Do you blokes drink champagne?"

Eventually one barked "Of course we drink fucking champagne."

"Good," I said, climbing down.

It took us a few minutes to unload that truck. Without a word, we stacked those dozens up on the lawn. Bollinger, Cristal, Mumm, Dom, Heidsieck, Lanson, Möet, Krug, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent-Perrier, Gosset, Gratien, Pol, Veuve, Pommery ... brut, pink, demi-sec ... every exotic, expensive fizz imported into the country came off the back of that truck.

Nobody moved. Then we climbed back aboard and drove away into the traffic.

My last viewing of those gentlemen saw them standing in a ring around that mountain of Christmas fizz, just gazing at it.

I reckon the hardarse Whitmore Square Salvo learned a bit about champagne that night. 

Serves 'em right. Jimmy woulda loved it.

Bloody uniforms.

24 May 2014


... not the best focus etc but my little Sony grabbed this outa the deepening gloaming a few minutes ago ... it's autumn ... photo Philip White

20 May 2014


That's Tony Kanellos' beautiful prize-winning book, Imitation of Life, in the foregound
Willie Smith's Organic Huon Valley Tasmania Apple Cider
 $100 (6x4 packs per case; 330ml bottles); 5.4% alcohol; crown seal; 93 points

Ian and Andrew Smith are third and fourth generation apple growers in the Huon Valley. Theirs is the biggest organic apple orchard in Australia. They make this cider after the north of France and Lutece styles, with up to six months maturation in French oak. So while it's husky and braw with a spicy ginger attack, it packs so much red apple freshness it surprises the drinker. The sales guy left me eight stubbies and they just sort of fell straight into me. Total surrender. Forget those sweet megabulk kiddylikker ciders made from surplus eating apples or the frozen concentrate of their juice. Even worse are the ciders made from the even more bland 'filler juice' normally used to cheapen by dilution all sorts of other juices and drinks. To do the very notion of cider justice, you need something like this that's planned and constructed from the ground up to be a bloody lovely drink. Made with that extra care, organically. From the Royal Gala, Fuji and Pink Lady varieties. "Overall the cider has bags of complexity and structure allowing it to be engaging and yet worthy of great contemplation," Andrew Smith's tasting notes suggest. As you can see, all my contemplation came after I'd fully engaged eight of them. Just as well it's organic. Well done, you Smithys!

Ian and Andrew Smith: third and fourth generation apple growers ... photo Ali Nasseri 

William Smith Whisky Aged Hand Crafted Huon Valley Tasmania Apple Cider 
$60;  9.9% alcohol; 888 hand-numbered 750ml champagne bottles; cork; 94 points

Taking the thing to another level, this beauty spent seven months in 100-litre ex-malt whisky casks from Bill Lark's distillery. The Smiths think this gives the cider a speyside character. It certainly adds a distinctive whisky edge, which fits the complex, tense apple flavours surprisingly well. The oak, too, is obvious, but even that seems quite logical in the whole shape of the thing: particularly with all those alcohols: they seem to fit deliciously well. I was a little concerned before opening this bottle, imagining that the first whiff of whisky would see me tipping some more in there to go the whole hog, but there's no need. The drink already sits pretty. It's not particularly effervescent, but the bubbles are there in sufficient persistence to gently tickle the mouth. It's petillant. Staunch. Determined. It's the perfect drink to imbibe when you need a pat but you're a bit too twisty for your actual champagne. Broken heart? Sink a consolation bottle of this with a box of Haigh's dark ginger chocolates. Still hurtin'? Do it again.

Empire Liquor is now distributing these products in South Australia

18 May 2014


Museum of Economic Botany's
beautiful and important book
wins Oz museum design prize

Imitation of Life - a visual catalogue, has won The Museums Australia Multimedia and Publication Design Award at the Museums Australia conference in Launceston, Tasmania.

This splendid book concerns an 1800s collection of papr mâché apples which resides in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide.

It was authored by Tony Kanellos, Cultural Collections Manager and Curator at the Gardens. 

The book explains the history of the amazing collection. These fruits are accurate scientific models of 225 types of apple, 161 pears, and some stone fruits and sundries.

Principally a sombre set of beautiful full-page photographic portraits by Paul Atkins, and handsomely designed by Kate Burns, the book is quietly becoming an essential part of the collection of hard-core fruit-lovers, gardeners, orchardists and cider-lovers.
Author Tony Kanellos at the book's November launch at Marble Hill ... photo Ben Searcy

Tony spoke to DRINKSTER from James Boag's Brewery, where he'd been "having a few celebratory drinks." Boag's is a very handy place to celebrate if you've just won a gong at a big conference in Launceston.

"Our book won first prize," he said. "Not bad for someone who was thrown out of year 11 English class ... but that's just old-school western suburbs experience for a kid of migrant parents who didn't quite fit the mold."

He said he would continue his celebration with a visit to the Willie Smith and Sons Stone House Cidery in the Huon Valley. The Smiths have been growing apples there since 1888; in 1999 Andrew Smith, sick and tired of the old chemo-industrial orchard management regime, converted the entire plantation to certified organic management (ACO 11522). 

It is now Australia's biggest organic apple producer, and its cider is exemplary. As at Warwick Billings' Lobo cidery near Mount Torrens in the Adelaide Hills, Smiths uses a much wider range of cider-appropriate apples than the current tsunami of cheap sweet mindless lemonade level cider that fills your local kiddylikker fridge. Granny smith and golden delicious were never developed to make cider, as they now are, being in surplus.

For the moment. A bad year seems to have sent yields tumbling.

Andrew shares Tony's intense interest in the hundreds of old strains of apples which modern economic rationalism has destroyed. 

Imitation of Life  was launched at Marble Hill in November by Professor David Mabberley. A formidable plant scientist, Mabberly is former Keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He currently sits at Universiteit Leiden, The Netherlands and the University of Oxford, but he's best known for his own astonishing dictionary of plants, their classification and uses, Mabberly's Plant Book, now in its third edition. Every plant freak should have this book.

Professor David Mabberly with Stephen Forbes, executive director, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide and State Herbarium... photo Ben Searcy

" ... among all the reinettes, pippins and court-pendus, most are unfamiliar today," Mabberly  said of the collection in his speech. "This makes them fascinating and an important lesson for a general public now mercifully [endowed] with an increasingly healthy interest in heritage fruits and vegetables, the collection helps us to understand what is already lost and what further we are in danger of losing at the hand of supermarket mores – in terms of apples, for instance, all that seems to be needed now in most parts of the world is one yellow, one red and one green." 

Since the recent cider invasion of the drive-in kiddylikker fridges, Kanellos' great work has gained an unlikely significance. Most ciders are made from neutral-flavoured "filler" juice or frozen concentrate made from excess eating apples, and simply supply the sugar-addicted juvenile palate with a mouthful of fast, easy ethanol.

My interest in cider began in the early 'seventies, when sulphidic Tasmanian brands were the go.

But we also had Cobbley's Cider in the Adelaide Hills. We'd regularly make the pilgrimage to that little shed in the bush near Norton Summit and buy flagons of still, cloudy scrumpy. 

Cobbley's also made a freakish cult drink, an early kiddylikker called Blue Moose, which was an aerated cider stained sky blue with some unearthly chemical, delivered in a champagne bottle with a plastic stopper and a bright blue moose on the label.

Before it went the way of all those ancient apples, the late Adelaide Review food critic, Howard Twelftree, infamously drank this by the pint, mixed with Cointreau on ice.
In about 1980, I discovered Darren Kelly's orchard and cider factory, Kellybrook, in the Yarra Valley, along with the mysterious nature of true cider apples, like the quirky Kingston Black. No chop as an eating fruit, this soft little apple was easily pressed, and delivered a beautiful flavour, but oxidised and browned too quickly for a table fruit. 

Kelly's pristine methode champanoise cider was a favourite trick drink for confusing alleged fine champagne experts: even that great wine industry doyen, judge and all-round rascal, Len Evans OBE, was tricked into declaring it to be a fine example of real champagne at a blind tasting.

After being lost in wine for a decade, I hit apples again when I lived out in the badlands at Dutton in the late 'eighties, and drank in the top pub at Truro, where wine tanker drivers would call in for a beer as they trucked mindless Murraylands fruit to the Barossa refineries. 

I learned more about the bare facts of the Australian wine industry in that bar than one could in any other, and eventually found myself in trouble with the law when I learned from drivers' delivery books that apple juice was being delivered to many very famous Australian wineries, none of which produced a cider. 

The apple growers had had a nasty season with hail damage, and had cleverly pulped and juiced an entire crop for sale on the bulk market. By watering the apple juice and fermenting it, some seemed convinced they could make a fair Sauvignon blanc from it, as that grape was seen to be the 'new Chardonnay', but was scarce in Australia, which was largely too hot for it. Even Marlborough, New Zealand, was then a 

I advised George Mackey, chairman of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation - now Wine Australia - that I was investigating this scam, so he sent his wine police in to test various wines they quietly bought in commercial liquor stores.

As apple juice naturally contains sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, and grapes don't, the test they used to find apple juice in the wines simply involved testing for sorbitol. This powdery white compound is used as a moistening agent in everything from tobacco to biro ink, and is a laxative if taken in concentrated form.

It gives beverages 'mouthfeel', that comforting, sightly oily mid-palate character that feels somehow luxurious. It's like glycerol. Think Sauternes or Barsac. Used carefully with some flavourants, it can turn water into a half-reasonable emulation of white wine. 

Eventually the New South Wales Health Department busted famous Hunter winemaker Murray Tyrrell for selling wines containing sorbitol.

The irony was that Tyrrell denied buying apple juice concentrate, but admitted that he simply added sorbitol to his wines, which backfired because sorbitol is an illegal additive to wine in Australia, a fact which Tyrrell should have known, as he'd been on the New South Wales committee which regulated such things.

Tyrrell sued me, as author, David Dale, as editor, and Kerry Packer, as publisher, for defamation when I wrote of these findings in The Bulletin.  The case dragged on for years; eventually I discovered, by accident, in The Exeter front bar (of course) that the winemaker had withdrawn, and paid all legal expenses and costs.

Whew. After nearly a decade of avoiding the incoming money which the lawyers would get, I could maybe earn some coin of my own. Again.

The Tyrrell's marketing wallah walked into the bar and offered me a set of their current products for review. I explained that my meagre legal counsel - I had no money - had advised me to never to mention Tyrrell's wine again.

"Oh no Whitey, that's all settled," he said. "Get into these!"

Tyrrell's costs must have been significant, given the silks engaged. But Packer was bigger.

The other wineries that had taken tankers of apple juice were never prosecuted. Perhaps when they heard the authorities were sniffing, they found other uses for it. 'Wine' coolers, the RTD kiddylikkers of the day, were booming.

That was a long time ago, and the apple orchards have since shrunk to a tragic degree, especially to those who love a true, complex, hearty cider, or simply a better range of flavours in their fruit bowl.

In Tasmania alone, the old Apple Isle, the number of apple orchards has shrunk, since 1986, from about 1000 to only thirty. Foremost amongst these is Australia's biggest organic apple planting, Willie Smith and Sons orchard and Stone House cidery. Along with Adelaide Hills maker, Lobo, this family produces what I consider to be our best, most complex and delightful cider in any volume. 

Before you go guzzling some simple sorbitol-riddled 'cider' from the local kiddylikker fridge, go visit our magical Museum of Economic Botany in the Botanical Gardens, take a long hard gaze at those beautiful model apples on display, and wonder what marvels of flavour we've lost.

The collection also includes an amazing forest of life-size papiér mâché funghi, a tiny part of which is shown above. These are displayed in a glass-fronted case, right at a five or six-year-old's eye level. It's great fun to watch little kids approach the display, and become lost in it, and tantalised.

Imitation of life - a visual catalogue is available from the Diggers books and seeds shop behind the Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens on North Terrace. Go visit.