distillery

Scotland 2018: The Ultimate Whisky Adventure – Part One

Posted by: Nick

In July 2018 I realised the ultimate Waffler’s dream and spent nine days travelling whisky’s motherland. I did not waste a moment.

9 days: 20 distilleries.

PART ONE: Speyside

Signs of Speyside

The world is a big and exciting place full of incredible natural wilderness, mind blowing ancient structures and miraculous modern marvels. However, for a Waffler, there is no greater sight than a smoking pagoda, rising up over a craggy moor. For this view I needed to cross the entire planet, enduring four long flights (and a train ride with no wifi) to finally set foot in the motherland of whisky: Scotland.

So many distilleries, so little time. How could I possibly cover all I wanted to in nine days? The short answer is: I couldn’t – but I could give it my best shot. The first important decision to make was which direction to travel? I finally decided upon: anticlockwise. This catapulted me headfirst into the heart of whisky production in Scotland: Speyside.

While Speyside is known for light, smooth and elegant drams, it is also home to the world’s biggest sherry bombs. And it is with the latter in mind that I begun my journey with a tour booked for a favourite of mine: Glendronach.

Glendronach

I can thoroughly recommend being the only one on a distillery tour – even more so if your guide is the ex-general manager of the distillery. And I was lucky enough to experience exactly that at Glendronach; hearing a range of the best stories from Frank Massie – a wonderful ambassador for the distillery and a top bloke. It summed up my experience perfectly: there’s a lovely touch of the old school about Glendronach. From the big old kiln to the creaky old washbacks to the fact the tasting started with the 18 Year Old… and got better from there! It was a dream come true and did not disappoint.

Nick n Frank

I settled into my accommodation at Speydie’s whisky capital Dufftown, thrilled at the start to my travels and recalling the 25 Year Old cask strength I’d just consumed. It was a quiet night – as the next day was shaping up to be a big one.

Balvenie

It began with the tour of tours: Balvenie Distillery. This experience is widely recognised as a must for Wafflers everywhere and three hours in I could see why. It was the most detailed – and hands on – tour I’ve ever experienced. I risked a dose of monkey shoulder by turning the malting barley and visited the cooperage where a team were working hard to create barrels exactly to Balvenie’s specifications and finish in time for an early Friday knock off. And then I did the the tasting. Wow. How many tours conclude by pouring you a full nip of 30 year old whisky?

Monkey SHoulder

I had no time to dwell on it, however. I was out the door to visit Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and GlenCraggonmore. There was no time for a tour at these classic establishments but all came with tasty distillery exclusive drams. The highlight was Glenfarclas – not in the least because their stunning tasting room is the converted interior of an old Australian ship. The drams were superb as well – a 2004 distilled bottling which was like a refined version of the 105 and a port finish which was sweet and juicy and almost certainly all gone by the time you read this, sadly.

Glenfiddich

I finished my day by joining a tour at Aberlour Distillery. The tour itself was fairly standard and I was part of a large group of non-whisky drinkers talking over the top of our guide and asking questions about Johnnie Walker (possibly the most whisky-snobbish thing I’ve ever written – but come on… you know how annoying that would be!). The tasting, though, made it all worth it. After first trying a firey new make spirit, we sampled a straight bourbon cask and straight sherry cask Aberlour whisky – both unavailable as regular bottlings. I loved precisely neither of them; they tasted like ingredients – which is exactly what they were. It was when they combined together that the magic occurred. The 16 Year Old and the (brand new) Casg Annamh were both balanced, full bodied, complex and oh so drinkable. The tasting concluded with the A’bunadh – as classic a cask strength sherry bomb as you’ll find anywhere.

Aberlour

The A’bunadh kept me warm as I made it back to Dufftown for my second and final night in Speyside. The seemingly eternal summer sun cast an orange glow over the harvested barley fields and I could truly see: this place is the warm beating heart of Scottish whisky.

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Spirit Thief First Release French Oak Temperanillo Cask Batch 001 48.3%

Posted by: Ted

Name: Hector Musselwhite
Charges: False Pretence (6 Charges)
Sentence: 1 Month each charge

Hector Musselwhite

Hector Musselwhite’s charge sheet. Image courtesy of Spirit Thief

Only a century ago, Tasmania could be quite a hard place, especially if you were not well off. Many people turned to petty crime to earn a crust, but even minor misdemeanors were harshly dealt with. Just take our friend above; Mr Musselwhite dabbled in a spot of fraud, nuffin’ serious guvnor, and ended up cooling his heels for six months. Now, three modern-day Tasmanian thieves are busy spiriting away fine distilled malt liquor and transforming it into whisky in tribute to these men and women of old, who they consider to have been dealt a raw hand.

Spirit Thief is a new independent outfit, focused on sourcing the finest Tasmanian spirit and aging it in high quality barrels to create unique limited releases of superlative whisky. The team consists of Brett Steel (founder of Tasmanian Whisky Tours), Jarrod Brown (ex Lark, now assistant distiller at Belgrove) and Ian Reed (ex Sullivans Cove, Lark and now owner of Gold Bar, Hobart).

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The Spirit Thief crest contains a pair of crossed valinches, devices that are used for drawing whisky from a barrel. The alternative name for them is ‘spirit thief’

The Thieves recently came out of hiding to deliver their first release. When I caught up with Ian at Gold Bar to obtain a bottle for myself (totally legally may I add), I asked him what started them on their path of crime. “To be honest, we sat down one day and decided to make whisky. The difference this time was that we actually followed through.”

The team has selected wine casking as their chosen medium, with the barrels used for the first release sourced from Main & Cherry Vineyard in South Australia then re-coopered at SA Cooperage with a heavy char. Two cask types were selected, the first being Shiraz. The second cask type is of particular interest though: “We think that we possibly have the first single malt whisky fully aged in ex-Temperanillo casks in the world,” commented Ian conspiratorially. “We just wanted to do something different.”

Two Thieves

French Oak Temperanillo Cask (L) and American Oak Shiraz Cask (R). Image courtesy of Spirit Thief

The spirit for the first release was sourced from Redlands Distillery (now Old Kempton), but since then the boys have been working on putting their own mark on the new make. “We’ve been stealing time on people’s equipment to do our own runs. For example, we’ve recently been doing some stuff at Belgrove. It’s gypsy distillation.” Ian also said they’ve been experimenting with other elements of the process too: “We’ve been looking at different brews and playing around with things like different malts. We’ve already got some heavily peated stuff underway, so that’ll be pretty awesome.”

The Temperanillo Batch 001 started life as a 225L French oak barrique that was then cut down into three 20L casks and each filled with spirit. After about 2.5yrs the three casks were vatted together and then bottled at 48.3% abv.

Spirit Thief Temperanillo

Spirit Thief First Release French Oak Temperanillo Cask Batch 001 Bottle# 048

Coming from a cask that once contained a medium bodied red wine like Temperanillo, the colour of the whisky is a deep, rich amber. The scent is hot, oily and languid, like an old polished timber table in the sun. Notes of beeswax, caramel, dark honey, musk, pears, orange, chestnut, almond, nutmeg, rose, leather and hay play across the senses.

The mouth is dry and spicy with plenty of heat thanks to the decent alcohol percentage, while the mid-palate is oaky with an edge of walnut and a slight sharpness. The finish is long, with a twisted curl of bitter citrus closing out the experience.

Only 110 bottles of the Temperanillo Batch 001 were filled, so for most people the only option will be tracking down some in a bar (Gold Bar is a good place to start, hint hint), however Ian is hopeful this will work in their favour. “We’re super small, so unless people are talking about us everyone will forget us. Because we have such a limited release, having bottles out in bars means that plenty of people will have a chance to try our gear.”

Being one of the reprobates that actually managed to scam a whole bottle for himself, I can say with authority that this rare whisky is one well worth tracking down. If the Temperanillo Batch 001 is anything to go by, hopefully more Spirit Thieves are reformed in their oaken cells and released back into society very soon.

****

Head over to the official Spirit Thief site for more info: https://spiritthief.com.au/

Launceston Distillery Land Their First Release

Posted by: Ted

LaunnieLogo

The old Ansett Hangar 17 at Launceston airport looked almost exactly the same as it had the last time I had visited a couple of years ago. The only real sign of time progressing was a new opaque glass and aluminium door grafted into the old corrugated iron wall, bearing the crest of Launceston Distillery, and a sandwich board in front of it declaring the place to be ‘open’.

Hangar17

Hangar 17, the home of Launceston Distillery

After crossing the threshold I was warmly greeted by distillery Director Chris Byrne, who commented “hopefully my sign holds up against the wind, I’ve given it a bit of angle, but we’ll see.” (It had disappeared by the time I left). Nestled in the foyer were a couple of old airline seats. I asked if they were Ansett, but Chris shook his head and replied “We had an old bloke drop in and say the pattern was 1960’s Qantas. It’s definitely from back then anyway, just look at the ashtrays.” [Correction: the guy who sold the seats to the distillery has been in touch and they are definitely Ansett. He said he will be having stern words with Chris about listening to old blokes who walk in off the street]. We grabbed a cup of tea to ward against the cold, pausing a moment to admire the whiteboard still bearing operational notes left after Ansett collapsed in 2001, and then wandered out for a look at the distillery.

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Sorry Ansett diehards, these are just scummy old 60’s Qantas seats… Plot twist! Turns out they are actually Ansett and the old bloke didn’t know what he was talking about!

The main hangar, once used to house aircraft, was as large as ever, but the floor space had diminished significantly since last time thanks to the appearance of several rows of 100L casks. Chris grinned at the sight and commented that “the original bond store off the side is full of 20L casks now, so we had to expand out here. We’re hoping that we have enough 20L casks stored now to get us through to when we start releasing our 100L’s in a few years time.”

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The history of Hangar 17 on display

Sitting next to the stacks was a board covered in posters documenting the history of the site, which Chris was more than happy to explain. During the lesson he pointed at the numbers and lines on the floor: “See those there? That’s where they used to line up the luggage crates. Apparently one was pushed into the wall by accident, but because they hadn’t secured it down when they extended the shed, the whole bottom of the wall got pushed out. We had to pull it back in with a ute when we were doing the place up.”

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Phwoar, check out the insulation on those

Eventually we wandered over for a look at the bond store, passing by the two Knapp-Lewer stills with their beautiful timber insulation. Last time I had seen the bond store there had only been a solitary row of casks huddled forlornly against the wall, but now the room was full to the brim of neatly racked 20L casks. While we were admiring the view, head distiller Chris Condon and Angus the distillery dog returned from the airport terminal, where they had just delivered the first order of whisky to the airport shop. “They’ve got some good advertising up, so hopefully people stop and pick up a bottle.”

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Angus the distillery dog travels in style

Chris B handed me over to Chris C and we made a beeline for the tasting bar, built from an old Ansett check-in desk and an in-flight drinks trolley, for a chat and some cheeky bevvies. The most notable feature of the bar was the row of bottles perched on top, thanks to Launceston Distillery releasing their first whisky just last month, a milestone that was very pleasing to Chris: “One of the problems with distilling is that because it takes so long to get to that first release, it can sometimes feel like you’re not making any progress, so it’s great to finally have something to show for all our hard work!”

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20L nirvana

The bottles on offer covered the first four batches laid down by the distillery, with each batch released as a marriage of 20L casks bottled at a standard 46% abv. Batch 1, the first edition, was an ex-Apera (the Australian version of sherry) casking, Batch 2 was an ex-tawny (Australian port) casking, Batch 3 was another Apera, although apparently with a different character to Batch 1 as the casks had been sourced from SA Cooperage rather than the Tas Cask Co, and finally Batch 4 was an ex-bourbon casking.

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L-R: Batch 1 (ex-Apera), Batch 2 (ex-Tawny), Batch 3 (ex-Apera), Batch 4 (ex-Bourbon)

On the nose Batch 4 was light, crisp and grainy, with notes of fresh apples and green grapes. In contrast, Batch 1 was sweet, sticky and rich, with dried fruits, orange syrup, red jubes and undertones of malt, wood shavings and bacon. Batch 2 was dark, with red berries, leather, wax, timber and a clean oiliness.

On tasting, Batch 4 was sharp and bright on the mouth, with acidic herbal notes and a clean finish. In complete contrast, Batch 1 was like an explosion from the aromatic end of the spice rack, with strong flavours of aniseed, cinnamon, cloves and star anise, as well as almonds, milk chocolate, mandarins and a tanninic finish. Finally, Batch 2 was dark, rich and sweet, with notes of dark chocolate and black cherries and a smooth, oaky finish.

Chris revealed that each batch was just over two years old and I asked whether he had toyed with the idea of leaving them longer under oak: “We didn’t just dump them out arbitrarily at two years obviously, it’s more considered that, but you start getting to a point where you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing more harm than good for the sake of a few months?’. That’s the tricky thing about 20L casks, there’s a real risk of over-oaking.”

LaunnieTasting

Head Distiller Chris Condon rocks the Ansett memorabilia

Chris was also keen to show me the boxes that had been designed for the bottles and explained the relevance of each design element: “The colour is actually the Ansett blue, while the clouds are from a photo taken of the sky above the airport. If you look closely, you can also see lines running across the box which are actually from an 1830 map of the region. All the surrounding towns and landmarks are there, which really grounds it in this place.”

AngusAuthor

The author and Angus relax before the flight

After the tasting, I had a quick relax on some genuine Ansett airline seats with Angus the distillery dog (“Judging by the condition, we don’t think they were ever installed in a plane,” commented Chris), said a quick farewell to Chris B who was finishing labeling the last of the personalised pre-order bottles that had been offered as part of the 1st release and collected my own bottle of Batch 1 from Chris C.

LaunnieLabels

Chris Byrne, hand-labelling master

Before I left, I had one last question on my mind. Last time Whisky Waffle visited, the distillery team had been tossing up names for the whisky. At that time ‘Hangar 17’ had been a strong contender in tribute to the building that housed their distillery, so I asked Chris what had changed: “We ending up going that way in part because there was a legal issue with Hangar 1 in San Francisco, who are vodka makers and objected to us using the name. I’m actually really pleased that we went with Launceston Distillery though, because that’s who and what we are. It’s a really strong geographic name that people can connect with.”

He paused a moment then laughed and quipped “At the end of the day, Hangar 17 is still our physical address, so they can’t take that away from us. We’ll see how we go.” Well readers, if the quality of the whisky is anything to go by, then it’s no hard stretch to say that Launceston Distillery will go far.

Head over to the Launceston Distillery website to purchase a bottle or organise a tour: https://www.launcestondistillery.com.au/

The Devil Went Down to Moonah: Devil’s Distillery Releases Hobart Whisky

Posted by: Ted

Strolling past the shabby brick warehouse on the outskirts of central Hobart, glancing briefly at the fading letters on the wall declaring ‘Tasmanian Egg Farms’, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was just another derelict industrial site. However, the warm scent of malt drifting out of the rear loading dock and along the street suggests all may not be as it seems. Spirits lurk inside… Devilry is afoot in Moonah.

I recently had the opportunity to drop by Devil’s Distillery and catch up with manager John Jarvis. We had last met in my home stomping ground of Burnie at an event showcasing their Tasmanian Moonshine Company brand. Mutterings of nearly mature whisky had reached my ears and piqued my curiosity. Now, like a member of Mystery, Inc., I had the chance to enter the Devil’s lair and unmask the truth.

Devil bond

Hungarian origin barrels resting in the Devil’s Distillery bond store

Hidden inside the old warehouse is a burnished copper Knapp-Lewer pot still, a squat stainless Coffey still, some wash tuns made out of re-purposed milk vats and a small trove of casks nestled on brand new yellow pallet racking. Tending to the equipment are minions Ben and Gus. “Sorry about the chaos,” comments John “We’ve been sorting things out and doing some renovation.”
“It was worse when we didn’t have the racking,” chips in Gus “there were pallets of barrels stacked randomly all over the place.”

Devil distillers

John and Gus 

The barrels in question are a combination of 20L, 40L, 100L and 300L casks. Some are sourced from Australia, others interestingly hail from Hungary, but all will be left to rest until the contents have transmuted into whisky. John enjoys experimenting with the different cask types they have amassed, including port, sherry, bourbon, tokay and pinot. “Every release will be different. I’m still learning, but that’s all part of the challenge and it’s good fun being able to sit down and figure out what works best for a particular release.”

Down the far end of the building are some offices with a mezzanine space above. Ascending the stairs we find an angular wooden bar, a long wooden tasting table and handyman hard at work sanding the reclaimed timber floors. Once finished, the mezzanine area will form a private tasting bar for the distillery where guests can come by appointment, relax and try the products on offer. I notice that one patch of the cinder block wall looks different to elsewhere. “Rocky (Caccavo), the owner, decided that he was going to polish the blockwork, so he grabbed a grinder and started going at it,” laughs John “the dust was horrendous though, so I think we might just render it now.”

Devil bar

The new bar on the mezzanine

Looking out over the space, I can see that it is rapidly filling up with barrels and other paraphernalia. “We don’t have any immediate plans for expansion.” Explains John “We’ll need to get some off site bond space obviously, but at the end of the day we’re a small-scale craft distillery. Quality over quantity. It’s a great location though, just a stone’s throw from the city in one direction, and a stone’s throw from MONA in the other.”

We head downstairs to John’s office, where a shiny new bottle of whisky is waiting patiently for our attention on the desk. Devil’s Distillery is releasing its single malt under the label of ‘Hobart Whisky’, which is quite amazing for a relatively new distillery in the now well established Tassie scene. “When we were deciding on names, we were shocked to find that Hobart Whisky was still available for use. We’re really stoked to have it.”

Devil vat

Converted milk vats for the win

The first release is a marriage of five 40l ex-Hill Rock Distillery bourbon casks aged for two years and seven months and bottled at 48.8%abv. The wash used in the release was sourced from local brewery Moo Brew, however future releases will contain wash made in-house at the distillery. When sourcing the casks, the cooper recommended that the staves be left intact without shaving or re-charring, allowing the new-make to fully interact with the original Hill Rock character.

Devil whisky

Hobart Whisky first release

This is evident in the whisky, with the spirit showing a much redder hue than you would necessarily associate with ex-bourbon casking, the white Hobart Whisky label contrasting nicely. On the nose the first release is sweet and creamy, with a bourbon-driven body of vanilla, butterscotch and light, dusty oak, as well as notes of maple, peach and lavender. The mouth is light, beginning with wood shavings, then transitioning to citrus, straw and the acidity of young stone fruit, before finishing with a delicate lingering sweetness.

Excitingly, the first release will make it’s debut during Tasmanian Whisky Week 2018, with the first public bottles available for purchase for $195. Most of the 430 bottle run will go directly to bars, so whisky fiends keen on securing one are advised to get in quick. As we wander out, John is excited for the future and how people will react to the whisky. “Everyone who has tried it has been really positive so far; the feedback has been encouraging.”

Devil blogger

The author meeting the Devil’s own Distiller

I came away feeling satisfied that I had unmasked the Moonah Devil as a young whisky of high quality and a promising future. Hopefully over time Hobart Whisky will grow into its name and become a flagship for the southern capital of whisky. John’s parting comment was encouraging in that respect: “At the end of the day I just want to be able to focus my attention on the whisky and make sure that everything we make is top notch.”

As they say, the devil is in the detail.

Limited bottles will be available for purchase during Tasmanian Whisky Week (13-19th August) at the Liquid Gold event on Thursday evening, Saturday afternoon at the Spirit Showcase and Sunday morning at the Farmgate Market.

Hobart Whisky 1st Release 48.8%:

***

Investigating Iron House Distillery

Posted by: Nick

1

Michael Briggs, head distiller of Iron House Distillery is the most relaxed empire builder you are ever likely to meet. This is because he’s not an empire builder. He’s a bloke – who has just happened to build an empire.

Iron House is more than a whisky distillery. It is also a brewery and a vineyard, while the still is also used to create various styles of gin, vodka and brandy. With all these products on the go you’d be forgiven for thinking Iron House was an overly complicated business. Michael (or ‘Briggsy’ as he’s known to one and all) avoids this by sticking to one overarching philosophy: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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Iron House is located at the majestic White Sands Resort on the East Coast of Tasmania. The resort was purchased by Briggsy’s father-in-law some 15 years ago. The place was slightly run down and frayed at the edges but fell into hands willing to turn it into something special (although it is said by some that it may have bought just to get access to the boat ramp!). Once the premise was secured the next phase in the plan was to create something to sell on the taps – which is where Briggsy stepped in, forming Iron House Brewery.

The name was derived from the location – the area was once a 19th century camp ground for those travelling from the south and allegedly became home to the first tin-roofed building on the east coast, or as the locals referred to it: the Iron House.

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Once the brewery was up and running the next logical step was (of course) to make whisky. While this was always part of Briggsy’s plans, the creation of the distillery was borne out of necessity. The amount of beer production per year was exceeding their current market – and rather than expanding to the mainland or overseas, Briggsy decided the left over wash could be put to better use.

A still was duly purchased – from Germany via the USA – and it arrived in pieces with absolutely no instructions. Like a complicated box of LEGOTM, Iron House’s mechanical engineer Michael Aulich assembled it, guided by pictures he found online, and eventually Iron House became the proud owners of a copper column still and an oddly shaped pot still.

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While Iron House has yet to release its first whisky, I was able to try some new make spirit (or, to quote Briggsy: “white dog”) fresh from the still. On the nose it packed that fruity high-alcohol punch, though on the palate it was grainy and cerealy (Weet-bixy, for my fellow Australians). It was full of character and intrigued me as to what it would become.

I got a small preview of this downstairs in the bond store. There are multiple barrels within that have been filled for more than 2 years, the minimum age for a whisky. However Briggsy labelled them “legally ready, but not Iron House ready”. His plan is to blend multiple barrels in a Solera system to create a consistent, accessible product. He is a big believer that Tasmanian whisky should not be out of the reach of regular people – from the perspective of both flavour and price. Thus we can expect to have to wait until mid 2019 at the earliest to see an Iron House single malt release (however to tie you over there is some delicious virgin-oak-matured brandy which is nearly ready!).

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Briggsy admitted the biggest strength of Iron House is also its biggest weakness. White Sands Resort is found at the most spectacular coastal site and yet this location is over two hours drive from either of the state’s biggest cities: Hobart and Launceston. However, if you find yourself cruising Tasmania’s beautiful East Coast then a stop into White Sands and the Brewhaus Cafe & Bar is a must. The distillery and brewery are separated from the cafe by many large glass walls, through which you can witness the entire whisky making process. It is a truly memorable and worthy addition to the Tasmanian distilling community – and well worth a visit.

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Tasmanian Independent Bottlers RD 001

Reviewed by: Nick

TIB Redlands 001

We’ve reached a point in the Tasmanian whisky industry where Tim Duckett can do whatever the hell he likes. Justifiably, too, having broken so many rules with his Heartwood series, resulting in the creation of whiskies so good and so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking they were taken straight out of a whisky nerd’s fantasies. However his latest project, under the innocuous sounding moniker Tasmanian Independent Bottlers (or TIB for short), seems to plant itself firmly in reality.

The first release was the product of only one distillery and only one barrel type and was originally intended to be released at 46%, before Tim caved and bumped it up to 48.4%. No poetic title is required – it is simply named after its cask number – and the label is classy and yet plain, lacking in the unique quirky artwork found on Heartwood bottles. Cosmetically this is the Beatles White album released directly after Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band.

However, Tim still holds the ace up his sleeve: a quality Tasmanian spirit and an intriguing barrel. The first TIB release is from midlands paddock-to-bottle-distiller Redlands, and it has been aged in a Muscat cask.

“That’s more like it Timmy baby!”

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. But you get me, right? Redlands spirit in Muscat barrels assembled by Tim Duckett? This bottle was a must have to me… and it doesn’t disappoint.

It has a big, broad nose full of toffee and oak. There are many tiny subtle aromas breaking through, including pepper, blackberry and spearmint leaves. The palate is quite sweet, loaded with sticky caramel, raspberry jam and dark chocolate. The finish is short and spicy – spicier than most Heartwoods ironically – with lingering raw sugar notes.

Inevitably anyone looking for the next Heartwood release in this bottle is going to go away disappointed – because that’s not what TIB is. This is a far subtler and gentler single malt which does not possess the x-factor of Tim’s other releases. This is not a bad thing, though – it’s a different thing, and a thing that will appeal to some people and not others. It is designed to be more accessible and perhaps easier drinking than Heartwood and every now and again this is exactly what I want. The Convict Resurrection, Vat Out of Hell and Calm Before the Storm are fantastic – but I’d also recommend getting to know their younger brother.

★★★★

A Tranquil Trip to Yamazaki Distillery

Posted by: Ted

1 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

If one distillery can be claimed as the home of the Japanese whisky scene, then Yamazaki Distillery is the natural heir to that crown. It was, after all, the first operating whisky distillery in Japan and progenitor of the thriving world-class industry that has blossomed in the 95 years since.

2a Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

Founded in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, the distillery is located in the town of Yamazaki, a sleepy place nestled halfway between Kyoto and Osaka. Once you alight at the station, the distillery is a short walk away through the quiet streets, passing by traditional houses and shrines.

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From the outside, the distillery is not that much to look at, large drab brown buildings that blend in well with the surrounding forested hills but do not inspire any particular romantic notions. The old stills dotted around the leafy grounds are a nice touch though. The location is important however, as the distillery draws its water from the confluence of three local rivers, the Katsura, Uji and Kojo, the soft waters of which Yamazaki claims helps them make a refined spirit.

2 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

In comparison to the exterior, the inside of the visitors centre is a beautiful and interesting place to be, with timbered interiors, a cutaway still and washback, and shelving supporting row upon row of bottles with hand-typed labels containing various agings of spirit made by Yamazaki and other distilleries from around the world. There is also an interesting whisky walk with information about the distillery.

6 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

Guided tours can be booked online, with a standard and a slightly longer special tour available. If you want to do the special tour you need to book early (which we didn’t) as it only runs on weekends and has limited spots. The tours are conducted in Japanese, but an audio guide is available if, like us, your Japanese only extends to a few much-overused phrases.

7 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

The standard tour, conducted on our visit by the youthful Nishiwaki and assisted by the older Tanaka, guides guests through the history and production processes at Yamazaki, taking in the mash room, the still house and the bond stores. A delicious smell of whisky permeates the facility, changing in nature depending on your location. For example, the still room with its 12 stills (there are another four somewhere else too) smells of fresh apples and lemons, while the bond store is dark and rich with the years of aging spirit.

4 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

As we walked back from the bond store we passed by a torii gate, which Tanaka amiably commented to me was over 1000 years old, which makes the distillery’s only 95 years look rather pale in comparison, a reminder that the Japanese whisky industry is still only a relatively young thing in an ancient culture.

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The tours conclude in the tasting room, an open, airy space where guests sit at wooden benches to be educated in the art of drinking Yamazaki. Four glasses of whisky were presented, a White Oak Cask, a Wine Cask and two glasses of the 12 Year Old, one for sampling and the other for doing as you pleased with (as part of the tasting you had the opportunity to make a whisky highball. I declined).

5 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

The White Oak Cask and Wine Cask were presented as examples of Yamazaki’s practice of crafting a base palate of different styles that are then married together to create a final release, such as the 12 Year Old. The distillery claims that this method allows them to create products that have a subtlety and nuance of flavour similar to a blended Scotch, but are comprised of whiskies that are made entirely on site at Yamazaki.

The two spirits were indeed quite different, with the light White Oak Cask evoking honey, lemon, green apple and rose on the nose, while the dark-gold Wine Cask gave notes of caramel, marshmallow, wine gums, oak, salt, red apple and apricot. On the palate the White Oak had leather, dark honey, polished oak, beeswax, malt and a sharp, herbal finish, while the Wine cask had a dark, rich, dry fruitiness, with red apples, brown pear, sour plum and salted caramel.

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A small selection of nibblies are also provided with the tasting, my favourite being the smoked nuts, which are smoked over chips made from old barrels. There are a number of friendly attendants on hand to guide you through the tasting and make sure you know what’s what.

At the completion of the tasting you are led back to the visitor centre where you have the opportunity to visit the gift shop (which has a distinct lack of Japanese whisky apart from the Chita single grain) or indulge in some further tastings such as older bottlings or distillery exclusives (I may have lashed out on the 25 Year Old).

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The atmosphere at Yamazaki was relaxed and Nishiwaki delivered a crisp and professional tour that was full of interesting and informative facts… at least I presume so seeing as I couldn’t understand a word of it. The audio guide was solid though and it was easy to keep up with the tour. If you want to get a grasp on the history and character of Japanese whisky, then Yamazaki is well worth your time to visit if you happen to be in the area.

9 Whisky Waffle Yamazaki Visit

Whisky Waffle Podcast Episode 4

Posted by: Nick

Welcome to the Whisky Waffle Podcast: Tasmania Special! Where we waffle about Tassie whisky while drinking Tassie whisky! In this exciting episode we include:

– The Waffle, where we ramble about the merits and history of the Tasmanian distilling scene
– The Whisky, where we sample some high strength Tassie drams: Overeem bourbon cask and Heartwood Convict Resurrection
– Smash, Session or Savour, where Ted makes a difficult coastal decision; and
– Whisky Would You Rather, where Tasmania goes head to head against Scotland

“We’ve never claimed they’re going to taste the same”: A musing on single barrel releases

Posted by: Ted

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

Spending Time at Sullivans Cove

Posted by: Nick

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If you’ve only heard of one Tasmanian distillery, chances are that distillery is Sullivans Cove. Based in Hobart and formerly known as Tasmania Distillery, this founding father of Tassie whisky has a chequered and yet ultimately inspiring past and, as we Waffle boys discovered when we visited their site recently, an extremely promising future.

Sullivans Cove is one of Tasmania’s most visitor-friendly distilleries. The viewing platform looking out across the bond store is a proper money-shot (see above!) and in keeping with the establishment’s status as Tassie’s poster-child distillery. This honour was thrust upon Sullivans Cove in 2014 when a bottle of their French Oak Cask won the prestigious World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards and changed the face of Tasmanian whisky forever. But as our generous host, Strategy Manager Fred Siggins, was keen to point out, there is so much more to Sullivans Cove than barrel HH525.

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Consistency in flavour is a difficult task for the fledgling Australian whisky scene. Due to the size of the industry (or rather the lack thereof) most releases are the product of one barrel and therefore the flavours vary from bottle to bottle. While some distilleries choose to conveniently sweep this issue under the carpet, Sullivans Cove embrace it, hand labelling each bottle with a sticker informing the purchaser exactly which cask or casks are contained within. The result is that a dram of one French or American Oak bottling will be unlikely to taste identical to a previous one.

While this approach ensures Fred is continually explaining to customers why their new bottle tastes slightly different to their old one, it also forms one of the most exciting aspects of the distillery. During our visit we were lucky enough to sample not one, but two of the French and American Oak expressions. Had they not featured the distinctive blue and black labels we may not have picked them as the same bottling.

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In each case one dram was smooth and easy drinking and the other vibrant, fresh and zingy. Excitingly, we could not work out which of each we considered to be the better drop – instead deciding that we would prefer one over the other depending on the mood we were in. Fred agreed and recommended that Sullivans Cove customers leave a small amount in one bottle before opening the next, to really appreciate the difference.

The other exciting aspect of the distillery is the age of the whisky in the bond store – and in their bottles. Sullivans Cove head distiller Patrick Maguire has been creating whisky since taking over the company in 1999 and giving it a much-needed new lease on life in the process. This means that some of the barrels are now pushing 18 years old, an incredible age for an Australian spirit.

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Both the French and American Oak releases are usually aged for anywhere between 10 and 17 years while the entry level Double Cask release, a marriage of 2 to 4 American Oak barrels and one French Oak barrel, contains a cross section of particularly mature whisky, unheard of in any other Tasmanian release.

The only drawback of this premium method of whisky creation is the premium price. Sullivans Cove make no bones though about the fact that they make a premium product and are not looking to change that any time soon. Fred did point out, however, that there is a lot of new Australian whisky coming into the market currently demanding a similar (or greater) price to the Sullivans Cove Double Cask. While this new stock is exciting, the whisky is likely to only be 2 to 3 years old. When compared with the potentially 17 year old whisky found in the Double Cask, it really paints the Sullivans Cove price point in a positive light.

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Sullivans Cove is now one of the most recognisable brands in the New World spirits scene, an achievement which is a true testament to the work put in by Patrick Maguire all those years ago. For a very long time, his whisky creation was a labour of love, an unprofitable venture fuelled by passion rather than profit. The rules have now changed, however, and currently there are over twenty distilleries in operation in Tasmania – with more on the way. It is certainly no overstatement to say that this reality may not have come to be if not for Sullivans Cove Distillery.

Sullivans Cove will be open for tours seven days a week, starting in September! Tours depart hourly and can be booked at the Sullivans Cove site.

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