Moonah

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%:

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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.