Search This Blog

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Pt 4: Sullivan's Cove (Tasmania Distillery)


Sullivan's Cove is certainly the most well-known of the Tasmanian whisky brands / distilleries, mostly thanks to it winning some high-profile awards from Jim Murray, and the World Whisky Awards. It's produced by Tasmania distillery, which was the last stop on my Tasmanian adventure before the trip home. And fittingly, this is also the final instalment of my Tasmanian mini-series!

The name 'Sullivan's Cove' relates to the original location of the distillery, in Hobart, and was also the name given to the original settlement which would eventually become Tasmania's capital city. Tasmania distillery was the second to open on the island, in 1995, after Lark distillery opened a few years earlier. The distillery had a tumultuous beginning, after the original owner was basically caught out using misleading and false advertising, while the distillery was in it's infancy.


The distillery moved in 2003, under new ownership, relocating to Cambridge, near Hobart international airport. While the shed is fairly nondescript from the outside, the actual visitor's centre / cellar door is very nicely decked out, and the warehouse smells delicious, thanks to the 900+ casks maturing quietly on-site.

Tasmania distillery is still quite a small operation. Not including the other spirits they're producing (which we're not interested in), they're only producing around 18,000 bottles of finished whisky each year, and that's after water is added. They only produce three expressions / bottling's of their whisky these days, although they've been in the press recently for offering a $10,000 bottle of whisky. No, that's not a typo...

Their main award-winner is the 'French Oak' expression, on the left in the above photo, which is matured in Australian Port casks, sourced mostly from McWilliam's. It's also very expensive, at $350 direct from the distillery. The 'American Oak' expression, centre in the above photo, is matured in bourbon barrels, sourced from Jim Beam, Heaven Hill or Jack Daniels, and is more reasonable at around $220. Both are bottled at 47.5%, and generally contain 12-15yo whisky. Those two are actually single-cask bottling's, while the third expression, 'Double Cask', on the right, is a mix of both cask-types (which didn't make the cut for the single cask bottlings), and is bottled at 40%, at an unknown age. Naturally it is the least expensive, at around $160.

Sullivan's Cove produces a little differently to the other distilleries I've seen so far, in that they buy in their wash (the rudimentary beer the whisky is distilled from), pre-made, from local a couple of local breweries. The majority is from from Cascade brewery, but they've also started buying from the smaller 'Moo Brew' brewery recently. Both are located in Hobart, and are using Tasmanian ingredients.


Their 21 year old still (pictured above left) is actually based on a French brandy still, hence it's unusual shape. The distillery utilises another unusual method for collection, using a system of pipes, taps and collection tanks to re-route the low wines back through the still, and then to separate the foreshots, heart, and feints. Essentially this clever system takes the place of a spirit safe, and I imagine it saves quite a bit of time and labour over the manual methods. For each 12,000 litres of wash bought in, they end up with around 1,000 litres of new-make spirit at around 68% abv. It's then watered down to the 63.4%, using filtered town water (which is very clean in Tasmania), before being filled into the waiting French or American oak casks.

Another interesting and unusual process (are you sensing a theme here?), is the way the distillery uses their settling / decanting tanks. The casks are emptied into large plastic tanks / vats, and are left for 1-2 weeks, until the whisky has settled. Or more specifically, until the floc (fats, oils and proteins in the whisky) has settled towards the bottom of the tank. The whisky is then pumped from the top of the tank, ready for bottling by hand. This is a slower method of course, but it avoids the need for any filtration.


So what happens to the leftovers at the bottom of these tanks? It's drained into the 20L casks pictured above, after barrier filtration (but not chill filtration) through paper filters. These casks are for sale, and are priced at $4250-4750 depending on your choice of whisky. They're matured for two years at the distillery, before being bottled at 47.5% and shipped to the owner, along with the empty cask. Each cask produces 25-30 bottles after the angel's have taken their share, and once watered down. So one of these casks can be quite the saving, or quite the investment, depending on your point of view!

I've chosen to review Sullivan's Coves' American Oak expression, because it's easier to find, and significantly cheaper, than the French Oak, which get's more attention. I couldn't get a sample or small bottle of any expression, so this one was tasted and reviewed at a bar in Brisbane (the Naked whisky bar).
Sullivan's Cove American Oak, 14yr old, 47.5%. Tasmania, Australia.
Tasmania distillery. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring. Cask HH032, distilled 5/2000, bottled 2/2015._

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Sweet vanilla syrup, slightly spicy, a little creamy oak. Honeyed malt. Roasted pineapple. 

Texture: Medium, with a little heat. 

Taste: Syrup again, but less sweet than the nose. More oak, and more spice. Some heat there as well. Water brings out creamy vanilla, and some hay. 

Finish: Medium length, some heat again. Honeyed malt. 

Score: 3 out of 5. Dram reviewed at a bar.

Notes: Not mind-blowing for me, in fact I remember the American Oak we had at the distillery tasting left a better impression. But then that's the beauty, and the curse, of single cask whiskies: Each one is different.

I do prefer the French oak bottling to this one, like most people I have spoken to, but it's just too expensive, in my opinion. The distillery itself is selling it for $350 a bottle, and it is usually priced at around $400 elsewhere. The European oak casks are of course more expensive to buy than ex-bourbon American oak barrels, and the distillery has to take advantage of the world-wide acclaim the French Oak expression is enjoying. It is a business after all, and a relatively small one at that. 

The American Oak expression isn't cheap either, at around $220, and let's not forget these aren't available at cask strength. The 'double cask' is just overpriced at $160-ish, and that one is a 40%, NAS, 'marriage' of casks, which basically weren't up to par to be sold as single cask bottling's. At that sort of price point, it has some serious competition, and can't keep up. There are many factors involved in the pricing of course, from the small size of the distillery, to the huge demand for it's world-renowned whisky, and the ridiculous taxes and duty being charged by an over-active, narrow-minded, and just plain greedy government.

This is quite a small distillery though. You might even get away with calling it a craft distillery. Let's not forget they're making mostly single-cask whiskies, which are bottled and packed on-site, by hand, with no added colouring or chill filtration, at a reasonable strength. They're also producing a vodka, for an external company to market and sell. The distillery tour itself was very informative, catering for all levels of knowledge (and interest), and was quite well priced, considering the included tasting of all three Sullivan's Cove whiskies. 


So that's the last of my Tasmanian whisky adventure mini-series. I did also visit and tour Redland's Estate distillery (pictured above) but their first-release whisky was not yet ready, and has since sold for crazy money. They're one of the few distilleries in the world which are doing everything on-site, from 'paddock-to-bottle', including growing and malting their own barley. I did also taste their new-make spirit, albeit watered down to 50%, and it's very promising. Certainly one to look for when it starts appearing on the shelves.

Unfortunately I completely missed out on visiting Lark, Overeem (Old Hobart), William McHenry, and Belgrove distilleries, due to time constraints, and out of (a little) consideration for my non-whisky nerd travelling-companions. Plenty to do on the next trip, then...

I still stand by my earlier statement though, if you're looking for a bang-for-buck Tasmanian whisky, look to Heartwood. It's still not exactly cheap, and the bottles are smaller (which also helps with pricing), but you're getting excellent quality whisky, and crucially, you're getting it at it's true cask strength. All good (!).

Speaking of bang-for-buck, if you do visit Tasmania, I highly recommend visiting the Lark cellar door / bar in Hobart. They have a very good range of whisky, including some pretty rare stuff. You also have the option of buying those whiskies in half-nips, which is just a brilliant idea. I do wish more high-end whisky bars would follow suit. They'd only end up selling more of their high-end whisky, after all!

Overall, Tasmania is one amazing and beautiful island. My wife & I were both totally enamoured with the place, and could live there in a heart-beat. I highly recommend visiting, although perhaps not in the middle of winter. Then again, it is the ideal season for drinking plenty of whisky...

Cheers!