Fred Siggins

“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.”

 

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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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