From a small distillery you’ve probably never heard of = check.
Surely I’ve written this exact review before, right? WRONG! Because this whisky is quite unlike anything going around at the moment!
Hillwood Distillery, based just north of Launceston, is the creation of father and sons team: Paul, Ollie, Daniel and Joel Herron. Inspired by their love of creating things, they decided single malt whisky was a product they could all get on board with. Together, they began to lay down small barrels in 2018.
This particular bottle is one of the first Hillwood whiskies released and was aged in the rather uncommon cask type: ex-chardonnay. The barrel influence is significant and part of what makes this a very different whisky to most coming out of the state. Like all Hillwood releases, it is bottled at cask strength, in this case 61.4%, and was one of only 37 bottles.
Let’s begin with the colour. That colour. Wow. Dark whiskies are actually the norm for Hillwood. Paul believes it is to do with the mineral content in the local water, which I couldn’t even begin to verify, but whatever it is, the whisky comes out of a cask which once housed a distinctly white wine looking like a jar of molasses.
On the nose there is an initial whiff of apricot jam which quickly transforms into white chocolate, butterscotch and tiramisu. The palate is intense and grapey with sweet gooey notes of vanilla-latte and Werther’s Originals: caramel topping on ice cream. There’s also a hint of fruitcake, which is curious considering there’s not a hint of fortified wine used in this whisky’s creation. The finish is long. Oh-so long! The sweetness dries off rapidly leaving a lingering oaky spice.
The wood-influence is noticeably present, in no small part thanks to the 20-litre cask the whisky was aged in, but as much as this threatens to overwhelm the delicate chardonnay notes, it never does, leaving a finely balanced flavour bomb. It is an impressive whisky which gets better with every sip.
For many folk there must be a temptation to pass off the Hillwood Chardonnay Cask as just another unpredictable single cask release, yet I can thoroughly recommend seeking this one out, or at least something similar from Hillwood. There is a mini chardonnay cask movement occurring at the moment and it is fascinating to taste the results. I would even go so far as to argue that this is the best of the bunch.
Diageo, for those who don’t know, is the largest spirit producer in the western world. Their whisky makers include heavy hitters such as Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Talisker and Caol Ila. However, these ‘classic malts’ only constitute part of their collection – there are a number of other distilleries whose spirit you probably would have only tasted mixed into a dram of Johnnie Walker.
Dailuaine is one such distillery, a Speyside establishment known for its heavily sherried style. While you won’t find it in many mainstream bottle shops, it is not impossible to track down an independently aged version and if you find some hidden upon a dusty shelf, then it is well worth picking up. This particular Flora & Fauna bottling is bottled at 43% after aging for 16 years in ex-oloroso barrels, a maturation that has contributed significantly to its flavour.
On the nose, the taster is immediately presented with the classic fruitcake aromas typical of its cask type. Hints of cinnamon doughnuts follow, alongside fresh fruit such as apples and melon. On the palate there are tangy orange juice flavours alongside buttery shortbread and chocolate coated raisins. The finish is long and chewy with toffee-almonds and a hint of lingering oak.
While Dailuaine may not be the most famous of Diageo’s stable, it proves that there’s a lot of exciting whiskies to try if you stray from the well-worn path. Next time it might be a Strathmill or an Inchgower, or perhaps a Blair Athol or a Mannochmore…
At Whisky Waffle we have seen a variety of subheadings etch themselves into the history of modern Australian whisky since our inception in 2014. This particular dram, however, is not a mere subtitle. Not only has it turned the page, it’s begun a new paragraph and inserted a new heading in bold, with underline and italics. This is a whole new chapter in the Australian whisky story.
Archie Rose is the first distillery to set up in Sydney in over a hundred years and is taking this position seriously. They produce gin, vodka and single malt spirit; however, their first whisky release is in fact a ‘malted rye’. Let’s take a moment to unpack that –
This whisky is not a single malt, unlike the bulk of Aussie drops across the rest of the country (with the exception of Western Australia, where corn whisky has a foothold), but is instead a majority rye, with a small percentage of malted barley. While barley is almost always malted prior to use (exception: Ireland), it is less common to do so with rye.
Rye is difficult enough to work with at the best of times, creating a thick, gluggy mash, so using the malted version is akin to trying to eat an entire box of Weetbix with only a small jug of milk. For the distillers though, it is worth it, as the finished product is full of exciting flavours, some unique to the Australian whisky scene.
The Archie Rose Rye Malt Whisky is an absolute revelation on the nose. Flavours of moss and eucalypt stand against lemon and floral notes, reminding the taster of a walk through the Blue Mountains in October. Hints of cinnamon, strawberries and cream complete this intriguing aroma. For those whose introduction to Australian rye whisky was Belgrove, it is immediately clear that this is not the same beast; while the same earthiness is detectable, this is a rounder, thicker and potentially more accessible spirit.
The palate is where it gets truly exciting. Thick gooey caramel notes accompany ginger and zesty citrus, while the typical rye spice lingers beneath. It is so full of varied flavours that it is hard to believe it has spent its maturation in virgin American Oak (interestingly, their website will tell you exactly which barrels have gone into this batch). The finish is gentle with hints of butterscotch and oranges, a reflection of the perfectly balanced 46% bottling strength.
The most scary and exciting part of this entire dram is the fact that it is the result of a Solera process, hence being titled ‘Batch 3’. This means that the flavours we are sampling here are still being refined, building on the older spirit still contained within the solera vat. While this is a delicious and easy drinking dram, its flavours won’t please everyone, particularly those with a predilection for malt whisky. However, one sip and you just can’t stop yourself thinking that you are tasting a glimpse of the future.
You know in sci-fi/superhero movies and comics how a certain event happens and suddenly strange things start to occur elsewhere? Like, a glowing, green meteorite crashes into Sydney and not long after a group of lads in rural New South Wales start to evolve in response? Maybe they even join forces as a team, with cool names (cos you gotta have cool names) and start to explore their powers? And of course, they have to have a rad lair to set up shop in.
The stuff of fiction? Maybe. But it was easy to draw comparisons with these elements when we caught up with Dean Druce from Corowa Distillery about the release of ‘The Corowa Characters’ single malt wine cask –
Whisky Waffle: G’day Drucey, we recently got our hands on the Characters and it’s a cracker. On the side of the bottle are four caricatures sporting interesting names: The Boss, The Dreaded Distiller, The Fuzz and Muscles. Your website says the release ‘celebrates the people behind the whisky made here by us in Corowa’, but doesn’t really say who these guys are. Can you tell us a bit more about the lads hanging out on the side of the bottle?
Dean Druce: I’m the Managing Director, therefore I’m ‘The Boss’. [I’m also] the ‘ideas man’ as my favourite line is “I’ve been thinking……..”, at which point everyone starts to cringe.
Beau Schilg is the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ due to his hairstyle. The ‘perfectionist’ relates to how seriously he takes his craft of producing good spirit.
Tyler Spencer is our brewer. ‘The Fuzz’ likes his own jokes and comes up with lots of one-liners hence the ‘resident funnyman’.
Paul Miegel is our production manager. ‘Muscles’, like all good nicknames, came from a case of mistaken identity. It’s also his social media persona from hosting a 60sec episode each month on Facebook & YouTube titled ‘A minute with Muscles’. He has thousands of followers, thus the title of ‘social media influencer’.
WW: Sounds like a solid crew. So were you all in it from the start/known each other for ages, or did people gradually come on board over time?
DD: When my father, Neil, bought the former Corowa Flour Mill for $1 from the local Council in 2010 [Ed. definitely a story to be explored at another time], I moved to Corowa to manage the business. I enjoyed playing AFL, so joining the local Corowa/Rutherglen FC seemed a good way to meet people and become part of the community. That’s where I met Beau.
As renovations continued, I asked around the club if anyone was interested in making whisky [and] Beau put his hand up. When we started distilling in 2016, the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ was born. [He was] one of the youngest distillers in the country at the time.
Tyler is the son of a local football hero and a good player in his own right. He was looking for a career change and we were looking for a brewer so he joined the team.
‘Muscles’ was one of the original investors when we started the distillery and with a background in pharmacy. Once we had whisky for sale, he became the production manager.
WW: What’s the vibe like at the distillery?
DD: With the majority of our workforce under 30yo, there is a natural energy that radiates from younger people. The four guys all get along well and there is always good banter around the distillery. Being such a young distillery, there is lots of excitement about the future.
WW: What’s living and distilling in a small country town like Corowa like?
DD: Initially the town was really excited… then frustrated as they discovered how long it took until there was product [ready]. The benefit of a small town is that everyone knows us and recommends us to their friends and visitors as a place worth checking out.
All our whiskies have a local connection and we couldn’t think of anything more local than the guys that put it together. It’s as much about putting Corowa on the map as it is about the whisky itself.
WW: What’s important to you as a team?
DD: We are deadly serious about making a great product, but by the same token, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to do things a little bit differently, be a bit cheeky about the snobbishness of the industry, but respectful of its history.
WW: Compared to a lot of Aussie whiskies, especially on the smaller scale, the Characters is insanely good value. It’s definitely Corowa in style, but much softer and more forgiving than something like the Bosque Verde (Whisky Waffle whisky of the year 2019), so we think that it will appeal to a broader audience. What made you decide to release this as a sub $100AUD whisky rather than in that $150-$200AUD sort of bracket?
DD: The Australian whisky market is maturing (in taste!) at a rapid rate. When [Sydney outfit] Archie Rose released their beautifully presented Rye whisky at $120, they changed the expectation of the market. We decided that if we wanted to remain “in the game”, as well as giving our profile a significant boost, we needed to establish a product true to ourselves at a price that both we, and the consumer could afford.
WW: Do you think that having a whisky at that more accessible price point will encourage people to try something different and get away from the Scotch?
DD: A significant percentage of visitors to our distillery are not regular whisky drinkers at all, but rather tourists looking for something different. Our heritage-listed building, chocolate sales, cafe and distillery provide a unique experience. By providing an approachable, value product we are able to introduce non-whisky drinkers to the industry, and the Australian style, thus growing the Australian market.
WW: In terms of the whisky itself, where are the wine barrels sourced from, and what type?
DD: The barrels are predominantly from the Barossa, with some from Rutherglen. Most have housed Shiraz wine, but we are experimenting with Pinot Noir, Durif and some white wine varieties.
WW: Were you looking for particular characters [Ed. ha ha] when you created this expression? Were you even consciously looking, or did it just turn up like that and you thought ‘yep, that’s a goer’?
DD: If you are going to produce a value product, barrel cost is a significant factor. Wine casks proved to be the best value at the time (remembering we are only a young distillery) and wineries often use both French and American oak. By chance, we also happened to procure some Hungarian Oak wine casks around the same time.
When tasting the barrels, we got some sweet fruit, and spice from the Shiraz together with slightly different characteristics from the [various] oaks. We experimented with different ratios and decided on one that gave a nice balance between the vanilla flavour from American oak with the “cigar box” characteristic of French oak and the [unusual] characteristic of Hungarian Oak.
WW: Nice, we also get earthy, boozy dried fruits and timber on the nose with a juicy, tannic mouth feel. It’d be a good summer drinker for sure. What’s up next then?
DD: Our smokey whisky, using smoked barley imported from Scotland, is due for release in mid 2020 and is showing great promise.
If you’re traveling near Corowa make sure you stop in and have a chat with Drucey and the team. Check out their range of whiskies online here.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity
It used to be that if you wanted to buy an Australian whisky, your choice was pretty much from a never-ending cavalcade of single cask, single malt releases that cost more kidneys than you could really afford on a regular basis. To be honest, it’s still like that, but these days the scene is starting to get a lot more diverse as more players enter the game and start to experiment with different styles.
People are prepared to pay for quality of course, but on the whole, prices for the Aussie amber still remain prohibitively high for the general market who want a decent local dram that isn’t going to eviscerate their wallets. Starward Distillery in Melbourne is trying to change that with a zesty little number pitched squarely at the average punter.
Starward’s Two Fold Australian Whisky has an interesting trick up it’s sleeve that helps them to keep the price point well below $100AUD, which is a rare for a local drop (it’s currently $65AUD on their website). As well as using the standard malted barley, Starward have added wheat into the mix, making a ‘double grain’ whisky that ‘marries two quintessentially Australian grains’ together.
This is quite a clever move for a number of reasons. For one, Australia grows a lot of wheat – around 18.5million tonnes in 2018-19 in fact (which is actually down from previous years). In comparison, barley only managed about half that amount in the same period.
In terms of spirit production costs, wheat makes a lot more sense. In comparison to barley, which has to go through the whole malting process and then get distilled in fairly inefficient pot-stills, wheat spririt is generally produced on giant industrial column stills that allow for continuous production. In fact, Manildra Group’s Shoalhaven plant in Nowra, where Starward sources its wheat spirit from, is the largest grain neutral spirit (GNS) distillery in the South East Asia region.
Flavour-wise though, that’s where things start to get a bit more competitive. Neutral spirits made from grains such as wheat are much lighter and take far less influence from the cask compared to the heavier, oilier pot still-made malts. Hence why they have traditionally been used as the ‘silent’ base for Scottish blends, with small amounts of single malts added in on top to provide the flavour.
Starward’s ‘thing’ has always been Australian wine cask maturation and the Two Fold is no exception to that rule, in this case doubling-down on it. According to Starward they use [sic] “Lightly charred or steamed barrels. Sourced from Australian wineries that make great shiraz, cabernets and pinot noirs. Often filled fresh when the barrel is still wet with wine.” Starward’s own malt spirit and the wheat spirit are aged separately before being blended at a ratio of about 2:3 before being bottled at 40%abv.
Getting into the Christmas spirit
Speaking of the bottle, Starward has always killed it with their label art and the Two Fold is no exception, with a gorgeous blue, black and gold label with an unusual shape that stands out from the pack. Colour-wise, there is no mistaking that the spirit has spent its life in ex-wine casks, sporting a ruddy copper hue.
Flavour-wise, the Two Fold is a certified drinker. The nose is creamy and fruit-driven, with peaches, red grapes and banana mixed with a generous hit of vanilla with chocolate/cereal notes that make me think of Weetbix slice. There’s also an interesting nutty, meaty quality that sits underneath.
The mouth is relatively spicy, thanks to the wheat, and dry from the wine. The body is light and creamy across the mid-palate with a relatively short, tannin-driven finish, although there’s enough linger to make you keep wanting to come back for another go.
David Vitale and the Starward team have really pulled it off with the Two Fold. Low price certainly doesn’t equal cheap whisky in this case. Even better, it comes in a 700ml bottle. I think that the Two Fold is an excellent dram for the Aussie summer – the wine-driven flavours would pair perfectly at a BBQ, it’s light enough in the heat and the price means that it’s ideal to casually share amongst friends. If you’re looking for a solid local dram this festive season, the Starward Two Fold is a no-brainer.
PS. It’s nearly Christmas, so it’s about time for a dodgy cracker joke –
Q: What’s a grain spirit’s favourite Christmas carol
A: Silent Night
There are many positive, glowing and indeed, highly complimentary words you can use to describe the Tasmanian whisky industry: flavourful, innovative, even simply: delicious. However, the word ‘consistent’ is not one that leaps to the top of that list. Due to the single cask nature of most of Tasmania’s small distilleries, it is highly likely that a bottle released by a producer this year is going to be vastly different to one released in two years’ time… or even one the next month. This is ok; most distilleries embrace the variety, although the approach can sometimes confuse return customers.
Old Kempton Distillery in Tasmania’s Southern Midlands is one such keen subscriber to the single barrel release method. Recently however, they have started trialling a Solera system in a huge 500L port puncheon. The contents of 24 smaller barrels have been emptied into this 100-year-old behemoth and left to mix and mingle until the tasting team at Old Kempton determine it to be ready. Crucially though, not all of the barrel’s contents will be emptied: half will remain to marry with the next batch of premium Old Kempton whisky added, before the process is repeated time and time again, creating a reliable flavour profile (and the intriguing premise that the finished product will include an amount of whisky, however infinitesimally small, which is very old indeed).
The first bottles out of the tun are about to be released exclusively to Old Kempton whisky club members and with it they have created something unique to not only their own distillery, but to the whole of the Tasmanian whisky industry.
Upon first inspection, you can tell there’s something different about it. It’s so obvious: the colour! It’s far darker and redder than any Old Kempton release I have ever seen, no mean feat considering its (relatively) modest bottling strength of 49%. The colour is surely due to the maturation time in the giant ex-port reciprocal being used to facilitate the Solera process. One sniff indicates the cask has affected the flavour, too.
The nose is full of juicy fig notes with large dollops of ripe plums, glace cherries and stewed fruit. It’s rich and dark and features subtle flavours of nutmeg, pears and vanilla custard. The palate continues this theme: rich and broad across the mouth with sweet gooey notes halfway between sticky date pudding and thick gingerbread. The finish is long but without a single note of spicy astringency or over-oaking. Instead it is sweet and fat, like a ganache where the chef has gone rather easy on the cream.
This is a fascinating whisky. Comparing it to other releases from the same distillery is an experience that is confusing in the best possible way. You find yourself speculating on important questions such as ‘how do they do it?’, ‘what will the solera be like in few years?’ and ‘with a colour like this, why are they not called Redlands anymore?’. While we might not be able to provide satisfactory answers to these ponderances, at least we have a delicious dram to mull them over with.
Join the Old Kempton Whisky Club before November 5 and you will go into the draw to win a free bottle of Old Kempton First Release Solera Cask!
Investing can be a tricky business – if it goes right then life is good, but there’s always the danger that things can go very, very pear-shaped and people get left empty-handed (and extremely pissed off). Unfortunately the Tasmanian whisky scene has witnessed the tragic side of investing in its short history, with the very public and messy collapse of a well-known distillery in 2016, that left investors bereft of their money, whisky (and cows).
Harry van der Woude was one of the lucky ones. His father Pieter had done some barrel investing when Harry was younger and when the opportunity to re-invest together came up, the younger van der Woude decided “Ah yeah, I’ll get in on that.” After hearing early rumours of trouble at the old mill, they decided to claim their spirit, ‘ambushing’ the distillery by rocking up out of the blue one day armed with the correct paperwork and a couple of empty replacement barrels to swap. Amazingly, they managed to walk out with their two barrels of partly-aged spirit, which is more than a lot of people managed when shit really went down (if the spirit ever existed in the first place in many cases).
After contemplating keeping it for themselves or selling it on as a lot, Harry and Pieter eventually decided to bottle their whisky as a limited-release special-edition run. According to Harry, one of the best aspects of the project was the chance for some quality father/son bonding time. While not being whisky experts themselves, handy friendships and family connections meant that they were able to access mentorship from some of the leading names in the local industry. Crucially, this allowed them to get expert advice about things like maturation lengths, bottling strength and flavour profiles.
The end result is the Straight Batt Single Malt, a limited run of 400 bottles created from a marriage of the two casks liberated by Harry and Pieter. After aging for six years, the 100L French oak ex-tawny and American oak ex-bourbon casks were married together then cut down to 44%. According to Harry, “We tried it at a variety of strengths and that’s just where the sweet-spot happened to be.”
Thanks to the origin of the spirit, the Straight Batt is relatively light in style. The nose is spicy and dry with light oaky notes, beeswax, aniseed, honey and ginger. The overall smell is like a soothing balm for the sting of mishandled investments. The palate is light and fairly smooth, with a slight herbal, almost minty note. The finish is relatively short, with a dry blue-metal and grape linger. The delicate body and ease of drinking would make it a good choice for helping to swallow bitter pills.
The label, designed by Hobart-born artist Alexander Barnes-Keoghan (aka Albarkeo), features a drawing of an old-style cricketer playing a cross-bat shot, instead of the straight bat(t) shot that the name suggests. According to Harry, the artwork is a bit of a visual joke and subtle dig at the main architect of the collapse (who is referenced in the name), who he feels should have played it straight with investors but instead took the wrong approach and got bowled out, taking the whole team with him.
Harry is keen to assure people that the label and the release are all about sticking it to the establishment and are not meant to denigrate those who lost their money: “I want people to see it as at least a small bit of good to come out of a dark time in Tasmanian whisky.”
“A lot of people say ‘Ah, I’d die to be in that position’ and you realise how lucky you are to be able to build something positive out of a misfortune.”
“That’d be the ideal thing for me really, if a few people who got left behind in the fallout reached out and got to at least see something out of the situation. This is solidarity for those who got burned.”
While it may hold the title of best selling single malt in the world, Glenfiddich can also be pretty divisive. I think that people tend to fall into one of five broad camps:
People who don’t know any better and for whom single malt = Glenfiddich (this is what they get if they want to be posh and step up from the Johnnie Walker). Products of William Grant & Sons’ decades of advertising or ‘Mad Men’ fans, they will definitely ask for it served on the rocks.
Fence sitters who don’t really care one way or the other. Would probably drink with coke if you let them (Philistines).
Mad haters who loathe Glenfid because it’s ‘big whisky’ and ‘such a cliche’. Probably wears a moustache and likes single origin American ryes that you’ve never heard of or underground independent release.
Tourists, because when in Scotland, the UK… (“Waidammit, hey honey, is Scotland in the Ewe-naa’ded Kingdom?” “Ah honestly don’t know Earl, is that the same as Enga-land?” Scots: “Not for long if we can help it!” #brexit #bullshit #freedom!)
People who genuinely like Glenfiddich and recognise that while they might be a cliche, they actually make some pretty decent drams. Are probably fans of the 18yo, have eyed off an Age of Discovery in duty free and will half-heartedly defend the 12yo against the haters.
I definitely fall into the latter category and in addition to the above, I also like to keep an eye on what’s going on outside of the core range. In recent years Glenfid have been releasing what they have dubbed their ‘Experimental Series’, which they claim to be ‘game changing’ and ‘ground breaking’ (as mentioned previously, they’re also quite good with the marketing guff).
Once you get past the superlatives, the Experimental Series is all about interesting finishes, barrel combinations and playfulness. Brain child of Master Malter Brian Kinsman, past alumni include the IPA Experiment (of which I own a bottle and really must get around to reviewing), Project XX v1&2 and Winter Storm. The most recent release, #4, is called Fire & Cane and it’s a dram that is blatantly provocative.
Why? Because it says it right there on the bottle: “Fire & Cane – the whisky that will divide you”. Glenfid claims the reason for this is the two warring flavour profiles in the spirit, which splits people into two distinct camps, much like the great blue/gold dress debate of 2015 (just so you know, it was definitely blue, so there).
Team Fire: unusually for a Glenfid, the Fire & Cane is smoky (a fact you probably guessed from the name), a vatting of peated whisky and malts aged in ex-bourbon casks. Glenfid uses Highland peat in this, giving it a softer, friendlier profile than the medicinal/elemental Island peats.
Team Cane: What do you make out of cane? Wicker chairs of course! Oh, and rum. To give the release a big, sweet and spicy kick, Mr Kinsman used a variety of rum casks sourced from across South America to finish off the spirit for three months, thus creating the coal-ramel slice that is the Fire & Cane.
Glenfiddich are so conviced that people either taste the smoke or the sweet that they actually provide two sets of tasting notes with the bottle, offering you a choice depending on which side you fall. So where do I fall?
The nose is a suprisingly complex melange of tropical fruits like pineapple, guava, feijoa, papaya and banana, as well as caramel, straw and hot metal. That Highland peat is not really present as smokiness (“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not on Islay anymore”), but more of a savoury note that sits underneath the fruit. It’s kind of like a fresh fruit salsa on some smoky BBQ Caribbean jerk meat.
The peat is much more obvious on the palate, starting off as a tingly, ashy layer with pepper and cured meats before giving way to sharp and sour notes of mead, lemon, and underripe plums. The finish is bright and fairly dry, with a burnt-herb linger and a tickle of orange at the end.
Rather than falling squarely into one camp or the other and staying there like the Glenfid marketing team wants me to, I kind of feel like Harvey Dent/Two-Face flipping his coin. Sometimes I go one way and sometimes I go the other, getting smoky or sweet notes on different tries (whereas if I was Rozencrantz or Guildenstern, I’d be wondering why I kept getting the same flavour every time #obscuremoviereferences).
The Fire & Cane is a really good demonstration of how you can mess around with one of the best known whisky flavour profiles in the world to create something interesting and new. Traditionalists will probably turn their noses up, but for me, I like it. It’s zesty and fresh with a smoky twist and puts me in mind of camping at the beach in the tropics. If you can find a bottle, take a crack and see which side of the fence you fall on.
So, you’ve tried a single malt from every Scottish distillery you can get your grubby little mitts on and are now feeling slightly deflated and wondering what to do next? Good news, the answer is at hand: you can find some independent releases and go around again!
Independent bottlings are a wonderful x-factor in the whisky world – they amuse whisky nerds and confuse whisky noobs in equal measure – from a dusty old ‘Douglas Laing’ bottle right through to some ‘That Boutique-y Whisky Company’ with a comical and yet fitting label. Additionally, they also provide an opportunity to access some of the whisky made at lesser known distilleries; in this instance: Tormore.
Tormore is a vast monolithic-looking distillery a kilometre south of the river Spey, and is known mostly for providing spirit for Chivas-related blends. It was one of the very few distilleries built in the mid-20th century and is tricky to find iterations of outside of duty free. Unless, of course, it’s been independently bottled!
My particular independent bottler is Signatory Vintage, which I know next-to-nothing about – and freely confuse its logo with a bottle of Springbank. It would certainly fail to stand out on a shelf in a bar, which is why I think I have unearthed a bit of a hidden gem.
Stats! Something every whisky nerd can’t live without (no wonder we haven’t handled the transition to NAS releases particularly well)! This bottle of Tormore sat in ex-bourbon hogsheads between 1995 and 2016, making it 20 years old and is a marriage of cask 3907 and 3908. My particular bottle is number 394 and sits at a gentle 43%. And it’s rather tasty.
The nose is oozing with sweet caramel alongside barley sugar and stewed figs. It subtly hints at oak, along citrus and melon notes. The palate is as surprising as it is delicious, full of tropical fruit characteristics. Banana stands out the most, as well as creamy vanilla and chopped nuts – it’s basically a banana split in whisky form! The finish is medium in length and gently earthy – not smoky but at least slightly cured – while vanilla custard flavours delicately linger.
This is a lovely little drop; one that perfectly accompanied the Tasmanian summer and BBQs that ensued and if it were not for an independent bottler setting aside a cask here or there, it’s not one many of us would be able to enjoy. So, if you’ve been holding back and sticking to the distillery’s own releases – well, maybe it’s time to give something independent a try.
In terms of independent whisky societies, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the tweed wearing, pipe smoking, large-moustache sporting (great?) uncle of the bunch. Thing is, he’s a pretty cool guy. He’s a seasoned raconteur with a house full of exotic artifacts from around the world and family rumour has it that he was a spy during the war. You know that a visit to Uncle SMWS is always going to be an interesting experience.
The SMWS started off as a group of mates chipping in to buy a barrel of Glenfarclas in the late 70s, before morphing into a full-blown membership society open to the public in 1983 with the purchase of their first property, the famous Vaults in Leith, Scotland.
The M.O. of the SMWS is the purchase of single casks from various distilleries in Scotland and around the world, which are then released to members when deemed ready by a tasting panel. The Society generally doesn’t reveal which distillery a particular release came from, instead using a somewhat arcane two-part numbering system on the bottles.
The first number refers to a particular distillery, while the second is the sequential barrel number from that distillery (eg. 5.12 would be distillery no. 5, barrel no. 12 purchased from there by the Society). If you manage to find out what the first number means, then you know what distillery you are drinking. Simple.
Another thing that the SMWS does is give the releases exotic names such as ‘A coal bucket of marshmallows’ or ‘An Orkney beekeeper’s dram’ along with some often rather whimsical tasting notes. Facing down a wall of green SMWS bottles (the sheer range of bottlings is dazzling) can be a daunting task, but the Society helps by adding a stripe of colour to the labels. Each particular colour relates to a certain flavour profile, such as ‘sweet, fruity & mellow’ or ‘light & delicate’, helping you narrow things down depending on your preferences.
I was checking out the range at the Grumpy Piper in Launceston the other night and entirely on a whim decided to go with a dram of ‘Waxing a hot woodsman’ . The bottle number was 1.209, which if you’ve been paying attention means that it’s from barrel 209 from Glenfarclas Distillery. According to the label it was a 7yo aged in ex-bourbon hogsheads and bottled at a zesty 64.9%, with the yellow stripe indicating it was a ‘spicey & dry’ style.
Is it just me or is it getting rather warm in here?
The spice was certainly front and centre on the nose, reeking of cinnamon, clove, corriander seed, spruce and resin, as well as a daub of beeswax and dark honey. Down lower was a slightly bitter herbal complex, with a few sprigs of oregano and thyme, before a fruity finish of unripe apples and pears.
If the nose claimed the cap for Team Spice, then the mouth was on the side of Team Dry. The start was hot and dry, with a sprinkle of that spice, before going bitter and metallically clean through the mid. The finish was a medley of sour, pithy citrus notes that would probably be too astringent for some people. The whole effect put me in mind of something a bit Japanese, maybe Hakshu?
Ok, so, despite what the label claims, this is not Waxing a Hot Woodsman at all. That’s a sticky, messy, painful and distinctly hair(e)raising experience. No, this comes afterwards when he’s supine and exhausted from the ordeal, his skin all smooth and raw. This is the aftershave lotion that you slap on his burning skin, a tonic to make him feel invigorated and alive and ready to handle some wood in a manly way.
The Hot Woodsman is yet another interesting insight into how single barrel, indpendent releases can mess around with the flavours you’ve become familiar with from a particular distillery. I wouldn’t say it’s to everyone’s taste, but that’s all part and parcel of a visit to Uncle SMWS’s place – there’s always something new and strange to discover.
You can sign up to the SMWS here, or if you’re in Australia like us, here.