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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Pt 3: Hellyer's Road Distillery

Hellyer's Road is one of the more well known Tasmanian distilleries, even more so in export markets, and is actually the largest single malt distillery in Australia. That said, you'll find it on top of a hill, down a driveway, in a residential street! It's located in Burnie, which is around 4.5 hours drive North-West from Hobart, through Launceston and Devonport. 

Their large size (by Australian / Tasmanian standards), and the fact that they are owned by Betta milk, a large Tasmanian dairy company, means that they can sell their whiskies at quite low prices. Their standard 10-year old bottling is around $80, which is very cheap for an Australian whisky. They're making their whisky from local Tasmanian barley, which is malted in nearby Devonport, and filtered town water, which is already very clean in Tasmania. All of their single malts are non-chill filtered, and are bottled on-site, at 46.2% or higher, without any added colouring.      

I must admit that I'm not a big fan of their 10 year-old or 'original' expressions. However, their 12-year old and peated bottling's, and their new port cask expression in particular, are enjoyable. The range is very keenly priced, with most coming in at under $100, making it some of the cheapest Australian single malt whisky you can buy. 

Hellyer's Road isn't what you would call a traditional distillery, by any means. Created as a diversifying venture for the aforementioned dairy company in 2003, you won't find any polished copper stills, malting floors or wooden wash backs here. In fact, the only copper you'll see is in the onion, lyne arm, and condenser on the (huge) stills, everything else is stainless steel. Yes, even the bodies of the stills. 

The distillery only has three full-time employees, thanks to the majority of the production process being computerised. It can even be controlled remotely! But then they're not trying to be traditional, they're trying to produce a keenly priced Australian single malt, which is what they're doing.

Until recently, the distillery had only been filling first-fill casks, of a variety of types. Their bourbon casks are sourced mostly from Jack Daniels, and you'll also find Tasmanian pinot-noir casks, Australian port casks, and some recently filled PX sherry casks sitting on the racks in their warehouse. However, they've tested using refill casks and apparently found minimal difference, so will be switching to those for some of their malts. Obviously this is a much cheaper way of doing things, so it'll be interesting to see how it goes.

It's important to note that while Hellyer's are one of the few distilleries in Tasmania that are currently selling peated whisky (the others are Lark & Belgrove), they're also the only one which is importing their peated barley from Scotland. This gives their peated malt a more familiar flavour than those made using Tasmanian peat, which is more delicate and floral than some may expect, particularly when compared to Islay. Hellyer's peated malt is actually lightly peated by ppm standards, but it's quite prominent in the finished whisky.

This being the first distillery visit during the trip, I also couldn't pass up buying a pretty special bottling of their whisky. Hellyer's Road offers what they call 'distiller's choice' casks at the distillery, which punters can bottle their own whisky from during the tour. They currently offer up a peated and an un-peated cask, at cask strength, and non-chill filtered & natural colour. You also taste both of these casks during the tour, then have the choice of buying & filling a bottle. Hellyer's is the only single malt distillery in Tasmania which is doing this, at least to my knowledge. The others should really get on board! 

Naturally I chose the peated 'distiller's choice' cask pictured above, which was an 11+ year old bourbon cask, at 64.3%. You also get to wax-seal the bottle yourself (over a plastic screw cap) and they give you a certificate, which may be a little gimmicky, but is still pretty cool. I should add that this special bottle came in at a bargain price of just $93, albeit only in a 500ml bottle. The un-peated cask was around 66% from memory, and was priced only a few dollars higher. Not bad at all.

I've chosen to review two different expressions of Hellyer's Road whisky, for your viewing pleasure. One is un-peated, their pinot noir finished bottling, made from local Tasmanian barley, and the other is their peated bottling, matured in bourbon casks, and is made from the imported peated Scottish barley. So this is a good comparison of something a little weird, and something a little more familiar.
Hellyer's Road Pinot Noir Finish, NAS, 46.2%. Tasmania, Australia.
Matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, finished in first-fill French oak casks, which previously held Tasmanian pinot noir, for an undisclosed period of time. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 

Colour: Gold with pink tinge.

Nose: Waxy fruits - apple, banana, red grapes. Fresh barley. Sour, yeasty bread, floral soap. Mild tannins.

Texture: Decent weight / mouth-feel, but a little rough.

Taste: A fair bit of heat, still there with every sip. Dry oak & spice, mild tannins. Musty red grapes. 

Finish: Very short, slightly bitter, light malt. 

Score: 1.5 out of 5. Not undrinkable, but not diggin' it. 

Notes: Add this one to the list of Hellyer's I don't like (with the original and 10yo). The nose is quite different and interesting, and enjoyable. The taste, not so much. And the finish is basically not there. I should have reviewed the port expression instead of this one, but couldn't get a sample of it. I Tasted it at the distillery though, and was very impressed. Even their 12yo is a better representation than this one, I think.

Hellyer's Road Peated, NAS, 46.2%. Tasmania, Australia.
Supposedly around 8 years old, matured in ex-bourbon casks. Made using imported Scottish peated barley, sourced from Inverness (Baird's?). Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Sour, earthy peat, a little smoke and ash. Slightly soapy and rubbery. 

Texture: Similar to the pinot, but without most of the roughness. Pleasant. 

Taste: Peat again, but it's less sour than on the nose, and a little spicy now. Dry smoke, a touch of sweetness. Not much else. Enjoyable though, almost an Islay-style peat influence here. 

Finish: Medium. Dry earthy peat, some ash, then camp fire smoke. Slight hints of vanilla and buttery oak.

Score: 2.5 out of 5. 

Notes: Much better than the pinot, to my palate anyway. Lacking complexity though, the peat is the only strong player in this one. A nice, easy drinking peated malt, but despite being one of the cheapest Australian single malts you can buy, it's still more expensive than the great 'entry-level' Islay's. Compared to the likes of Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16, or Laphroaig 10yo / quarter cask, the Hellyer's just can't compete. At all. 

Conclusion: Obviously, I preferred the peated expression to the pinot, but I have to say I don't think either of these is a far representation of what Hellyer's Road Distillery is capable of. I tasted both of the 'distiller's choice' expressions at cask strength, and the port matured (matured, not finished) expression, at the distillery, and they were excellent malts. How about a cask strength release, guys?

The same goes for Tasmanian barley (in the pinot) vs. imported Scottish barley (in the peated). There are many excellent Tasmanian malts, all of which are representing the quality of the local ingredients. Not at this sort of price point, though. If you're looking for an Australian single malt at this sort of price, look towards the stars, with starward!

As for Hellyer's Road single malts which you can find on the shelves, I'd definitely recommend looking for the port cask bottling. It's bottled at a slightly higher strength (48.9%), and is fully matured in ex-Australian port casks. Unfortunately it's significantly more expensive than all the others, at around $160, and is also a little more rare. Only 430 bottles were made in this first batch, but it's well worth looking for. I'm hoping it becomes part of their permanent range, or at least hangs around for a few more batches. Fingers crossed!