Recently there has been quite a bit of talk and speculation surrounding Lark and a couple of their new releases. The new Symphony No. 1 and the 3rd Wolf of the Willows collab both bear the Lark logo on their labels, however the former states that it is a ‘blended malt’, while the latter proclaims that it was distilled at their ‘Bothwell site’ (i.e. Nant Distillery).
The fact that both releases contain spirit that was not distilled at Lark’s Cambridge site sparked controversy in some quarters – should the labels really still say Lark, or should they be called something else entirely?
Enter, the House of Lark.
To cut through conjecture and rumour, Whisky Waffle went straight to the source at the Lark Cambridge production site and met with Head Distiller Chris Thomson.
Chris was able to reveal to us that Australian Whisky Holdings (AWH) has been reformed as Lark Distilling Co. and will release Lark, Nant and blends such as the Symphony No. 1 under the umbrella of the ‘House of Lark’. The bottle label will specify which distillery site the spirit was produced at for single malts, or state if the release is a blended malt (but won’t necessarily identify the individual distilleries).
However, we are able to exclusively reveal that the Symphony No. 1 is a combination of Nant, Overeem and Lark casks. In regards to the Wolf of the Willows 3rd collab release, Chris told us that he had searched the entire House of Lark portfolio for the perfect whisky to finish in Wolf’s Johnny Smoke Porter barrels, eventually landing on Nant.
Speaking of Nant, Chris confirmed that the name will survive, but will have the House of Lark brand on the labels alongside the Nant logo. He said that moving forward, Nant will continue to release bourbon, sherry and port casks, but will move away from the brand’s traditional single-casking to a “marriage style”.
Chris is now the head distiller across the entire House of Lark portfolio, giving him creative control across all the brands and access to the full range of Lark Distilling Co. barrels –
“Growing in size means that there are more casks to pick from and less pressure to get stock out, so we can take more time with the barrels.” Having more stock to choose from also means that they can select the right cask for the right purpose.
Chris acknowledges the need for transparency and that there may have been some confusion amongst consumers about the origins of the Symphony No. 1 and the 3rd Wolf of the Willows releases – “The goal has always been about quality, but we’re still learning lessons about how best to communicate that.”
Chris said that they would be working to educate consumers about the meaning and ethos of the House of Lark, as well as taking practical steps like increasing the font size of the distillery origin on the labelling for better clarity.
Our biggest takeaway from our meeting with Chris was just how excited (or in his words “beyond pumped”) he was about the new direction for the company and the move to the House of Lark identity. Speaking enthusiastically about the Symphony No. 1 release, he told us that –
“It’s about accessibility and drinkability, with enough complexity for people who have drunk malt for a decade, or you can sit back with your buddies who have never drunk malt before and they’ll love it. It can be mixed, straight, on ice or in a cocktail.
“For me this is just the next step in the evolution of Australian and Tasmanian whisky.”
Diageo, for those who don’t know, is the largest spirit producer in the western world. Their whisky makers include heavy hitters such as Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Talisker and Caol Ila. However, these ‘classic malts’ only constitute part of their collection – there are a number of other distilleries whose spirit you probably would have only tasted mixed into a dram of Johnnie Walker.
Dailuaine is one such distillery, a Speyside establishment known for its heavily sherried style. While you won’t find it in many mainstream bottle shops, it is not impossible to track down an independently aged version and if you find some hidden upon a dusty shelf, then it is well worth picking up. This particular Flora & Fauna bottling is bottled at 43% after aging for 16 years in ex-oloroso barrels, a maturation that has contributed significantly to its flavour.
On the nose, the taster is immediately presented with the classic fruitcake aromas typical of its cask type. Hints of cinnamon doughnuts follow, alongside fresh fruit such as apples and melon. On the palate there are tangy orange juice flavours alongside buttery shortbread and chocolate coated raisins. The finish is long and chewy with toffee-almonds and a hint of lingering oak.
While Dailuaine may not be the most famous of Diageo’s stable, it proves that there’s a lot of exciting whiskies to try if you stray from the well-worn path. Next time it might be a Strathmill or an Inchgower, or perhaps a Blair Athol or a Mannochmore…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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
I have a bit of a weird confession to make: I have a thing for shipping containers. Having worked for nearly a decade in an industry where I have spent a lot of time around (and in) these standardised marvels of modern global transport, I rather enjoy seeing all the different colours, company logos and algorithmically-derived alpha-numeric serial numbers. So what’s this got to do with whisky? Well…
Traditional distillery design tends to veer along stone-and-timber lines, usually with a lick of white lime wash for good measure if you’re in Scotland. In Tasmania things tend to be split between restored heritage buildings, à la Scotland, or modern pre-fab steel sheds, which are easy to erect, relatively cheap to build and a breeze fit a still into. Tyler Clark of 7K Distillery had other ideas though and decided to go down a rather more… modular, route.
7K Distillery is perched half-way up a hill on the outskirts of Brighton, north of Hobart. One of the first things you notice as you head up the gravel driveway and past the brick farmhouse is that it has an absolutely epic view across the Derwent Valley to kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Behind the house sits a cluster of three shipping containers, a 20ft and a couple of 40ft units, which isn’t that unusual for a paddock in Tassie. What is unusual is that fact that an entire distillery is hidden inside.
Amazing what you can fit in a shipping container
“The property, Lodge Hill, is my Nan’s,” Tyler revealed to Whisky Waffle when we dropped by for a visit in late 2019. “I’d been over to the States and had a look around what was going on over there, and decided that I wanted to start my own distillery. It can be hard when you’re in your 20’s, with the start-up costs and finding a space, but I thought to myself ‘If I don’t do this shit when I’m young I’ll probably never do it'”.
Luckily Tyler was a man with a plan: “I’ve always liked the idea of building with shipping containers. My original concept was that I’d be able to move them to a new site a few years down the track if I decided to expand. At first I thought I might have some trouble with the ATO… you know, some dodgy guy distilling out of a shipping container, but they were fine with it. I suppose as long as they get their excise, they’re happy.”
It looks like a wizard’s laboratory
The problem of what to put the distillery in had been solved, but Tyler still needed somewhere to plonk his containers down: “One of the biggest challenges was finding a site. I eventually I thought of asking my Nan if I could put them out the back of her place at Lodge Hill and thankfully she was really cool with it.” Tyler paused, glanced over to the house and then laughed ruefully, “The only downside is that she can’t have a shower or bake a cake while I’m running the still because it takes up all the power. Sorry Nan!”
Speaking of the still, the shape is rather different to your ‘standard’ Tassie ‘Knapp Lewer-style’ unit, having been entirely designed and built by Tyler himself (“with a bit of help”). A sparky by trade and handy on the tools, Tyler was able to put his skills to good use throughout the project: “Half of my interest was building the still in the first place. I wanted to design something that I could do multiple things in.”
The cylindrical copper pot, about the height of a person and mostly clad in black insulation, is topped by an elegant tear drop-shaped onion and a very neutral lyne-arm. Taken in concert, you can tell the 1100L 7K still is designed to generate a lot of reflux. “I just wanted to make a lighter style of spirit,” was Tyler’s simple response when we grilled him about his design choices.
Connected to the still via a series of bypass valves is a stainless-steel vapour chamber used for infusing botanicals for Tyler’s ‘Aqua Vitae’ gin range. “I still do the juniper in the main pot, but it’s a pain in the arse to clean out again so I’m going to get the little stainless-steel keg-still, which I built as a test back when I first started, up and running again to do that separately.”
The keg still is ready to kick juniper arse
Delicious as the gin is (the ‘Tasmanian Raspberry Gin’ is sticky-pink goodness and the ‘Winter Edition Carolina Reaper’ chilli-infused gin will put hairs on your chest (if you can find a bottle)), we ain’t called Gin Jargon, so we were keen to check out progress on the amber stuff.
The first batch of single malt spirit was laid down in November 2017, meaning that by the time you read this it will officially be able to be called whisky. The wash is produced further down the river at Last Rites Brewery in Cambridge. In terms of barreling, Tyler has used a variety of casks, including bourbon, sherry and pinot, sourced from various Tassie cooperages.
Tyler Clark and his copper creation
An ex-sherry number that we got to have a cheeky nibble at was delicate and creamy, with a splash of vanilla on the nose, while the mouth was light and dry with a hint of citrus. All in all, a very promising start. (There was also a very unusual ‘smoked’ spirit in a virgin oak cask that might be a story for another day…).
While the Aqua Vitae gin range has a botanical watercolour aesthetic, Tyler wants to go down a different route for the whisky: “The demographic who are buying the gin, which to be honest is mostly women of a certain age, are going to be completely different to the people who will buy the whisky. I feel like I want to make a statement with the bottle, something that speaks really about quality, rather than just having the same old cheap 500ml glass bottle as everyone else, which is why I’m leaning towards ceramics at the moment.” (Watch this space…)
The view from Lodge Hill over the Derwent Valley
There is no official name for the whisky yet, but according to Tyler “The name of the distillery itself, 7K, refers to the postcode of the region and connects it to that sense of place, where I live. When it comes to the whisky I want it to have that same sort of feeling, something that has meaning to me.”
The tour eventually came to an end as Tyler was heading up the bush to be manly and cut up some trees. As we trundled down the drive to set out on our long journey home, I glanced back at the neat white containers (they used to be painted bright orange, which I rather liked as they gave me Hapag-Lloyd vibes. Yes, I’m sad, I know), I reflected on the fact that they are something of a symbol for the young, adaptable industry that is growing up in Tasmania, largely unshackled from the weight of tradition in the old country.
The future of 7K distillery is looking bright (particularly if the container colours keep changing) and to quote Tyler himself: “I think it’s going to be exciting.”
It’s time for our (once again) annual Christmas Special where the left over odds and ends from the year’s recording blocks find their way onto the airwaves! It’s a mishmash of an episode but as entertaining as always!
This episode contains:
– Unlucky 13, where we line up the following whiskies to one by one pick our best tasting out of the following:
Glenfiddich 12, Glenfiddich 18, Glendronach 12, Balvenie DW 12, Glenfarclas 15, Aberlour A’bunadh, Highland Park 12, Oban 14, Talisker 10, Ardbeg 10, Laphroaig 10, Chivas Regal 12, Johnnie Walker Black;
– Mystery Whisky, where Ted is confused but ultimately impressed by a Rye from Archie Rose;
– Whisky Would You Rather, where we have the ultimate showdown: bourbon vs sherry maturation
– Drinking Buddies, where Paul tells us what’s in his glass; and
– Smash Session or Savour, where Ted has to find something to savour in three very unsavourable drams
Heartwood, Australia’s most famous independent bottler, is striving for consistency. However, with new-make spirit arriving from different distilleries, a varied range of barrel types and never-to-be-repeated combinations of spirits, how on earth can it be considered consistent? Simple. Heartwood is not striving for consistency of flavour – it is striving for consistency of quality.
Heartwood is the creation of the Tasmanian whisky industry’s very own mad scientist: Tim Duckett. Tim has produced his remarkable whisky alongside his day job as an environmental consultant, deciding to dip his toe into the infant Tasmanian whisky scene after meeting Bill Lark in the late nineties. He purchased his first barrel of Lark spirit in 1999, but cannily didn’t rush it out the door before it was ready. The first bottling, Mt Wellington, was released in 2012 and things escalated rather quickly from there.
While there are other independent bottlers in Australia, including TIB, Tim’s other project, there is nothing on earth quite like Heartwood. Regularly bottled at unheard of ABVs, some of which nudge the mid 70% range, each release is limited to several hundred bottles, meaning it sells like hotcakes and has developed somewhat of a cult following.
We visited Tim at Heartwood’s Blackmans Bay bond store where he gave us a peek behind the curtain at the type of flavour profile he values: that which pleases the palate – specifically his palate. Tim seeks to create whiskies which are thick, flavourful and with a finish as long as any whisky on the planet. How does he do this? By pairing good quality spirit with good quality barrels.
It sounds simple, but it is actually far from it; consistently creating high quality whisky is not just the passive process of sticking spirit into barrels and waiting. Tim employs all manner of tricks to get the most out of his whisky, as we found out during our visit. These include intricate blending, either whole casks or simply a few litres here or there, deciding when the oak influence is done and decanting it into vats before beating it with a paddle to drive off volatiles, as well as moving spirit into a warm office to “syrup up”.
When we visited Heartwood HQ the north-facing wall had a number of nearly-ready casks sitting up against it, which Tim explained was the “finishing wall”. He also confessed that he refuses to reuse casks 100 litres or larger unless they have been repurposed with Heartwood witchcraft, and even then, he will only use peated spirit in them… and this is just the tip of the iceberg of strategies Tim uses to create some of the most impressive and sought-after whisky Tasmania has to offer.
Of course, it helps when there is no agenda to meet; no shareholders to appease. Despite its fame, Heartwood is small-scale, a project born out of passion. Therefore, the whisky is released only when it’s truly ready and never to meet a specific profile or timeframe. Age is somewhat irrelevant in Tasmania anyway, with our varied weather conditions and small barrels. Tim claims that the age of 20 litre casks should be measured in seasons, not years, as the Australian summer will age a whisky faster than autumn, winter and spring combined.
During our visit we were lucky to try a few impressive Heartwood and TIB drams which were nearing completion, including spirit distilled at Redlands, Adams and a ‘Renowned New South Wales Distillery’. Most spectacularly, however, we were able to sample the first Heartwood/Belgrove collaboration (which at the date of publication has just been released – and sold out within hours). The ‘Heartgrove’ was a clash of the titans: a coming together of earthy, almost smoky rye notes with a thick fruit layer from the muscat and sherry casks it had been matured in. It was a wild beast, but Tim had tamed it, creating an intriguing rye that went down almost too easily for a 55% drop. If pressed we would have probably claimed it as our favourite, though it certainly faced some stiff competition.
Fascinatingly, none of the drams we tried tasted the same; they weren’t even in the same ballpark. The only thing that linked them was the fact that each one was delicious. As Tim told us, Heartwood has never claimed to produce a consistent flavour profile. Instead he focuses on producing consistently great whisky – and so far he’s achieved it every time.
Heartwood is not only unique among Tasmanian whisky producers: there is nothing on the entire planet quite like it. By refusing to release anything below his expected standard, Tim has ensured a whisky-legacy that will live on even when the last of the Heartwood barrels is empty.
Safety warning: This whisky broke my leg. Well… maybe there were a few others involved that night too, but let this serve as a lesson! Make sure that you are in a secure, seated position and under no circumstances should you decide to do an impulsive (but well intentioned) dance. Bad things can happen. Ok, are you comfortable? Right, let’s get on with the story!
Once upon a time there was a brewery called Iron House. It was named after an old droving hut and sat overlooking the Tasman Sea on the East Coast of Tasmania. The head brewer, Briggsy, was sad because he had more wash than he could make into beer. One day he had a brilliant idea: he could transmute the excess wash into gold… liquid gold! And so he set out on a quest to create his own spiritus frumenti… whisky.
Ok, that’s enough of that for now. For the rest of the Iron House backstory, check out our articles here and here. But cutting to the chase, Briggsy (occasionally known as Michael Briggs) succeeded and recently released Iron House’s first whisky. Taking inspiration from their seaside location, the Iron House team has released their product under the label ‘Tasman Whisky’. The current range consists of the holy trinity of bourbon, sherry and port casks, of which I possess the latter.
The inspiration for the storybook start to this article is the unusual and decorative Tasman packaging, which is designed to look like a book. The outside has a grey, fabric-look covering, while the edges are printed to look like pages. There’s even a page inside telling the story of the distillery, covering the insert that holds flat bottle secure. According to brand ambassador Craig ‘Spilsy’ Spilsbury, part of the Iron House ethos is using their product to tell a story, hence the choice of the book box.
All-in-all it’s a very classy item and will look good displayed on a shelf, or tucked away amongst your book collection (a feature Briggsy claims is useful if you’re smuggling it into the house under the nose of your significant other). My one complaint is that there is no latching system for the cover, which means you have to be quite careful about how you carry it, but Briggsy assures me he’s working on some solutions.
My Port Cask is part of batch P1, a marriage of two 100L casks sourced from Portugal, and is bottled at 46.8%. The spirit itself is a nice burnished bronze colour, natch of course. On the nose, P1 is sticky and fruity, like opening a bag of raisins or sultanas. Beyond that is a mix of almonds, chestnuts, dried cherries, dates, honeycomb and a malty, toasty character.
The mouth also has that malty, biscuity character as well as a dollop of frangipane, a combination that makes me think of Bakewell tart. The finish is long, sharp and fruity, with peach syrup and Turkish delight, as well as a touch of chocolate. There’s also perhaps a slight saltiness to be found, which could be attributed to the fact that Iron House is a true coastal distillery, meaning that the aging spirit can pick up elements blowing in from the neighbouring Tasman Sea.
Interestingly, those malty notes are probably a factor of the Iron House still. Because they use a hybrid system, the wash is not discharged before the new-make runs off (ie. only one run is required rather than the usual two), meaning that heavier, cooked-cereal flavours can be transported right through to the end product. Even as I’m sitting here writing this, I’m getting a residual hint of Weetbix on the back of my palate.
The author getting a well deserved ribbing from Briggsy (R) and Spilsy
The Port Cask is definitely my favourite out of the current line-up and is a solid starting point for Iron House. Something else going in its favour is that while the $220 price point is pretty standard for Tasmanian fare, the bottle is 700ml, making it a much more tempting proposition. It’s well worth your time tracking down a bottle or dram of the Tasman Whisky, maybe just hold back on the victory dance when you do!
While there’s a lot to like in options a) to c) (I’m a sucker for a pretty bottle!), when it comes down to it, the best thing about whisky is that you can drink it and therefore flavour is by far the most important factor.
Which is what the Adams of Adams Distillery had in mind when trying to squeeze every last tasty morsel out of cask AD0086, a French oak ex-pinot noir barrel. But before we get to option d), let us discuss a) to c).
Adams Distillery is based in the North of Tasmania at Glen Ireh Estate in Perth, just outside Launceston. They’ve been expanding the distillery since… well, pretty much since day 1, and the first few of their releases are only just entering the market.
This whisky is in no way old – by Scottish standards at least – but the smaller casking and hotter conditions in Tasmania require an earlier release. To maximise the flavour in each bottle the Adams developed the ‘slosh-cask’ technique, which simply involves regularly rolling the barrel from one side of the bond store to the other – the idea being that the process encourages greater interaction with the wood of the cask, forcing more of the barrel influence into the spirit.
The bottle is particularly pretty as well and is sure to stand out on bars with its distinctly-shaped neck. However, the most beautiful aspect is the colour of the whisky itself: a rich brown which when held up to the light glows ruby red.
It is an appropriate colour when you consider the creation of the dram. Unlike most whisky-makers in Tasmania who stick to a fairly standard grain (usually pilsner malt), Adams has experimented with using a percentage of dark crystal malt in their mash. It could be the power of suggestion… but I can’t help but feel it imparts coffee notes throughout the dram’s flavour.
On the nose there is oodles of chocolate, vanilla and stewed fruits, alongside hints of green grapes. It’s all coated in a thick layer of toffee which continues onto the palate, and is vibrant and viscous, almost chewy. There are also notes of strawberries and chocolate orange, while the finish contains strong coffee fudge flavours. For my fellow North West Coast Tasmanians, Anvers do one that this strongly reminds me of.
This whisky is not subtle – not even a little. But that’s not the point of the dram. The Adams have put flavour first and this is the result. It couldn’t be described as easy drinking and does take some taming. But like a whisky-swilling St George, I’m happy to take on this dragon. It’s exciting and moreish and most importantly of all, something a little different for Tasmanian whisky.
The other night I grabbed my crutches (see here for that particular whisky-fuelled drama) and hobbled down to The Chapel Cafe in Burnie for a spot of whisky tasting. While my wife was still suspicious of my ability to stay upright after a few cheeky drams, I on the other hand was confident and keen not to miss out on sampling the range of Arran whiskies being offered by Destination Cellars that night.
Photo: Todd Morrison
Destination Cellars is a family-run business based in Hobart, offering a huge range of whiskies (and other drinks) and regularly holds tasting nights showcasing various products. Todd Morrison from Destination had made the trek up to the North West, glad to leave “the monsoonal conditions in Hobart” behind. Todd revealed to the crowd of 20-odd attending the tasting that Burnie had been the site of a certain important life event for him. It was at the ‘luxurious establishment’ (his words) called the Burnie Caravan Park that a young Todd tried whisky for the very first time. In town as part of a sporting tour, the weather was poor, so a bottle of Grants was procured to liven up the night. A game of spin-the-bottle ensued and a wretched Todd didn’t touch the golden spirit for another 20 years. Luckily he’s cured now apparently.
Also along for the ride and to share his knowledge of the Arran was industry stalwart, top bloke and bona-fide Scotsman Craig Johnstone. He’d been to Burnie before, but was a little surprised at the current municipal decorations littering the streets, quipping “what’s with all the trollies everywhere?” (Answer: probably ships’ crews coming into town from the port to do their shopping and dumping the trollies afterwards). Craig mentioned that the drive up had made him again appreciate the similarities between Tassie and Scotland, although apparently “the mosquitos here are much worse than the midges back home”.
We finished off with the Arran Gold, a whisky cream liquer
On offer that night were six drams from Arran Distillery (as well as Andrew’s excellent peated ale, definitely worth a try if you visit The Chapel). Craig whipped up a hand-drawn map to show everyone the location of the Isle of Arran, down off the South West coast, using handy references to help us home in on it, such as: “Edinburgh, here, is where all the best people are from, while Glasgow, here, is where all the idiots live” and “if the Campbeltown region is the bell-end of Scotland, then the Isle of Arran is the nut sack”.
First up was the Lochranza Reserve 43%, Arran’s basic workhorse, a NAS marriage of 1st- and 2nd-fill ex-bourbon casks. Named after the distillery’s home town on the north of the island, the Lochranza was sweet and grassy on the nose, while the mouth was buttery, with citrus, red jelly and a chewy caramel finish. Nothing really to write home about, but serviceable as a basic dram.
Checking out the colour
Before we got stuck in too much, Craig led us through some whisky drinking basics with his five step assessment. First up we eyeballed the glass and took note of the colour, which “nine times out of ten means bugger all, but holding the glass up to the light really makes you look professional!” Next we sleazily checked out the legs running down the side of the glass, which apparently “some people reckon they can use to tell the maker, cask type, age and what the distiller had for breakfast. If you meet someone like that, don’t get in a car with them because they’re definitely pissed.” The remaining steps, nosing, tasting and the finish, were completed studiously and without incident by the crowd.
Next up were two wine cask finishes, the Amarone 50% and the Côte-Rôtie 50%. Both are part of the Arran ‘Cask Finishes’ range, with the Lochranza used as a base before being finished in various wine casks (others include Sassicaia and Sauternes) to create limited edition releases. While both are red wines, the Amarone and the Côte-Rôtie imparted very different flavours on the spirit. The Amarone was dry and earthy on the nose, with a hint of grapes and damp moss, while the Côte-Rôtie was sticky and jammy, with quince paste and arrowroot. On the mouth, the Amarone was fruity, almost like Starburst chews and had a finish reminiscent of Cognac, while the Côte-Rôtie was very sharp, with almond paste, maraschino cherries and a salt water finish. Craig noted that Arran goes for wide, shallow flavour in its spirit, then uses the finishes to create depth.
Todd whips the troops into a frenzy. Photo: Craig Johnstone
The fourth dram on offer was something a bit special, the limited edition Master of Distilling II: The Man With the Golden Glass 51.8% (the releases are themed – last time was Hitchcock apparently). Created by Master Distiller James McTaggart (who Craig knows and apparently likes ‘shit beer, great whisky and fine wines’) to celebrate his 12th anniversary with Arran, the 12yo whisky is finished using rare Palo Cortado sherry casks. Craig was quite enthused about the unusual finish, noting “this isn’t a thermonuclear sherry bomb missile, but it is one of the weirdest sherry cask whiskies I’ve ever had.”
The flavour was indeed interesting, with hazelnuts, damp leaf litter, ginger snap biscuits, chocolate brownie, oiled metal and raisins on the nose. The mouth was biscuity with salted caramel, sultanas, and liveliness that ran right across the palate. The sherry finish was very distinct, with Craig commenting that it was “the most honest sherry-influenced whisky I’ve ever had”. It’s something that’s definitely worth a try if you come across it.
Not visible: my broken leg propped up on a chair. Photo: Todd Morrison
After we had finished dissecting the Master of Distilling II, we were ordered by Todd to “get your pipes and smoking jackets, because we’re going to slip into some peaty whiskies”. Machrie Moor, a peat bog on the western side of the island, gives its name to Arran’s range of peated whiskies. Todd admitted that he wasn’t always the biggest fan of peaty whiskies: “There’s warnings in nature – colours, smells and flavours that say ‘stay away!’. That was peated whisky to me.” These days he’s a convert and was keen to get stuck in.
The two Machrie Moor expressions on offer were essentially the same, but one was bottled at 46% while the other was a cask strength at 56.2% (to appeal to the French market apparently). According to Craig, back in the day most of the distilleries on Arran were illicit and made heavily peated whiskies as peat was the only fuel source, but now the style is the exception.
The smoke in the 46% was soft on the nose with a medicinal/rubbery texture and a hint of metal and smoked fish. In comparison, the cask strength was oily and resinous, with an intense aroma of freshly sawn timber, almost like Huon pine, followed by vanilla milkshake, home-made marshmallow and sea stones. On the mouth, the 46% was sweet and light, with raspberries on the fore and a curl of smoke on the finish, while the cask strength was hot and bright, with smoky bacon and smouldering green coastal vegetation. Both were very moreish, and the delicate 46% would make a great whisky to start a peat novice on.
Craig gets loose with the gang. Photo: Todd Morrison
At the end of the night the hosts took a vote to see what everyone’s favourites were, with Todd drily commenting that “this is going to be a somewhat North Korean voting system. The end result doesn’t actually matter, but we’re going to make you do it anyway”. Despite voter confusion and some potential rigging, every dram got some love, but the runaway winner was the Master of the Distilling II, with the cask strength Machrie Moor the runner up.
The night was a great success, particularly because I managed to get home again without breaking my other leg. Thanks to the enthusiasm shown by the local whisky fans, Destination Cellars will be back at the Chapel again on September 21 with a new range of whiskies, potentially lining up a selection of sherry bombs. Big thanks as always to Andrew at The Chapel Cafe for supporting whisky events in Burnie, to Destination Cellars for inviting me along as their guest, and of course to Todd and Craig for being damn fine hosts.
With Tasmanian Whisky Week just around the corner, it is only fitting that another distillery has joined that ever-growing band of Tassie producers offering mature whisky to the people. East Coast outfit Ironhouse Brewery & Distillery recently launched into the scene with the first release of their ‘Tasman Whisky’ label.
Better known (currently) for their Ironhouse beer range, the brewery and distillery (brewstillery?) is located at White Sands Estate, just north of Bicheno. Brainchild of head brewer and distiller Michael “Briggsy” Briggs, the distillery came into existence as a way to utilise excess wash generated by the brewery. According to Briggsy “we had a plan to sell our excess wash to whisky producers, but we hit a load of roadblocks along the way, so in the end we said ‘bugger it, we’ll just make our own!'”
Whisky Waffle recently had the chance to sample the fruits of that decision at the North West leg of the official launch series, luckily held in our hometown of Burnie. Burnie might seem an odd place to host a whisky launch for an East Coast outfit, but this is Tasmania, and there is always a local connection to be found.
Craig ‘Spilsy’ Spilsbury, Ironhouse Brand Ambassador and Briggsy’s right-hand man, grew up in Burnie and was excited to be able bring his new baby back to his old stomping grounds. “I got most of the scars on my head working at the Beach Hotel in Burnie back in the 80’s,” he quipped to the crowd assembled upstairs at the historic APPM paper mill building at South Beach. The venue was fitting in the context of local connections, as Briggsy revealed that his in-laws had met at the paper mill, while both fathers of the Whisky Waffle lads were employed there in the past too (and no doubt a good chunk of the audience could claim similar connections).
Our hosts were keen not to waffle on too long though (good thing we weren’t hosting) and instead let the whisky speak for itself. Briggsy revealed that the decision to brand the spirit as ‘Tasman Whisky’ rather than Ironhouse came from the intimate connection they share with the Tasman Sea, which provides the spectacular coastal setting for the brewstillery.
The Tasman Whisky first release consists of three different vatted cask expressions: bourbon, sherry and port, all bottled at roughly 47% ABV. We agreed that the bourbon cask, a light, sweet drop with a bit of a spearmint/menthol prickle, was quite Scottish in nature, with hints of its American heritage popping through occasionally.
The quirky sherry cask would have been at home in a sweet shop, sporting a fruit, malt and dark Lindt chocolate nose (milkshakes anyone?) and a fruity mouth reminiscent of red snakes and wine jelly. The winner for us, and most others too when a vote was held at the end, was the port cask. Much more classically Tasmanian in nature, the port was robust and spicy with fat fruity jam notes across the palate.
Not only does the Tasman Whisky range taste good, but it also looks good, thanks to the use of some rather *ahem* novel packaging. The box has been designed to look like a book, complete with first page, and will make an elegant addition to any collection. A rightfully smug Briggsy informed us that “it’s all about the story, about where we came from, hence the packaging looking like a book.” Spilsy chipped in with a useful bit of advice, noting that “it’s also useful for sneaking it past the trouble & strife”.
The evening concluded in a somewhat dramatic fashion, with Whisky Waffle’s own Ted trying to execute a dance move, in memory of attending a paper mill dance at the venue with his dad when he was 5, and instead managing to do a pretty comprehensive job of breaking his leg. Luckily the Tasman Whisky proved to be an excellent source of pain relief and kept spirits buoyed as the hours spent in the emergency department wore on.
For those looking to use Tasman Whisky recreationally rather than medicinally, bottles will begin to be released to the public in the next few weeks. Briggsy and Spilsy have always intended their whisky to drunk by humans rather than hidden away within the glass cabinets of collectors, and the price is therefore thankfully within reach of we regular people.
Tasmania’s whisky history is becoming richer and more storied with every passing year. It is with great pleasure that we officially welcome Tasman Whisky: the start of a brand-new chapter.