Whisky

Interview: Dean Druce and the Corowa Characters

Posted by: Ted

You know in sci-fi/superhero movies and comics how a certain event happens and suddenly strange things start to occur elsewhere? Like, a glowing, green meteorite crashes into Sydney and not long after a group of lads in rural New South Wales start to evolve in response? Maybe they even join forces as a team, with cool names (cos you gotta have cool names) and start to explore their powers? And of course, they have to have a rad lair to set up shop in.

The stuff of fiction? Maybe. But it was easy to draw comparisons with these elements when we caught up with Dean Druce from Corowa Distillery about the release of ‘The Corowa Characters’ single malt wine cask –

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Whisky Waffle: G’day Drucey, we recently got our hands on the Characters and it’s a cracker. On the side of the bottle are four caricatures sporting interesting names: The Boss, The Dreaded Distiller, The Fuzz and Muscles. Your website says the release ‘celebrates the people behind the whisky made here by us in Corowa’, but doesn’t really say who these guys are. Can you tell us a bit more about the lads hanging out on the side of the bottle?

Dean Druce: I’m the Managing Director, therefore I’m ‘The Boss’. [I’m also] the ‘ideas man’ as my favourite line is “I’ve been thinking……..”, at which point everyone starts to cringe.

Beau Schilg is the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ due to his hairstyle. The ‘perfectionist’ relates to how seriously he takes his craft of producing good spirit.

Tyler Spencer is our brewer. ‘The Fuzz’ likes his own jokes and comes up with lots of one-liners hence the ‘resident funnyman’.

Paul Miegel is our production manager. ‘Muscles’, like all good nicknames, came from a case of mistaken identity. It’s also his social media persona from hosting a 60sec episode each month on Facebook & YouTube titled ‘A minute with Muscles’. He has thousands of followers, thus the title of ‘social media influencer’.

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WW: Sounds like a solid crew. So were you all in it from the start/known each other for ages, or did people gradually come on board over time?

DD: When my father, Neil, bought the former Corowa Flour Mill for $1 from the local Council in 2010 [Ed. definitely a story to be explored at another time], I moved to Corowa to manage the business. I enjoyed playing AFL, so joining the local Corowa/Rutherglen FC seemed a good way to meet people and become part of the community. That’s where I met Beau.

As renovations continued, I asked around the club if anyone was interested in making whisky [and] Beau put his hand up. When we started distilling in 2016, the ‘Dreaded Distiller’ was born. [He was] one of the youngest distillers in the country at the time.

Tyler is the son of a local football hero and a good player in his own right. He was looking for a career change and we were looking for a brewer so he joined the team.

‘Muscles’ was one of the original investors when we started the distillery and with a background in pharmacy. Once we had whisky for sale, he became the production manager.

WW: What’s the vibe like at the distillery?

DD: With the majority of our workforce under 30yo, there is a natural energy that radiates from younger people. The four guys all get along well and there is always good banter around the distillery. Being such a young distillery, there is lots of excitement about the future.

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WW: What’s living and distilling in a small country town like Corowa like?

DD: Initially the town was really excited… then frustrated as they discovered how long it took until there was product [ready]. The benefit of a small town is that everyone knows us and recommends us to their friends and visitors as a place worth checking out.

All our whiskies have a local connection and we couldn’t think of anything more local than the guys that put it together. It’s as much about putting Corowa on the map as it is about the whisky itself.

WW: What’s important to you as a team?

DD: We are deadly serious about making a great product, but by the same token, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to do things a little bit differently, be a bit cheeky about the snobbishness of the industry, but respectful of its history.

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Image supplied

WW: Compared to a lot of Aussie whiskies, especially on the smaller scale, the Characters is insanely good value. It’s definitely Corowa in style, but much softer and more forgiving than something like the Bosque Verde (Whisky Waffle whisky of the year 2019), so we think that it will appeal to a broader audience. What made you decide to release this as a sub $100AUD whisky rather than in that $150-$200AUD sort of bracket?

DD: The Australian whisky market is maturing (in taste!) at a rapid rate. When [Sydney outfit] Archie Rose released their beautifully presented Rye whisky at $120, they changed the expectation of the market. We decided that if we wanted to remain “in the game”, as well as giving our profile a significant boost, we needed to establish a product true to ourselves at a price that both we, and the consumer could afford.

WW: Do you think that having a whisky at that more accessible price point will encourage people to try something different and get away from the Scotch?

DD: A significant percentage of visitors to our distillery are not regular whisky drinkers at all, but rather tourists looking for something different. Our heritage-listed building, chocolate sales, cafe and distillery provide a unique experience. By providing an approachable, value product we are able to introduce non-whisky drinkers to the industry, and the Australian style, thus growing the Australian market.

WW: In terms of the whisky itself, where are the wine barrels sourced from, and what type?

DD: The barrels are predominantly from the Barossa, with some from Rutherglen. Most have housed Shiraz wine, but we are experimenting with Pinot Noir, Durif and some white wine varieties.

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WW: Were you looking for particular characters [Ed. ha ha] when you created this expression? Were you even consciously looking, or did it just turn up like that and you thought ‘yep, that’s a goer’?

DD: If you are going to produce a value product, barrel cost is a significant factor. Wine casks proved to be the best value at the time (remembering we are only a young distillery) and wineries often use both French and American oak. By chance, we also happened to procure some Hungarian Oak wine casks around the same time.

When tasting the barrels, we got some sweet fruit, and spice from the Shiraz together with slightly different characteristics from the [various] oaks. We experimented with different ratios and decided on one that gave a nice balance between the vanilla flavour from American oak with the “cigar box” characteristic of French oak and the [unusual] characteristic of Hungarian Oak.

WW: Nice, we also get earthy, boozy dried fruits and timber on the nose with a juicy, tannic mouth feel. It’d be a good summer drinker for sure. What’s up next then?

DD: Our smokey whisky, using smoked barley imported from Scotland, is due for release in mid 2020 and is showing great promise.

If you’re traveling near Corowa make sure you stop in and have a chat with Drucey and the team. Check out their range of whiskies online here.

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity

★★★

Whisky Waffle Podcast Episode 17

This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where we discuss our rating system and which whiskies deserve five stars… and which deserve one;
– The Whisky, where we taste a Talisker released as part of the Game of Thrones range;
– Mystery Whisky, where Nick springs the Corowa Characters wine cask upon Ted; and
– Whisky Would You Rather, where we discuss the merits of Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Checkout the Feedspot Top Whisky Podcast Rankings here: https://blog.feedspot.com/whiskey_podcasts/

7K Distillery: Thinking outside (and in) the box

Posted by: Ted

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…

A geometric flower shape that is the logo of 7K Distillery

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.

A cluster of white modified shipping containers that house 7K Distillery. The containers sit on a hill overlooking the Derwent Valley north of Hobart. Mt Wellington/kunanyi is visible in the background. There is a bright blue sky with whispy white clouds. A tall rusty fire pot sits near the containers

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.”

A laboratory style bench inside the shipping container that houses 7K Distillery. Clusters over brightly coloured Aqua Vitae gin bottles sit on the bench and shelving above. Dead tree branches covered in moss are artfully arranged to hang over the bench

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.”

A copper still with black cladding sits next to a stainless steel gin column inside a shipping container

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.”

A small stainless steel still built out of a beer keg

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 of 7K Distillerty poses next to the still that he built

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…)

An idyllic view over the Derwent Valley near Brighton. A large gum tree is in the foreground. Paddocks and low hills covered in trees extend into the distance

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.

Three men standing in front of a whisky still. Two of them are Nick and Ted, world famous whisky writers from the blog Whisky Waffle. The other man is Tyler Clark, the owner of 7K Distillery

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.”

Heartwood: striving for consistency

Posted by: Nick

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Whisky Waffle Podcast Episode 14

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

Starward Two Fold Double Grain Australian Whisky

Reviewed by: Ted

It used to be that if you wanted to buy an Australian whisky, your choice was pretty much from a never-ending cavalcade of single cask, single malt releases that cost more kidneys than you could really afford on a regular basis. To be honest, it’s still like that, but these days the scene is starting to get a lot more diverse as more players enter the game and start to experiment with different styles.

People are prepared to pay for quality of course, but on the whole, prices for the Aussie amber still remain prohibitively high for the general market who want a decent local dram that isn’t going to eviscerate their wallets. Starward Distillery in Melbourne is trying to change that with a zesty little number pitched squarely at the average punter.

A bottle of Starward Two Fold Double Grain Australian Whisky sitting in front of a Christmas tree

Starward’s Two Fold Australian Whisky has an interesting trick up it’s sleeve that helps them to keep the price point well below $100AUD, which is a rare for a local drop (it’s currently $65AUD on their website). As well as using the standard malted barley, Starward have added wheat into the mix, making a ‘double grain’ whisky that ‘marries two quintessentially Australian grains’ together.

This is quite a clever move for a number of reasons. For one, Australia grows a lot of wheat – around 18.5million tonnes in 2018-19 in fact (which is actually down from previous years). In comparison, barley only managed about half that amount in the same period.

In terms of spirit production costs, wheat makes a lot more sense. In comparison to barley, which has to go through the whole malting process and then get distilled in fairly inefficient pot-stills, wheat spririt is generally produced on giant industrial column stills that allow for continuous production. In fact, Manildra Group’s Shoalhaven plant in Nowra, where Starward sources its wheat spirit from, is the largest grain neutral spirit (GNS) distillery in the South East Asia region.

Flavour-wise though, that’s where things start to get a bit more competitive. Neutral spirits made from grains such as wheat are much lighter and take far less influence from the cask compared to the heavier, oilier pot still-made malts. Hence why they have traditionally been used as the ‘silent’ base for Scottish blends, with small amounts of single malts added in on top to provide the flavour.

Starward’s ‘thing’ has always been Australian wine cask maturation and the Two Fold is no exception to that rule, in this case doubling-down on it. According to Starward they use [sic] “Lightly charred or steamed barrels. Sourced from Australian wineries that make great shiraz, cabernets and pinot noirs. Often filled fresh when the barrel is still wet with wine.” Starward’s own malt spirit and the wheat spirit are aged separately before being blended at a ratio of about 2:3 before being bottled at 40%abv.

A bottle of Starward whisky wearing a christmas jumper and santa hat sitting on a red brick in a herb garden. Yes, that is a bit random I know

Getting into the Christmas spirit

Speaking of the bottle, Starward has always killed it with their label art and the Two Fold is no exception, with a gorgeous blue, black and gold label with an unusual shape that stands out from the pack. Colour-wise, there is no mistaking that the spirit has spent its life in ex-wine casks, sporting a ruddy copper hue.

Flavour-wise, the Two Fold is a certified drinker. The nose is creamy and fruit-driven, with peaches, red grapes and banana mixed with a generous hit of vanilla with chocolate/cereal notes that make me think of Weetbix slice. There’s also an interesting nutty, meaty quality that sits underneath.

The mouth is relatively spicy, thanks to the wheat, and dry from the wine. The body is light and creamy across the mid-palate with a relatively short, tannin-driven finish, although there’s enough linger to make you keep wanting to come back for another go.

David Vitale and the Starward team have really pulled it off with the Two Fold. Low price certainly doesn’t equal cheap whisky in this case. Even better, it comes in a 700ml bottle. I think that the Two Fold is an excellent dram for the Aussie summer – the wine-driven flavours would pair perfectly at a BBQ, it’s light enough in the heat and the price means that it’s ideal to casually share amongst friends. If you’re looking for a solid local dram this festive season, the Starward Two Fold is a no-brainer.

***

PS. It’s nearly Christmas, so it’s about time for a dodgy cracker joke –

Q: What’s a grain spirit’s favourite Christmas carol
A: Silent Night

Whisky Waffle Summer Drams

Posted by: Ted

Summer Drams

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

Whisky Waffle Podcast Episode 13

For those following the podcast feed lately you will have noticed all the old episodes appearing on the feed – but now we’re up to date and it’s time to release a brand new show! Have a listen and let us know your thoughts on social media or in the comments!

This episode contains:
– The Waffle, where an old bottle of bottom shelf makes the Wafflers wonder if they may be snobbier about whisky than they thought;
– The whisky, where the boys confront what was, for a brief time, the peatiest whisky on earth;
– Mystery Whisky, where Ted effectively cheats by bringing a bottle which is not made from barley, corn or rye; and
– Whisky Would You Rather, where the cream of the Tasmanian crop goes head to head

Sawford Distillery: Welcome to the family

Posted by: Ted

“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.

Old Kempton First Release Solera Cask

Reviewed by: Nick

Old Kempton Solera WW

There are many positive, glowing and indeed, highly complimentary words you can use to describe the Tasmanian whisky industry: flavourful, innovative, even simply: delicious. However, the word ‘consistent’ is not one that leaps to the top of that list. Due to the single cask nature of most of Tasmania’s small distilleries, it is highly likely that a bottle released by a producer this year is going to be vastly different to one released in two years’ time… or even one the next month. This is ok; most distilleries embrace the variety, although the approach can sometimes confuse return customers.

Old Kempton Distillery in Tasmania’s Southern Midlands is one such keen subscriber to the single barrel release method. Recently however, they have started trialling a Solera system in a huge 500L port puncheon. The contents of 24 smaller barrels have been emptied into this 100-year-old behemoth and left to mix and mingle until the tasting team at Old Kempton determine it to be ready. Crucially though, not all of the barrel’s contents will be emptied: half will remain to marry with the next batch of premium Old Kempton whisky added, before the process is repeated time and time again, creating a reliable flavour profile (and the intriguing premise that the finished product will include an amount of whisky, however infinitesimally small, which is very old indeed).

Old Kempton Solera cask WW

The first bottles out of the tun are about to be released exclusively to Old Kempton whisky club members and with it they have created something unique to not only their own distillery, but to the whole of the Tasmanian whisky industry.

Upon first inspection, you can tell there’s something different about it. It’s so obvious: the colour! It’s far darker and redder than any Old Kempton release I have ever seen, no mean feat considering its (relatively) modest bottling strength of 49%. The colour is surely due to the maturation time in the giant ex-port reciprocal being used to facilitate the Solera process. One sniff indicates the cask has affected the flavour, too.

Old Kempton Solera WW dram

The nose is full of juicy fig notes with large dollops of ripe plums, glace cherries and stewed fruit. It’s rich and dark and features subtle flavours of nutmeg, pears and vanilla custard. The palate continues this theme: rich and broad across the mouth with sweet gooey notes halfway between sticky date pudding and thick gingerbread. The finish is long but without a single note of spicy astringency or over-oaking.  Instead it is sweet and fat, like a ganache where the chef has gone rather easy on the cream.

This is a fascinating whisky. Comparing it to other releases from the same distillery is an experience that is confusing in the best possible way. You find yourself speculating on important questions such as ‘how do they do it?’, ‘what will the solera be like in few years?’ and ‘with a colour like this, why are they not called Redlands anymore?’. While we might not be able to provide satisfactory answers to these ponderances, at least we have a delicious dram to mull them over with.

★★★★

Join the Old Kempton Whisky Club before November 5 and you will go into the draw to win a free bottle of Old Kempton First Release Solera Cask!