distiller

Milk & Honey Distillery Virtual Australian Launch

Posted by: Ted

So, acting on a whim, I popped over to sunny Tel Aviv in Israel the other day to do a spot of whisky tasting and a distillery tour.

Actually, that’s a lie. The government won’t let us leave Australia yet and I was sitting around freezing my tits off on a wintry Tasmanian evening. But, through the magic of the internet, I was still able to go venturing off into distant exotic lands to partake in a dram and a tour of Milk & Honey Distillery (M&H), Israel’s first whisky producer.

Ready to Zoom with my M&H tasting pack, supplied by The Spirit Safe

The Spirit Safe and Alba Whisky, the local distributor for M&H, were kind enough to send us a sample pack and an invite to join the Australian (digital) launch of M&H. Zooming in from my rather messy back room, I joined a group of fellow digital denizens to land in the rather more well appointed office of Ian McKinlay, Managing Director and highly knowledgeable chap at The Spirit Safe.

Greeting us with a Scottish brogue, softened by many years spent in the Antipodes, Ian made sure we were seated comfortably and then hit the magic button to beam us half-way across the globe to the shores of the Med Sea. Landing in Jaffa, the ancient port city from which Tel Aviv grew, we were met by the beaming faces of Tal Chotiner (International Sales) and Tomer Goren (Master Distiller) at M&H.

Ian McKinlay (Bottom) from thespiritsafe.com.au linking up with Tal Chotiner – Int. Sales – (Top Left) & Tomer Goren – Master Distiller – (Top Right) from Milk & Honey Distillery in Israel

They were probably happy because it was 30°C and humid in Tel Aviv that day (like most days there during summer). Tal previously worked in various roles for Diageo, while Tomer worked at Tomintoul and Springbank, as well as completing his Master Distiller degree two years ago. After introductions, sitting in front of a webcam in an office, the lads leapt up to take us on a tour of the facility, Tal trailing Tomer with a smartphone. Technology eh!?

We wandered through the small visitor centre/bar, taking in the striking black and yellow colour scheme of M&H, before stumbling out into a sprawling, maze-like facility that used to be home to a bakery. Tal remembered visiting it when he was young and the pervasive aroma of the baking bread – “One good smell traded for another!” quipped Ian.

Tomer showing us the water and grain intake areas out in the M&H backyard

We visited the backyard, where water from the municipal supply arrives and is mixed with salts, the grain mill, the locally made one-tonne mash tun and the four large washbacks (two more are already in the pipeline). The usual fermentation time is 72hrs, but this drops to about 68hrs during summer. Interestingly, at least from an Australian perspective, the distillery doesn’t operate on the weekend because it is kosher, observing the Jewish Shabbat.

Tomer explaining the M&H mash tun and fermenters

Next up were the stills, a 9000L beauty of a copper wash still that the team found in a shed in Romania, but probably originated in Spain, and a custom-built 3000L copper spirit still from Germany. Apparently they thought the wash still was rather smaller based on it’s picture, but it turns out the door it was sitting next to was actually a massive barn door. The lyne arms slope down at 45° angle to produce a very oily newmake that holds up well under fast maturation. Nearby was a small 250L copper pot belly/onion head still used for gin production.

The M&H stills – a 9000L wash still found in Romania and a 3000L spirit still custom made in Germany

For the final part of the tour we were taken into the warehouses. #1 housed 200 or so privately owned casks, while #2 and #3 were home to a further 2000-odd production casks, looking very spiffy in M&H livery, with their black heads and yellow lettering. Most were ex-bourbon, but there were some other very curious editions that we’ll come back to shortly.

Tomer showing us around the M&H warehouses

Back in the office, Tal and Tomer took us through a screen-shared presentation that delved further into the brand. The name of the distillery comes from the description of the Jewish promised land in the Bible as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3). The logo, a bull with black and yellow stripes, further references this (apparently they tried a cow first, but it just didn’t look as cool).

Stats! Get your M&H stats here!

Climate plays a massive role for whisky maturation in Israel. For a country that is only 420km long and 115km wide, there are actually five distinct climate zones: Upper Galilee, Jerusalem Mountains, Mediterranean Coast, Desert and the Dead Sea, a collective described by M&H’s late mentor, Dr Jim Swan, as the ‘Climate Playground’. M&H make use of this and age barrels in various locations around the country, with interesting results.

For a small country, Israel sure has a lot of different climate zones

For example, we were shown two bottles of whisky that were produced at the same time using identical spirit and barrels, but one aged in Tel Aviv on the coast and the other at the Dead Sea (which is 430m below sea level but very dry). The results were incredible, with the Dead Sea dram markedly darker than the Tel Aviv one. Even Jerusalem, which is only “45 minutes and 3000 years” away from Tel Aviv according to Tal, produces noticeably distinct results due to the difference in altitude (754m).

What happens when you age the same spirit at the Dead Sea (L) vs the Med Sea. Check out that colour difference!

In terms of barrelling, the majority are ex-bourbon and STR (‘shaved, toasted and re-charred’, a technique developed by Dr Jim Swan), which develop lots of character in the first year before balancing out. Beyond this, more interesting casks such as locally produced kosher wine barrels are used, which is fitting, as according to Tomer “we have a 4000yr old wine culture, so it’s part of our DNA.”

They also have a seasoning project running in Spain with a Bodega that is able to produce kosher Pedro Ximenez and Olorosso sherry. Probably the most interesting barrels in use have previously held pomegranate wine, which according to Tomer is a signature Israeli flavour.

The whisky we were sent with our tasting pack was M&H’s ‘Classic Cask’, a 3yo aged in 75% ex-bourbon, 20% ex-red wine STR and 5% virgin oak and bottled at the magical 46% ABV. To me the nose was oily, creamy and gooey, with peach, apricot, custard, butterscotch and marshmallow, while the mouth was dry, with toasted timber and wine. It was really different to anything I could think of, which I suspect was a product of the unique Israeli terroir and climate, but I really liked it.

Speaking of the climate, the high daily temperatures and humidity and cool night develop huge amounts of action in the barrels, meaning that maturity is reached very quickly. There is a price to be paid though, as the angels’ share is around 9-11% annually (and can even be as high as 25% in areas like the Dead Sea!!!). Ideally Tal and Tomer would like to see their larger barrels reaching around 4-7 years in Tel Aviv and 4 years in other areas.

As well as the Classic Cask, the other drams in the core range will include ex-sherry, ex-wine and peated (using peated barley from the Czech Republic). Additionally, there will also be a revolving special edition range featuring interesting editions such as the ex-pomegranate casks and Israeli ex-chardonnay casks from the Jerusalem mountains.

The tour ended with a tasting of M&H’s Levantine gin, made using za’atar (a ancient native oregano), and their barrel aged gin under the cheerful gaze of Oded Weiss, M&H’s gin specialist. While Tal rustled up some G&T’s garnished with orange peel and fresh thyme, the team took some questions and reflected on the nature of their operation.

Ian McKinlay (R) from The Spirit Safe chatting with M&H’s Oded Weiss – Gin Specialist – (L) and Tomer Goren – Master Distiller

According to Tal and Tomer, in general Israeli consumption of alcohol is quite low, so M&H was founded with export in mind (which is lucky for Australia). “There aren’t really any rules in Israel around whisky production, so we decided to follow the most respected model out there, Scotland. That’s the reason we went for a whisky that was at least 3yo, as the international market would accept that more easily and allow us to build a solid reputation based on our quality.”

Tomer with the 200L M&H gin still

In Tal’s eyes, one of the major benefits of being a craft distillery, particularly in Israel, is the flexibility: “We throw ideas around as a team, like ‘wanna do a rum cask? Yeah, let’s do that!’. It’s about running ahead and thinking outside the box.” Tomer agrees: “Where we live is the culture capital of Israel and we’re able to draw influence from all over the world. Tel Aviv itself means ‘old ruins’ and ‘spring’, which I think is a reflection on how we make our whisky. It’s traditional ways with crazy new ideas.”

L-R: Milk & Honey Distillery’s Levantine Gin, Barrel-aged Gin & Classic Cask Whisky

As Ian brought the session to a close, I reflected on the experience I had just had. I’ve been to internet tastings before, but I still think it was pretty amazing that I was able to sit here in Tassie, with everything that’s been going on in the world lately, and ‘visit’ a distillery in Tel Aviv in real time, something that I would probably never have a chance to experience otherwise (you never know though…). I suspect that live online events will become a staple in the future and allow the whisky community to connect with each other and share their passion in new and creative ways.

If there’s a silver lining to come out of COVID-19, it’s that what’s keeping us apart might just bring us together across the world like never before. And these days, that can only be a good thing, right?

You can purchase Milk & Honey Distillery’s products in Australia from The Spirit Safe

Hakushu Distillers Reserve

Reviewed by: Ted

Hakushu Distillers Edition

It can be a tricky and expensive task getting hold of age-statement Japanese whisky these days. If you’ve been paying attention to global whisky trends over the last five years-or-so, then you’ll know that Japanese whisky has been bang on-point and very much in demand by the smart set. The boom in sales, both locally and overseas, and a slight lack of foresight around barrel management has seen distillery stocks dwindle, so much so that that the two major players, Suntory and Nikka, have had to temporarily discontinue certain aged releases from their distilleries.

Naturally, the shortage in stocks has caused prices to skyrocket. I mean, just the other week I had the opportunity to buy a Yamazaki 50yo 3rd Edition 2011 Release for the low, low price of $157,763.99USD (I lashed out and got three)! Now, admittedly that is a bit of an outlier on the super-premium end of the scale, but even 12yo releases (if you can find them) are generally no less than $150AUD and more often than not well over $200.

So what does a common-or-garden whisky drinker do if you want to own a Japanese whisky without having to count your kidneys? Well, as it happens, there is an answer. These days most Japanese distilleries offer a Non Age Statement release of their product. While superficially a marketing device, the NAS releases are actually crucial for the ongoing survival of the distilleries, allowing continued market access by marrying dwindling older barrels with younger stock coming online.

An example of this is the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve. While you can still find the 12yo for around $180, the distillers edition is available for a far more wallet pleasing $110. Located NW of Tokyo near Hokuto, an unusual feature of the Suntory owned Hakushu is that it boasts a bird sanctuary within its leafy grounds at the base of Mt Kaikomagatake in the Southern Japanese Alps.

Apparently the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve marries younger lightly peated malt and heavily peated malt around the 8yo mark with American oak-aged spirit of around 18yo. Or so the internet, repository of all things, tells me; you certainly wouldn’t pick it as being peated if you tried it blind.

On the nose the Distiller’s Reserve is bright, fresh and zingy, delivering a satisfying bouquet of crunchy green apples, sour plum, lemon grass, mint and citrus (Yuzu if you want to get technical according to Hakushu). The scent is clean and light, like a crisply pressed kimono, although after a bit of breathing time it develops a softer, creamy edge.

On the palate the spirit is sharp, clean and metallic, like a samurai sword across the tongue, and delivers a hit of hard, sour stone fruits and a twist of lemon rind. The finish is lingering and herbal, with perhaps a touch of green tea. Couldn’t find that smoke though I’m afraid, although to be honest, with the flavour profile presented by the Distiller’s Reserve I didn’t miss it either.

People quite often get a bit salty about the concept of NAS releases, considering them to be inferior to age statement releases (often without real justification… although sometimes merited for sure, but we won’t go into that particular Reserve here). I am pleased to say however, that in this case the NAS epithet is not a negative one.

But that’s what the Japanese do isn’t it? They take a thing, study it with care and then make not just a copy, but something that is even better than the original. Which is lucky really seeing as the Distiller’s Reserve will be about all we can reasonably get our hands on from Hakushu for the foreseeable future. In conclusion, if you want to see a NAS done right, then look no further than the Hakushu Distiller’s Reserve.

★★★

Landing at Launceston Distillery

Posted by: Nick and Ted

Hanagar 17 1

A great place to hang(ar) out

It’s certainly an awe-inspiring sight the first time you enter the great expanse of Hangar 17 at Launceston Airport and behold the gleaming distilling equipment laid out on the floor. It’s certainly not what you’d expect to find in Ansett Airlines’ long-neglected freight facility, until recently a lair for birds and dust. Thankfully the birds have been evicted and the dust laboriously scoured from the exposed metal girders to provide a home for Launceston’s first distillery in 175 years.

On a recent trip to Launceston the Whisky Waffle boys had the great pleasure of meeting Ilya, Peta and Chris, three members of the team, and checking out their state of the art distillery. Their set up is certainly impressive: the stunningly beautiful Tasmanian-built stills stand proudly in the centre of the gigantic room. This is no small-scale operation – you can tell these guys are serious about their whisky-making, in part evidenced by the fact that they have both a wash still and a spirit still, often not the norm for smaller-scale ventures.

Hanagar 17 3

Two stills. Count em!

“We wanted to make a premium product,” said distiller Chris “so after much debate we came to an agreement and decided to take the plunge and build both stills.” Premium is certainly the goal they have set themselves and we think that they are well on their way to achieving it. This was made abundantly clear when we tried their new make – an elegant and dangerously drinkable spirit.

As the team has only recently started filling barrels there was no whisky mature enough for us to try, though we did get to take a ‘flying visit’ through their bond store. Chris had three different casks on a table, an ex-bourbon, an ex-sherry and an ex-port and invited us to have a nose and see if we could guess which was which. We were unanimous about the bourbon but disagreed about the other two, with Nick’s nose reigning supreme on this occasion.

Hanagar 17 2

Two good-looking pieces of equipment. And some stills.

The Launceston Distillery crew are excited about being able to showcase their hometown and promote the northern part of the state. They are looking to capitalise on the success experienced by their southern counterparts and pave the way for a whisky trail in the north. Who knows, perhaps one day there will be a north-south rivalry develop in the whisky industry to mirror the Boags vs Cascade beer-battle.

While the name has yet to be confirmed, Launceston Distillery is looking to make the most of their aviation surroundings and release their whisky under the moniker of Hangar 17. While we’re not sure if our idea of a bar in an old aircraft will come to fruition, their location is definitely advantageous for luring in curious customers. As Peta told us: “1.5 million people pour through the airport every year, so it would be wonderful to capture just a portion of them.”

Hanagar 17 4

The dream team. Doing it for the North. L-R Chris, Peta, Ilya.

 

While at the moment the distillery is flying under the radar, and according to Ilya being consciously relaxed about publicity, they are certainly one to keep on the scanner in the future. We at Whisky Waffle are excited to discover the lofty heights they reach and will be booking our ticket when Hangar 17 is ready to lift off.

Find out more about Launceston Distillery at our links page. The distillery is not yet open to the public but appointments can be made to visit.

Great Outback Rare Old Australian Single Malt

Reviewed by: Mooresy

Great Outback Rare Old

This is weird story worthy of a waffle. Australian whisky has a generally agreed history, the modern chapter of which begins in the 1980s with the Lark family overturning a century and a half of legislative prohibition on distilling in Tasmania. This led to a resurgence of distillers and, as a very appropriate homage to whisky’s very beginnings, some people who had no doubt been fooling around as bootleggers went legitimate. The Great Outback Rare Old Australian Single Malt – a mouthful of descriptors, almost as if someone took all the best buzzwords that make whisky seem exclusive and put them all into the name – is a mystery in that history.

From what I can gather from my Poirot-esque deductions is that it was distilled somewhere between 1960 and 1985, that it is either from a now forgotten Tasmanian still (the bottle indicates it was produced at the Tasman Distillery, which no-one can find) or a Western Australian still pretending to be Tasmanian, and that it is pretty rare. Some rumours include that it is the reject stock of the closed Corio Distillery or that it is not Australian and was just labelled that way to hide an origin that would have been less palatable. It is a confirmed fact, however, that this single malt has a blended variety that can still be found so maybe these rumours of reject stock and foreign distillation are accurate for the blended version.

Something that is more than rumour is that this whisky is actually very good. With a label that looks like a knock-off product sold by some people who’ve refilled an empty bottle with some water and caramel colour, it is about as far from that as you can imagine. The colour is a nice pale gold suggesting there is a straight bourbon cask maturation and on the nose I think that is correct but there is also a vivid complexity I was not expecting. It’s fresh and grassy, with a little toffee and vanilla, but also a lovely tropical fruit and pineapple citrus alongside an orange smell that is actually reminiscent of Lark. Not only that, but there are some interesting botanicals with fresh thyme and something peppery thrown into the mix.

The other brilliant thing about it, which transfers over to the palate, is it is devoid of the ethanol kick that can permeate and drown out the subtleties. The relatively low alcohol content helps this, but it is also just a very clean and crisp spirit. There is certainly some tropical fruit – brilliant passion fruit – and the malty vanilla really comes out to balance against the toasted oak flavours. It is unsurprising that it is not peated, as this was presumably created before peat bogs were officially uncovered in Tasmania or peated barley was imported. Or before peat even existed anywhere in the world, who knows.

This is not a whisky for people who are looking for a heavy hitter, a peaty belter, or an oak punch. It is certainly not for anyone who wants to be able to sit down with book and look up the dram as they drink it. This one for those who like a crisp and complex confectioner’s creation with a side of Conan-Doyle intrigue to keep them guessing.

If you are the distiller of this fine drop, get in touch. Partly because there are several questions I have for you, but mainly because I am hoping you still have a few bottles of the stuff kicking around the attic you might be willing to offload.

★★★★

Happenings at Hellyers Road

Posted by: Nick and Ted

“Twelve months ago, we couldn’t have foreseen the growth that has occurred”.

Hellyers Road Distillery has always been a welcoming and friendly place to we Whisky Waffle boys, a fact that was abundantly apparent when we sat down to lunch with Master Distiller Mark Littler and media manager Don Jennings.

Whisky Waffle and Mark Littler

In 8 to 10 years these babies are gonna taste great!

2015 has been a busy year for the distillery with sales increasing by 50% in Australia, as well as expanding distribution throughout 30 European countries and tapping a new market in Japan. Due to demand, Mark has fired up the stills once more, originally planning a 30 week brewing program which has now been extended indefinitely. 

One of the new priorities of the distillery is exploring the connection to its namesake Henry Hellyer. With the limited release Henry’s Legacy range continuing to fly out the door, and future releases in the pipeline, Don envisages an interpretation centre telling Henry’s story and pointing out his discoveries.

New Henry’s Legacy bottlings are not the only future releases to look forward to, as Mark tells us his new sherry barrel stock, while young, tastes amazing. Within the core range consistency and value are the priority, although this has led to depletion of 12 Year Old stocks. The 12 will soon only be available at the cellar door and in travel retail, so if you see one in your local bottle shop snap it up fast!

Dave Warner and Mark Littler

Obligatory cricket reference: this whisky hit Dave Warner for 6! Photo courtesy of Hellyers Road

Whisky isn’t the only spirit being made by the Hellyers Road stills. In partnership with Dean Lucas, the distillery is producing 666 Pure Tasmanian Vodka, a premium spirit which is part owned by Australian cricket vice-captain David Warner. Dave apparently caused a stir recently when he dropped by in a helicopter to see how his investment is made.

What resonated the most with us was the humble and generous nature of our hosts. It is fascinating that despite their growing success and international awards, the biggest whisky distillery in the southern hemisphere still consider themselves to be small-town Burnie boys, just enjoying making a bit of good quality whisky.

WW shirts

Mark doesn’t have any writing on the back of his shirt

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Russell's Reserve

Amongst bourbon makers there seems to be an unwritten rule that as a mark of skill and dedication to the craft, a master distiller will fashion a unique spirit that reflects his own tastes and then slap his name on the front. Not that I’m complaining mind, as by and large this involves the distiller selecting the most exciting and tasty barrels to represent his eponym.

Case in point is the Russell’s Reserve. This premium small batch bourbon is a child of the well known Wild Turkey distillery, which in one form or another has been producing bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, since 1869. The man that we have to give thanks to is Jimmy Russell, who has worked at Wild Turkey since 1954, apparently making him the longest tenured active master distiller in the world. Well and away enough time to earn the right to his own expression.

Russells and Ted 2

As its name suggests, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo small batch Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is selected from older aged barrels of Wild Turkey spirit (standard bourbons generally using younger stock), and then reduced to 45%. Interestingly this big bird likes to fly south for winter, for in addition to smooth gooey caramel and hot spicy oak, there are notes of bananas, cashews, cantaloupe and feijoas swirling around on the nose.

Once introduced to the mouth the Russell’s is hot, spicy and complex, rather like a latin dance (probably not the rumba though. Wrong drink). The feel is thin and supple, rather than oily and thick, and the finish is sharp and astringent, lingering across the tongue.

Russells and Ted 1

Jimmy should be proud to lend his name to this expression of the Kentucky craft, as in his wisdom he has created a bourbon that tastes of more than just bourbon, an emergent system of flavours that as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts. Rather than a scrawny corn-fed pot boiler, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo is a magnificent tom turkey wearing a Tom Selleck mo, a sharp Hawaiian shirt, Miami shades, and playing dirty 80’s sax as the sun rises across the skyline.

★★★