Posted by: Ted
I am sitting on a comfy leather chair in a cosy private tasting room. I have just tasted some whisky. Actually, it’s the second glass I have tried and I am feeling a mixture of surprise, curiosity and intrigue – not in a bad way mind you, I’ve just been caught a bit off guard. I put down my glass on the table which is crafted from half a 100L barrel and glance to my left at Nick. He raises his eyebrows, his expression reflecting my own inner turmoil. I turn to face our host, Fred, who flashes a broad smile and comments “We’ve never claimed they’re going to taste the same.”
To provide some more context, we were visiting Sullivans Cove Distillery in southern Tasmania. We had been invited down as part of Tasmanian Whisky Week 2017 to meet with Fred Siggins, Strategy Manager for Sullivans Cove, and tour their facility. After exploring the distillery Fred had invited us to sit down try some of their releases, where this particular story picks up.
The reason for our intrigue was that we had just tried two glasses of the Sullivans Cove American Oak Cask (that’s the one with the black label for those who are interested). “And? What’s so weird about that?” I hear you ask. The funny thing was, despite being the same expression, the first glass had tasted very different to the second. The secret to the trick was that the drams had been poured from two different bottles, which in turn had been filled from two different barrels.
When we think about whisky (ie Scotch), we tend to think about consistency. For instance, I might buy a bottle of, say, Balvenie 12 Year Old and really like it. The next time I buy a bottle, I expect it to taste exactly the same as the first one. I am buying it based on a particular flavour profile that represents that expression. The problem for distilleries is that natural variation occurs between whisky barrels for all sorts of reasons, meaning that even if you start with exactly the same spirit and barrel variety, the end product will be slightly different. To get around this, the master distiller will mix (or ‘marry’) different barrels together in a tank (‘vatting’) until they achieve the particular flavour profile they are after. It must be pretty stressful trying to hit that same mark every time.
Sullivans Cove, like other Tasmanian distilleries, goes in completely the opposite direction. Consistent flavour profile be damned, let’s keep everyone on their toes by doing single barrel releases (excluding their Double Cask expression, which is a marriage of American and French oak)! Instead of vatting together a whole range of barrels, once a particular cask is determined to have reached optimal maturity it is decanted and bottled.
As we’ve already discussed though, the result of this approach is that any variations between barrels are laid wide open. Its not just down to the barrels either – thanks to the design of the Sullivans Cove still, which has a stainless steel bowl and a negative lyne arm, the relatively low copper contact means that the resulting spirit is big and meaty and full of character, which carries through into the final product. The ‘ready-when-it’s-done’ philosophy also means that each successive release will vary in age.
Hence why when it came to the tasting, Fred had provided two bottles each of the American Oak and French Oak expressions, each representing a different barrel. Very handily, Sullivans Cove actually include the origin barrel on the side of the bottle, so you can tell exactly what you’re drinking.
Stepping up to the mark for team American Oak were barrels HH603 (16yo) and TD0056 (12yo), both bottled at 47.5%. On the nose HH603 had notes of aged apples, leatherwood honey, timber, beeswax and a rich bourbon characteristic running underneath. The palate was oaky and nutty, with a finish of oranges. In contrast TD0056 was slightly marine in nature, with a certain fresh, salty, fishy characteristic, mingled with notes of lavender and wood dust. The palate was grainy and bright, with flavours of pear, strawberries and coriander.
Vying for supremacy on team French Oak were barrels TD117 (11yo) and HH400 (15yo), also at 47.5%. TD117 was smooth and refined, with hints of chocolate, raisins and a whisper of sandalwood. The palate had a good chewy mouthfeel and left a dryness on the finish. In comparison HH400 was rich and luxurious, oozing white chocolate, peach, vanilla cake, ginger and leather. The mouth was fat and filling initially, then tapering off to a gentle finish with a nice linger.
Of course, we weren’t naive to the potential for this difference in flavour. We hear things, man, we’re down with the whisky geeks. We’ve had Sullivans Cove plenty of times before… but only in isolation. We’d never sampled different bottlings next to each other like that. It’s not like the bottles were from entirely different planets, there was still a certain Sullivans Cove-ness running through them all, but it really opens your eyes to how much variation can exist between barrels.
Some people may be a bit put off by this approach or feel a bit cheated. “This isn’t what I had last time!?” “But I wanted barrel HH525!” they’ll huff. I on the other hand tend to think it keeps things fresh and interesting. Heck, there’s hundreds of whiskies in the world that will keep doing the same old thing every time, so it’s good to have something a bit challenging once in a while. Fred agrees: “I couldn’t imagine working at a distillery where I had to taste and talk about the same thing day in, day out. I’d get bored! The awesome thing with Sullivans Cove is that every time we do a bottling it’s going to be a new experience.”