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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.

White Label: contract to distil

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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With bottle prices soaring and demand never higher, surely it’s time for you – yes you! – to get into the Tasmanian whisky production scene. But hold your horses for a moment son, start up costs for a distillery are astronomical: you’ll need to splash a few hundred grand on stills and equipment, enter into ridiculously expensive rental agreements on a warehouse and only then you can start thinking about the rising cost of ex-fortified wine barrels. Suddenly a spot of homebrew is looking like a far the better option – or perhaps a hobby-shift into bee-keeping.

If only there was a business out there specifically set up to help you produce your own whisky, managing the hands-on aspects while you focus on creating your own unique flavour profile…

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Enter White Label, Tasmania’s first contract whisky distillery. It has been specifically set up to provide businesses and start-ups with the opportunity to get distilling without bankrupting themselves trying to manage the setup costs. While many other distilleries may offer contract distilling opportunities, White Label is the only one to specialise in it. As there will never be a ‘White Label’ whisky (Dewars have already claimed that one), there is not an on-shelf brand to build; the focus will be solely on the needs of the client.

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The man at the helm is Anthony ‘Sags’ White, a former farmer from Bothwell who cut his distilling teeth at Nant Distillery when the Tasmanian industry was just getting into its stride. While he is happy to cater to his customers’ needs, he is also passionate about making a good product and figuring out each step of the process, claiming “the whole basis of my life is to try to work out why and how things happen and then improve them. I love fixing shit that breaks.”

White Label has created their own house-style of new make spirit, available to customers less interested in the technical factors in brewing and distilling, although clients will also be allowed to put their own spin on things. For example, regular customer Spirit Thief elects to use a different yeast in the fermentation process which results in a subtly different wash, a slightly different feints cut and a very different new make spirit – and both versions are delicious!

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The house style is crisp and light with a dash of citrus and perfect for taking on the characters of most cask types, whereas the Spirit Thief is heavier and oilier and ideal for soaking up the flavours of the wine barrels commonly used by the brand.

While Anthony is in charge of the spirit production, he hands over to Jane and Mark Sawford for barrel sourcing from Australia’s best cooperages. They are able to offer everything from traditional ex-bourbon and sherry through to as-yet-untried wine barrels such as Grenache or Mataro. The team will work with the client to source the barrels that will best match the desired flavour profile for the final product. White Label also offers space in their bond stores where they will look after the maturing spirit.

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Consultation is a very important part of the whole process general. White Label will try as much as possible to ensure that the product meets the specifications requested while ensuring that the end product will be of the best quality, which they will work through with the client. While White Label will shoulder most of the heavy lifting on the production side of things, the client will have most of the responsibility for things like barrel selection, maturation lengths, branding and marketing. To enable the best chance of success, mentorship from leading industry figures such as Casey Overeem is provided to help overcome the pitfalls and challenges in creating a successful Tasmanian whisky brand.

While Anthony isn’t prepared to compromise the high-quality of his new-make spirit by sticking peated malt or juniper berries into his stills, if there is enough interest and demand White Label is fully prepared to look at future expansion to allow projects that go down a smoky or gin-based route.

So don’t be put off, fellow whisky lovers – the ability to create a single malt whisky is no longer restricted to those who possess their own stills and distilling licence. Whether it’s a chance to start your own brand without breaking the bank or as a speciality gift for high-end businesses, White Label offers an opportunity unique in the local whisky industry. Start your whisky journey with White Label today…

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Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Jim Beam

When Jacob Beam first distilled some corn along the banks of Dicks River in Kentucky circa 1795, he probably cranked out some pretty rough and ready stuff. Well, it seems that over the years not much has changed. Jim Beam has its origins as a small family business plying their trade in the newly formed state of Kentucky, but since then the family has grown just a tad. In 2014 Jim Beam was involved in a shotgun wedding which resulted in it picking up the double-barrel name (geddit?) Beam-Suntory. And all this multi-national success only came at the low, low price of its soul. Well, it seemed like a good deal at the time.

Not that the brand was particularly struggling it must be said, as Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is one of the most recognisable and consumed spirits on the face of the planet. Most often you can observe it in its natural environment being mixed with coke, or being shotted by teens trying to be tough (and then regretting it later).

The boys from Whisky Waffle are even tougher than that. They sipped it. Neat.

Ted and Beam

On the nose the Beam is surprisingly smooth. And sweet… you could be forgiven for the thinking that it’s a liqueur. Honey, pear and confectionery notes of red frog and fairy floss (“cotton candy” in Beam’s motherland) slide across the ol’ olfactory bulbs. Overall it’s not too bad actually.

But then like a Disneyland water-slide, things go down the tubes. On the palate the analogy is rather appropriate as the Beam is about as watery as the pool at the bottom of the aforementioned slide. It also tastes like quite a few people have been swimming in it before you. The quality is thin, with a hint of sour white grapes coated in a film of dish liquid. Once you’ve emerged from the murky waters, your mouth is left with the not altogether pleasant taste of ethanol, cheap Sav Blanc and tourists in Mickey Mouse swimmers.

In fact, drinking bog standard Beam is a lot like a trip to Disneyland in general. It’s exciting at the start, but at the end of the day you are left feeling hot, weary, annoyed, and like your personal space has been violated by hordes of Japanese tourists (Suntory joke). Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is not a whiskey we would turn to regularly, but then again we’re not really doing it right. Coke anyone?