From a small distillery you’ve probably never heard of = check.
Surely I’ve written this exact review before, right? WRONG! Because this whisky is quite unlike anything going around at the moment!
Hillwood Distillery, based just north of Launceston, is the creation of father and sons team: Paul, Ollie, Daniel and Joel Herron. Inspired by their love of creating things, they decided single malt whisky was a product they could all get on board with. Together, they began to lay down small barrels in 2018.
This particular bottle is one of the first Hillwood whiskies released and was aged in the rather uncommon cask type: ex-chardonnay. The barrel influence is significant and part of what makes this a very different whisky to most coming out of the state. Like all Hillwood releases, it is bottled at cask strength, in this case 61.4%, and was one of only 37 bottles.
Let’s begin with the colour. That colour. Wow. Dark whiskies are actually the norm for Hillwood. Paul believes it is to do with the mineral content in the local water, which I couldn’t even begin to verify, but whatever it is, the whisky comes out of a cask which once housed a distinctly white wine looking like a jar of molasses.
On the nose there is an initial whiff of apricot jam which quickly transforms into white chocolate, butterscotch and tiramisu. The palate is intense and grapey with sweet gooey notes of vanilla-latte and Werther’s Originals: caramel topping on ice cream. There’s also a hint of fruitcake, which is curious considering there’s not a hint of fortified wine used in this whisky’s creation. The finish is long. Oh-so long! The sweetness dries off rapidly leaving a lingering oaky spice.
The wood-influence is noticeably present, in no small part thanks to the 20-litre cask the whisky was aged in, but as much as this threatens to overwhelm the delicate chardonnay notes, it never does, leaving a finely balanced flavour bomb. It is an impressive whisky which gets better with every sip.
For many folk there must be a temptation to pass off the Hillwood Chardonnay Cask as just another unpredictable single cask release, yet I can thoroughly recommend seeking this one out, or at least something similar from Hillwood. There is a mini chardonnay cask movement occurring at the moment and it is fascinating to taste the results. I would even go so far as to argue that this is the best of the bunch.
Over the past two years we have brought our Waffling to the airwaves with our Whisky Waffle Podcast. It’s reached people all over the world and we’ve recently added an interview series with people in the industry. It’s all looking pretty exciting for the future of the pod – which is why we are trying to take things to the next level by launching a Whisky Waffle Patreon!
Patreon is an (completely optional!) service where you can pay as little as a few dollars a month to access bonus content, have a say on features for the pod and become part of an inner circle of Wafflers. Hosting a podcast costs us lots of money, not to mention the countless hours spent editing and we hope that through Patreon we might be able to balance out some of that.
Here is a run down of the tiers you can jump in at. Amounts listed here are in (roughly) Australian dollars as the website works in American dollars. Each tier receives the benefits of those below it in addition to the tiers own rewards:
$3/month: Carrier Pigeon. You will get your name on our High Spirits List, access to our posts and the ability to vote on what whisky we review
$5/month: Feints Club. You will get access a bonus episode ‘The Feints’ every month. The Feints is a section (usually recorded late in a recording session) far too waffly to use in a regular episode
$10/month: Official Waffler. You will receive an induction as an Official Waffler on the pod, a personalised membership certificate and get access to the whole uncut Waffling With interviews which we conduct
$25/month: Drinking Buddy. We will send you (as a gift) a 30ml sample of our monthly review whisky so you can drink along with us!
$50/month: Tasting Panel. We will send you (as a gift) a 30ml dram of something local and/or interesting that we’ve been tasting recently
$100/month: Cask Strength. Basically you will become our hero and we will worship you on each episode of the pod. We’ll make you personalised tasting videos and regularly go on about your awesomeness.
Just a quick note: the tiers where we post you out a little sample bottle are Australia-only at the moment (sorry!)
Just to clarify, there is no compulsion to join our Patreon. The podcast will continue as normal and everyone will be able to access it for free. However, there will be bonus content available for those who want to come with us on this journey.
Terroir/tɛrˈwɑː (n) the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a whisky by the environment in which it is produced
Terroir is a divisive subject. How much impact can water, soil, air and climate really have on a whisky’s flavour in comparison to cask types when aging and cut points when distilling?
I was in the camp that would claim ‘negligible’. And then I went to McHenry Distillery. Now I get it. Because when we drank a specific whisky in a specific location… it all lined up. It all made sense. McHenry is a distillery like no other in Australia. In fact, the only comparison you could make… is Scotland.
The Scottish connections run deeply through the veins of McHenry Distillery. The day we visited veered wildly between cold and freezing with the occasional gust of snow. In fact, the near identical rainfall and humidity levels mean whisky maturation is more Scotland than Tasmania, even down to the cask size: there is hardly a 20 litre barrel to be found, with 200 litres or more preferred. And then there’s the man himself: founder and head distiller, William McHenry, who began seriously entertaining the idea of making whisky when a friend suggested that he had the right name for it.
William, or Bill, when Mr Lark is not in the room, made the momentous decision in 2010 while living in Sydney, to uproot his family and move their future business to a remote wilderness block half way up Mount Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. Standing at the top looking out across the wilderness really does feel like you’ve come to the edge of the world. While these two cultural extremes may have been jarring for the family, Bill immediately felt at peace, particularly when he discovered a natural spring flowing out of the mountain.
“Having grown up in Adelaide, the driest state in the driest country on earth, when you have a water source on your property, you cherish it. It’s gold. And because the water coming off the Southern Ocean is falling through some of the cleanest air in the world, it deposits some of the best quality water you can find on the planet. And that certainly makes this place special.”
After tapping into the spring to provide the water for his whisky, he got to work turning this untamed patch of land into a distillery.
The site resembles a frontier town. A series of long, narrow buildings spreading outwards from an off-centre origin, the timber cladding all rapidly turning a distinguished silver. It is a distillery that has clearly expanded organically, a new building established here or there when the need arose. There are small cabins for guests to stay in, and bond stores starting to be dotted around the hill. And there’s plenty of room for more.
Half way up Mount Arthur is the gin-making pavilion, the Devils Lair cottage and most special of all: The Bothy. Sheltering inside the tiny room next to a roaring fire with a dram of McHenry whisky while a storm rages is one of the most authentic whisky moments Whisky Waffle have experienced. As Bill poured us a dram, we realised this is how the environment influences a whisky. Three mates, four walls, a sleepy dog and a roaring fire. This is what terroir is all about. It may not be the traditional French definition, but the impact the sense of place had on our interpretation the flavour of is undeniable.
If it feels like McHenry Distillery has been around for a while but not released much whisky, it’s because this is largely true. Bill has no interest in releasing whisky before its time and would largely like to stick to vatted age statement releases. Again, sticking to the formula laid down by the Scots.
Instead, you may know McHenry only for their gin. Bill was an early adopter of the while-we-wait method of gin creation and quickly became one of Australia’s most renowned gin makers, even becoming the official gin provider for government house with their exceptional ‘Federation Gin’.
However, fellow Wafflers take heed: 2021 will see some 10-year-old McHenry whisky come of age and, in a few years, Bill hopes to have a readily-available supply of consistently flavoured whisky unleashed upon the world.
And when you do get your hands on a bottle, you can easily pour yourself a tasty dram of McHenry whisky wherever you are in the world. But sitting in a storm-lashed bothy at the edge of the world? That is the truest experience of all. Experience that and you might finally believe in Terroir.
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.”
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
This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where we talk about the pros and cons of bourbon barrel maturation;
– The Whisky, where we review a corn whiskey aged in ex-bourbon barrel: the Michters Unblended American Whiskey;
– Smash Session or Savour, where all things Glen fight to the death; and
– Whisky Would You Rather, where we drunkenly discuss two possible dystopian futures of the Tasmanian whisky industry
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.”
This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where we talk about tasting notes: helpful, or simply bollocks?
– The Whisky, where we enthuse about a peaty Kilchoman matured in red wine casks;
– From the Spirit Sack, where we try and figure out just how many distilleries there are in Tasmania; and
– Smash, Session or Savour, where three 12 year old sherry bombs face off
December is upon us, which means that for Australians, summer is here. Long days, beautiful weather and BBQ’s with the fam… Although in reality, the whole of the mainland seems to be on fire at the moment, while down here in Tassie we’re still shivering miserably (and snow is forecast for next week!).
For Whisky Waffle, December means a couple of things. For one, we have to start racking our whisky-addled memories for some outstanding drams that we’ve tried over the past year to go into the upcoming Waffle Awards. The other thing is – it’s about bloody time we held another whisky event!
It’s been a little while since we’ve done one of our live gigs, in no small part due to some idiot breaking his leg! Anyway, we’re back on our full compliment of feet again and ready to get legless with the crew.
This time around our theme is Summer Drams and we have a cracking line-up of summertime whisky to share with you. Featuring six whiskies, including some curios from the motherland and a few home-grown heroes, as well as festive nibbles and our usual hi-jinks, the evening is set to be a (Christmas) cracker.
Big thanks as always to the crew at The Chapel for hosting (aka putting up with) us, and to Ariel, our artist, for the excellent poster art.
WHEN: Sunday 15th Dec @ 5:30pm
WHERE: The Chapel, Burnie
WHAT: Six whiskies + festive nibbles
RSVP: www.trybooking.com/BHCOI, or tickets at the venue
“Sorry I’m a bit late!” exclaims Jane as she sweeps into Sawford Distillery, “The kids have just had their nap and are now at the park with my sister.”
“Everything revolves around nap time these days” laughs husband and head distiller Mark, chipping in on the conversation as he checks the stills.
Family is core to everything at Sawford Distillery, but that idea isn’t just limited to blood relatives. It also extends to the relationships and community that Mark and Jane Sawford want to create around their distillery.
Mark and Jane Sawford relaxing in front of their shiny stills
Jane herself is the scion of a famous Tasmanian whisky family. Most people would know her as Jane Overeem, the daughter of one of the founding fathers of the modern scene, Casey Overeem. During Whisky Waffle’s recent visit to Sawford, we are immediately struck by that rich sense of heritage and connection as soon as we enter the bond store.
Sporting something of a Cold War chic (one can imagine secret agents hurrying through, clutching top-secret counter-espionage dossiers), the bond store has an important place in Tasmanian whisky history: “This was originally Bill Lark’s back in the very early days,” Jane tells us, “But after he left, my dad was quick to snap it up. This room is where we used to bottle the Overeem. Mum used to do the bottling, Dad did the labelling and I did the packing. Then I had to take the boxes down to the local post office to send off. It was all part of building the Overeem brand!”
The old Overeem bottling bench. In a few years time it’ll be Sawford’s turn.
While the bench may still be covered in Overeem bottles, these days all the barrels in the next room are filled with Sawford spirit, meaning that one day in the near future it might be Jane’s kids helping to pack their own namesake whisky. That day is still a little way off though as, unlike a lot of Tassie distilleries, the Sawfords are taking the slow approach.
“This place is quite cool and has a very stable climate, allowing for a much longer, gentler maturation” comments Mark as he clambers up onto the top of the racks to thieve some whisky.
“Dad always said that he wanted his spirit to taste like whisky and not oak,” adds Jane, “And we’ve really taken that on board. That’s why we’re mostly using l00L-plus barrels and playing the long game to get the best out of the spirit.”
While we’re down in the bond store, Mark and Jane are kind enough to share some of the fruits of their labour with us (when in Rome, eh?). Mark taps barrel #002, a 100l port cask that’s been down for about 2.5yrs (#001 is off limits as it’s been “getting sampled a bit too often”) and it’s good. Like, really good. Unfortunately we get a bit distracted drinking the whisky and forget to write down any tasting notes, but I remember thinking at the time that if this stuff is cracking after only 2.5yrs, imagine what it’s going to be like on its release around 2022.
Back when Mark and Jane were first toying with the idea of starting their own distillery, there was some resistance from a surprising source, with Jane revealing “Dad strongly encouraged us to put up a solid business plan first, as it’s very expensive – and a long time before you see any return. But we worked through it all, and now he’s very supportive and excited for us!”
Mark has been grateful for the support and whisky making know-how of his father-in-law, having come into the Overeem family past-time as an outsider. “When Jane and I first got together Casey kept an eye on me, as prospective father-in-laws do. But we get along really well, we like to have a beer together. Casey mentored me when we started Sawford. He was there to help me in the first few months and then slowly stepped back as I started to get a good grip on things.”
Mark’s own background is in hospitality, with several properties in the Kingston Beach area, but these days he spends a lot of his time running the stills at his distillery. “The reason I can spend five days a week here at the same time as running three businesses is because I have a good team around me.” Putting in that effort means that Mark is currently able to coax around 40 000L of spirit a year out of the stills and after 2.5 years, already has a couple-of-hundred barrels down. “I don’t want to have the same problem as Casey did back in the day and be saying ‘I wish I put down more spirit down’.”
Back out on the distillery floor, the digs are modern and airy, sharing a wall with the White Label contract distillery, which Sawford helps source barrels for and for which Jane is the sales manager. Taking pride of place on the Sawford side are the Knapp Lewer-built 1800L wash still and 800L spirit still, inspired by the original Overeem stills. “We’re very sensory with our cuts,” comments Mark, “I’m always trying to improve instead of just going through the motions.”
Mark getting ‘sensory’ with the cuts
The stills themselves are brightly burnished, almost purple, and rippling with a rainbow sheen; keen Instagram followers will know that this gleam is the result of a ‘family still polishing day’ a few months ago. “We like to think that the way we present our stills and our distillery is a representation of who we are,” Mark tells us proudly as we gaze at our reflections.
Another representation of who Mark and Jane are is the large silver monogram adorning the back wall in the distillery. According to Jane, ‘S&O’ (Mark Sawford & Jane Overeem) stands as a symbol for “who we are as a couple – two families coming together to make something beautiful.”
Being based in the ‘romantic’ Huntingfield industrial estate means that Sawford is unlikely to pick up any location awards, but Mark isn’t fazed: “We didn’t want to go down the location bent, we want to celebrate the people instead. We wanted our brand to be real, not to pretend that we’re something that we’re not. What we really value is building relationships.”
Jane backs him up on that idea all the way: “Back in the day we had to go knocking on everyone’s doors to try to sell the Overeem and convince them to take a chance on Tassie whisky. We’re going to have to go through all that again with Sawford, not necessarily because people need convincing these days, but because we want to build that personal relationship up with all the bars and businesses and the community. Having those connections with people is something that is really important to us.”
“Oops, sorry guys, I’ve got to go, the kids need picking up!” exclaims Jane apologetically as she hurries out the door again. Our time is up as well as we have an appointment to keep on the other side of the wall, so we say our goodbyes to Mark and ride off into the sunset (aka, around the corner to White Label).
You know, despite their hectic lives, the Sawfords really do walk the talk and go out of their way to make you feel like part of the community that they’re trying to build. Which is lucky, because at a time when the Tassie whisky industry feels like it’s growing by the minute and the big sharks are starting to circle, hopefully it’s people like Mark and Jane who will ensure that we never lose that sense of family.