barley

An Evening with the Tasmanian Moonshine Company

Posted by: Ted

Group shot Whisky Waffle

Moonshine, of the liquid rather than the lunar variety, tends to conjure up images of rough folk with an equal number of teeth, brain cells and chromosomes distilling liquor through an old tin can and a car radiator in the backwaters of America. Da-da-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding… can you hear the banjos duelling in the distance? Somehow then, it seems rather incongruous to find a product calling itself moonshine hailing not from the Appalachian hinterlands, but Tasmania, Australia, home to a burgeoning high-class craft distilling industry. According to Tasmanian Moonshine Company (TMC) manager John Jarvis however, there is a very good reason their product bears that epithet.

I met up with John at the Spirit Bar in Burnie, where a small but enthusiastic crowd had gathered to try the range of products offered by TMC. Produced at Devil’s Distillery (est 2015) in Moonah, TMC uses 100% Tasmanian malted barley to create their spirit. Now, malted barley is of course what you use to make single malt whisky, but because the spirit released by TMC is less than two years old it cannot legally be called that.

John Whisky Waffle (2)

While generally a very friendly bunch, Tasmanian whisky producers are also very protective of the world-class brand they have created. To keep relationships on a good keel between all parties, John and his colleagues decided to steer away branding that could be misconstrued as whisky-related and fittingly call their product moonshine, a traditional name for any unaged or underaged spirit.

TMC produces a range of products on their 1800l pot still and 380l reflux still, including Vodka and Tasmanian Mellifera (a spiced honey and citrus liqueur) as well as Cold Drip Espresso Coffee Liqueur, Tasmanian Midnight (a fennel based liqueur similar to ouzo or arak) and their frankenstein fusion child, the Licorice Infused Coffee Liqueur.

Of more interest to whisky drinkers is the Tasmanian Malt Barrel Aged New Make. After spending a relatively short time developing character under oak, the Barrel Aged New Make is released at around 18 months of age.  It’s youth actually works in its favour according to John; “we wanted to make something to fill a hole in the Tasmanian market, something that we don’t have to sit on, can release quite regularly and that is easily accessible. Prices in Tasmania for single malt can be crazy… I don’t think there’s really any other products at the price point we are aiming for.”

Moonshine Whisky Waffle (2)

John was also keen to talk about the interesting casking employed by the distillery: “My head distiller just wanted to do one cask type, but I like to experiment. As well as ex-bourbon American oak barrels, we also have other casks like sherry, port and tokay that are made from Hungarian oak sourced directly from Hungary by our cask maker. I definitely think there is an effect on the resulting flavour;  I’ve heard people are asking to get hold of Hungarian casks now too.”

When each 300l cask is deemed ready to release, around half the contents are decanted, with the remainder allowed time to develop further before leaving home. The casks are also tapped according to what the distillers feel is ready at the time, meaning that the character of the spirit changes from release to release. Interestingly the cask type is not actually mentioned on the bottle, so punters will be kept on their toes, but John is sanguine about this fact, commenting “we’ll never be able to make the same product indefinitely anyway, unless we move away from single barrel releases and start vatting, so I think it’s fine.”

On offer that evening was a Hungarian oak tokay cask release at 43% abv and a Hungarian oak port cask release at a rather sexy 67% abv. On the nose the tokay was smooth and sweet, with notes of leather and beeswax, while the port exuded caramel, rust, red meat and dark timber. On the palate the tokay was crisp, lively and herbal, while the boozy port delivered red wine tannins, pepper, honey glaze and oaky notes.

barrel aged Whisky Waffle (2)Barrel aged Whisky Waffle

As well as the depth of flavour, the colour was also pretty impressive for spirit of that age; “I’ve actually had arguments with people who think we colour our spirit,” remarked John “but of course we don’t, it’s all from the good quality casks we use.” While definitely young tasting, I can report that both Barrel Aged New Make releases had a surprising completeness of character that was very pleasing to the senses and left an impression of finished and polished product rather than an undercooked malt spirit just released as a cash grab.

Of course, this would suggest that Devil’s Distillery is able to produce a very high quality new make and fortunately John had some on hand for us to try. Even more exciting was the fact that he had two different cuts of the new make, one containing pure hearts and the other with a mixture of hearts and tails (this sentence probably sounds a bit disturbing to anyone who is not familiar with spirit production)!

Hearts or tails Whisky Waffle

The hearts were not for the, er, faint hearted, bottled off the still at an eye watering 73.5% abv, while the heart/tail mix was positively tame at ‘only’ 68.5% abv. On the nose the pure hearts were light, sweet and delicate, with a nice graininess. In comparison the heart/tail mix was rubbery and as someone commented, smelt like a barn floor, which if you’ve never experienced it is a mixture of sweet fermenting straw and an underlying tone of, ahem, cow business. On the palate, the hearts were sweet, with a crisp, crystalline feel, whereas the heart/tails were once again rubbery, with vegetably, fermented grain notes.

The amazing thing was that, according to John, there was only about 20% run difference between the two cuts, demonstrating how much the character of the spirit changes over the course of a distillation. You may be surprised to know, however, that those funky flavours in the tails can completely change when you add them to the hearts and can be vital for defining the character of the finished product.

While TMC will continue to release its current lineup of moonshine products (although maybe grab a bottle of Tasmanian Mellifera as John says he’s sick of grating orange peel), down the track the company will also be leaving some spirit to age for a bit longer under oak until it ticks over that legal line and magically transforms into whisky. The first release is slated to be a 3yo 20l bourbon cask finished in Hungarian sherry oak and will be released under the label of ‘Hobart Whisky’ (“I still can’t believe we scored the rights to that name,” says John with delight). If the barrel aged new make is anything to go by, then the whisky is likely to be a cracker.

John Whisky Waffle

As the night drew to a close, the guests were left contented by a healthy dose of good company and excellent moonshine. While we tend to focus on malted barley that has been transformed into whisky here at Whisky Waffle (it’s kinda in the name), the Tasmanian Moonshine Company proves that if you start with an excellent malt spirit and make good use of your barrels, then ‘young’ doesn’t necessarily have to equate to ‘bad’, or ‘rough’, or ‘unfinished’, or whatever other label you want to throw at it.

I still want them to learn the banjo though.

Thanks to Kirk and the Spirit Bar crew for hosting the event and providing tasty cheese platters. Thanks to John and the Tasmanian Moonshine Company for making the trek up to Burnie to entertain us.

 

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Belgrove Brown Rye

Reviewed by: Ted

Belgrove Brown RyeEverybody knows by now that Tasmania is a hub of whisky revolution. Ever since the resurrection of the industry in the 90’s, things have been taking off quicker than an alka-seltzer bottle rocket. So how do you innovate in a young industry that’s already innovating its socks off? Rye thought you’d never ask…

Founded by Peter Bignell, a man often described as a Da Vinci of distilling (well, he definitely is now), Belgrove Distillery is located just outside Kempton in the southern Midlands of Tasmania. DIY, organic and hand-made sums up Belgrove’s vibe, with Pete quite literally crafting everything from the ground up, including the stills, barrels, biodiesel (made from left-over chip oil from the local take-away and used to power the stills) and of course the grain used in the whisky itself.

The grain is where Belgrove really makes its point of difference from all the other Tasmanian distillers. Why use boring old barley when you can use rye instead, organically grown on-site? After growing a bumper crop of the stuff on the farm in 2008 (a favourite grain of the Canadian distillers but not used in Tassie), Pete was apparently inspired to turn it into whisky. Being a extraordinarily talented and driven individual, one thing led to another and here we are today.

Belgrove now produces a number of different 100% rye drops, including white rye, black rye, peated rye and of course, the subject of this review, the brown rye.

The nose of the brown rye is dark and fruity, full of ripe apple, plum and apricot. It rather reminds me of the scent of the bowl of home-made preserved stewed fruit my grandma always used to keep in her kitchen cupboard, a very fond memory. Alongside the fruit is rose petals, custard and an undertone of dull metal, like drinking from a rough copper mug.

The taste is quite different to the flavour complex produced by the nose. Although its body initially starts off fruity, it immediately transmogrifies into deep earthy, ashy flavours, like smouldering rye stubble in a paddock or curling incense smoke in a gypsy tent. The finish is slightly bitter and astringent but very satisfying, like having a cup of black tea after a sweet dessert.

Everything you thought you knew about Tasmanian whisky goes out the window when you try the Belgrove brown rye. It’s like learning to drink whisky all over again, an exciting time full of power and emotion. It is a spirit that resonates powerfully with the creative, hands-on ethos of its maker. If you want to try something different, yet still uniquely Tasmanian, then the rye of Belgrove awaits you.

★★★

Belgrove Brown Rye

Tasmanian whisky: One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

#TasWhiskyWeek

Hellyers Road Peated

Reviewed by: Ted

Hellyers Road Peated

So, you’re a big fan of peated Scottish single malts, but in order to save the world from certain destruction (just go with it, ok?) you have to buy a Tasmanian whisky. What are you going to do? Never fear, Hellyers Road has your peat needs covered with their appropriately named Peated expression

When it comes to peated whisky in Tasmania, the situation is a little more complex than first meets the eye. Tasmania actually has its own peat bogs, however the smoke is quite different to the Scottish stuff, being softer, gentler and more rounded. It is also restricted to a few distilleries that own leases to the bogs (the rest is locked up in national parks and the like).

In Hellyers Road’s case they don’t have access to a native bog, so instead they import peated barley all the way from maltings in Inverness, Scotland. The side-effect of this is that Hellyers Road Peated is much more closely aligned to Scottish drams than other Tasmanian malts (side note: Hellyers Road use local grown barley for their non-peated expressions).

Nosing the Peated expression is like standing in a grain storehouse, grabbing a big handful of peat-smoked barley and taking a deep sniff. Underneath the big, fat, bold, smoky cereal flavours can be found cocoa, black currants, pencil shavings and smouldering leaves.

The first layer of taste is what you would probably expect from a heavily peated whisky – strong, thick smoke that billows around the mouth, a bit like standing on the wrong side of the campfire. When you clear away the smoke however, you are left with a light, smooth and slightly sweet dram, without too much else going on. The finish is long and smoky, but gentle. In fact, the smoke probably rounds out the feel of the dram as a whole, smoothing out some of the harsher edges that can be found in a younger whisky such as this.

When compared to a traditional Islay single malt like Laphroaig or Ardbeg, the Hellyers Road Peated perhaps misses some of the strong coastal flavours that punch through from underneath, but makes it up in other areas. A light whisky, heavily peated, this Hellyers Road expression delivers a different experience to anything else available from Tasmania.

★★★

HR n Ted

Tasmanian whisky: One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

#TasWhiskyWeek

Longrow Cabernet Sauvignon Cask

Reviewed by: Nick

Longrow Cab Sav

As the abundance of sherry barrels diminishes, whisky makers are forced to look elsewhere for maturation options. The obvious solution, of course, is using the barrels of another grape flavoured product – no, not hubba bubba bubblegum – wine. Wine cask maturation is being used by distillers worldwide: some as a novelty but others as a serious addition to their main range.

The wonderful whisky makers of Longrow are no strangers to experimentation. One of their more intriguing bottles is the Cabernet Sauvignon Cask – aged for seven years in refill bourbon hogs heads and a further four years in Cab Sav barrels sourced from my very favourite wine region: South Australia’s McLaren Vale.

Warning: this is not a beginners whisky. Nor is it an easy drinking whisky. Nor, I believe, could I describe it as a ‘nice’ whisky. But it sure is a fascinating one. On the nose I detected, well, heaps. Initially a gentle smoke, reminding you that yes, Longrow do peat their barley. Once the smoke clears notes of grapes, banana and burnt orange rind flow through. Over all, it is complex and delicious.

The palate is a bit of a shock. Initially it is sweet with fizzy sherbet complimenting the peat. The red grapes make a return, along with other fruit such as melons and apricots. And then the spirit transforms. The finish is long, though not necessarily because of the slightly higher percentage of alcohol. It’s a little… soapy? This is a tasting note I (and seemingly I alone) seem to find in many wine-matured whiskies. There are other, nicer elements: smoked ham, salt, fish, bonfire ash, general seaside senses. This whisky is from Campbelltown, after all!

In no way do I regret buying this whisky. There’s a lot to like and a lot to discuss. But I didn’t love it. And that’s ok.

★★

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Pappy Van Winkle 20YO

Its pretty common for distillers to lay down Scotch for long periods of time, with age statements in the range of 18-25 years in relative abundance. Bourbons on the other hand are a whole different kettle of fish. Warmer storage temperatures and the use of virgin oak casks means that bourbon reaches maturity and develops character far more quickly than its Scottish counterparts. Therefore, if you come across a bourbon that says it’s 20 years old, you know you’re looking at something pretty special.

The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old is an experience unto itself, a man amongst the boys. Now into its 4th generation, the dynasty began in the 1870s when Julian P ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle entered into the proud Kentuckian tradition of bourbon making. These days the Van Winkles make their spirit at the Buffalo Trace distillery, but they have not lost their dedication to crafting spirit of an exceptionally high standard.

Apart from the age, what makes Van Winkle bourbon special is that they use corn, barley and wheat instead of the more usual corn, barley and rye in their mash bill. They claim that the use of wheat creates a much softer, smoother spirit and helps with the aging process.

Compared to your standard ‘ol bourbon, the PvW Family Reserve 20yo is a far more delicate creature. You can still tell it’s bourbon when you take a sniff, but it doesn’t wave the fact in your face. Instead it gently strokes your nostrils with vanilla, ginger and Grand Marnier.

As you would expect for a spirit this age, it is superbly smooth with no alcoholic kick at all, which is interesting as it is still bottled at 45.2%. It feels very light and silky in the mouth, and if you draw some air through it goes all tingly, sending shivers down your tongue. Floral notes, particularly rose, mingle with sweet white grapes, maraschino cherries and alcohol-soaked cake. The finish is quite short and as smooth as a baby’s proverbial.

The PvW Family Reserve is the thinking man’s bourbon; gulping it down is simply not an option as it needs some time to respond in the mouth. At first glance it seems deceptively simple, however with some gentle probing it reveals more and more character. There are definitely interesting things going on, but you have to chase them down, work for the full flavour. The dedicated and thoughtful approach is worth it in the end though, as the reward is a spirit of epically elegant proportions.

★★★★

Hudson Single Malt

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Hudson Single Malt

Start spreading the news, old New York is back doing whiskey business baby! But wait, the Hudson ain’t even bourbon! What we have here is a genuine single malt whiskey, the first non-bootlegged whiskey to be distilled in New York State since the end of prohibition.

The love child of Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, the duo made a brand new start of it in 2003, founding Tuthilltown Spirits on the site of the old Tuthilltown grist mill, about 100km north of the city that never sleeps. Business was slow to start after the company’s inception, but now they are the king of the hill of East Coast craft distillers.

Being 100% malted barley, you would expect the Hudson to be distinctly different in flavour to its fellow Americans. And yet, somehow right through the very heart of it there is still a bourbon streak. On the nose the Hudson Single Malt is lightly sweet, with notes of vanilla, oak, dried apricot and a flavour of grape that is more likely to be found in confectionery than growing on a vine.

On mouth the feel is dusty, akin to taking a book down off the shelf in an old library. The grapes make a return, this time in the form of a sweet Riesling. The palate is intriguing rather than smooth, with notes of bourbon competing with dried floral components. This little town dram melts rapidly away, leaving a hint of orange peel.

Nick Ted and Hudson

Corn or no corn, there is no doubting that this is American whiskey. There is more to this than your average bourbon, and it makes an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between America and Scotland. It also put the State of New York back on the whiskey map. After all, if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

★★★