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Friday, 30 December 2016

Laphroaig Cairdeas Ileach Edition 2011 Whisky Review!

It's the end of the year, and I'm lucky enough to have a very special sample of a very special whisky to celebrate with. It's Laphroaig Cairdeas 2011 'Ileach Edition'!

This one has been on my wish list for quite some time, and it's exceedingly rare: only 6000 bottles were ever released, and since they were bottled over 5 years ago, it's now basically unobtainable. Ileach is the Gaelic term for a native of Islay, Scotland, and the name 'Ileach Edition' was a nod to John Campbell being the first Ileach to manage Laphroaig Distillery in its history. John actually became the distillery manager in 2006, and the Cairdeas releases started in 2008, so I'm not sure about the timing of the name, maybe it was the first release that John selected personally? Anyway, let's not over-think this!

The Cairdeas' are the annual special bottlings released to mark the occasion of the week-long Islay festival Feis Ile, which takes place in May of each year. The word 'Cairdeas' (pronounced "car-chiss") is Gaelic for 'Friendship', which is a tribute to the very successful Friends of Laphroaig enthusiast community / loyalty program. The early Cairdeas releases were quite different to the more recent versions, with the exception of the beautiful 2015 200th anniversary bottling, in that there were no cask finishings involved. The first few Cairdeas releases were pre & simple Laphroaigs of various ages, and the releases were considerably smaller in size than they are today, which makes them very hard to track down and of course very expensive on the secondary market. So far the only one of these older releases I've tried was the amazing 12-year old bottling from 2009 which John himself bought with him on his Australian tour, and opened during my interview with him. What a night that was!

The 2011 release I'm reviewing today, thanks to a sample from another generous anonymous benefactor, is an 8-year old Laphroaig aged in first-fill ex-Maker's Mark bourbon casks, matured in traditional dunnage warehouses, and bottled at 50.5%, which is quite low for the age, so I'm not entirely sure if that was cask strength. From 2012 onwards the Cairdeas releases have not been bottled at their natural cask strength, since the ABV's reflect the year of bottling i.e. 51.2% for the 2012, 51.3% for the 2013, 51.4% for the 2014, 51.5% for the 2015, and 51.6% for the 2016. However I believe all Cairdeas releases have been non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, which is good news. Being only 8 years of age, this 2011 'Ileach Edition' is likely to be slightly more peaty than your average Laphroaig, especially considering that 8 year old whisky is what the distillery often adds to some of its NAS bottlings for more peaty power. Let's find out, shall we?
Laphroaig Cairdeas Ileach Edition 2011, NAS, 50.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Dunnage warehouse matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks from Maker's Mark for around 8 years. Natural colour, likely non-chill filtered.

Colour: Pale gold. 

Nose: Well hello there! Surprisingly complex and refined for its age. Herbal and sweet, with soft, dry herbal peat, aniseed, and a dried fruit (raspberry and apricot especially, and maybe some peach) & floral sweetness - almost like a pot-pourri. Some dried sea shells and wet sand, and even a hint of machine oil.  

Texture: Light-medium weight, warming. No roughness or spirit-y heat at all. 

Taste: Sweet & surprisingly light initially, then a drying, ashy, peaty punch. A burst of white pepper & dry wood spices alongside. A little magic marker & more aniseed. 

Finish: Medium-long length, and quite soft with a milder version of that ashy peat the whole way through, more herbal and earthy now as well, and intermingled with that dried fruit & floral sweetness. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Not at all what I expected from a young Laphroaig at a higher strength - so light, approachable and expressive! Plenty of complexity and refinement as well, particularly on the nose. Just a lovely friendly whisky with that fruity & floral sweetness - the surprising & unexpected lighter side of Laphroaig. Which proves that age is definitely not everything, and also that this is just a bloody fantastic distillery! What a fitting way to round out the year. 

So how does it compare to other Cairdeas releases? Like all of them it's totally different to the rest, and it's beautiful in its own right. Personally I'd go for the 2009, 2015 and maybe 2014 releases over this one, just based on my own personal tastes, so that's doesn't take anything away from the Ileach Edition by any means. Now I just need to get my hands on a dram of the 2008 and 2010 Cairdeas' to complete my Cairdeas journey. They're possibly the rarest of the lot, with even fewer bottles released, and even higher collect-ability. Oh and the 2013 Port wood release too, which never made it to Australia at all. I'm sure they'll all be really easy to find... not! 

Cheers!

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Glendronach Single Cask 11 Year Old Whisky Review!

A cracking young sherry bomb from my favourite sherry bomb distillery. The perfect way to see in Christmas! All single cask whiskies can be a bit of a risk as some are better than others, but this one's definitely a winner.

Glendronach's single cask releases are very popular, and are becoming increasingly difficult to source for a reasonable price in Australia. But every now and then a few stores get their hands on some, and they usually don't last long. Each batch consists of around a dozen casks / releases that are hand-picked by master distiller Billy Walker, mostly consisting of Oloroso and PX sherry casks of varying sizes and ages, although there have also been a few other oddities released over the years. Also adding to their allure is the fact that they are always bottled at cask strength, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and of course are very limited as far as availability goes. I've been able to taste a few of these bottlings now, and while a couple have been exceptional, some have been less than spectacular. Still good, but not great. But that's always the risk of any single cask bottling from any distillery.

Prices vary depending on the age and cask type, ranging from whisky distilled in the same cask for 40+ years to younger whiskies that are married together and finished in a single sherry cask. But generally speaking, these are very good whiskies which are deserving of their cult status. It's important to note that a single cask release does not necessarily mean that the entire contents spent its entire life in that one cask, particularly where there was a cask finishing involved, which can be a little confusing. Some of these bottlings from Glendronach will state on the label that they were finished in a particular cask, or that they were fully matured in a single cask, or they may not specify at all. I'm thinking that this bottling came from a few different casks which were finished in a larger cask before bottling (so technically still a single cask bottling), because 702 bottles were released, which equates to 491 litres of whisky without any spillage. That would mean an angel's share of only around 9 litres over 11 years from what I assume was a 500-litre puncheon (the common size), which is far too low. You would expect that sort of evaporation within around two years at most. This doesn't really matter of course, they're still single casks technically, but it is something to be aware of.

This particular bottling, from cask number 5524, was the youngest whisky from batch 12, which first appeared on the Australian market in late 2015. It was finished in a single Pedro Ximenex (PX) Sherry puncheon, at a cask strength of 57.8%. Unfortunately we don't know which cask type/s it was / they were initially matured in, although I would assume ex-Oloroso sherry but it could also have been ex-bourbon casks. As I mentioned above, there may have been a few casks involved here (of at least 11 years of age of course) which were finished in this one puncheon, and subsequently bottled as a single cask release. This one sold for around $200 in Australia when it was available, but is now completely sold out. That may sound a little pricey for an 11-year old whisky (it was the youngest release in this batch), but really isn't too bad for a single cask bottling of this calibre and popularity. And considering that batch 13, which was released not long after this one, sky-rocketed in price in Australia and saw bottlings with roughly the same specs increase in price by around 50% (so a similar bottling to this for $320 and above), this one was a bargain.
Glendronach 11 yo Single Cask, 2004, 57.8%. Highlands, Scotland.
Cask 5524, from batch 12. Finished in a single PX sherry puncheon. Cask Strength, non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Dark copper with rusty red tinges. Very pretty.

Nose: Sweet & spicy, fresh & youthful. Lovely rich sherry notes - juicy, plump raisins in sweet spiced syrup, warm fresh & spicy oak. Fruit mince pies dusted with icing sugar, mixed fruit peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and some brown sugar. Beautiful.

Texture: Rich & syrupy, but not heavy. Light to medium weight, plenty of flavour and complexity.

Taste: Spicy, fruity & rich. A considerable amount of oak here for what is a young whisky, plus more raisins in syrup, baking spices, and blow-torched orange peel. Plenty of spice with soft clove, some white pepper, ground ginger and nutmeg.  

Finish: Medium length. A little malty-ness initially, then more peppery oak, becoming dryer. More raisins, a little spice. Hint of brown sugar and cinnamon. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: So good, in fact one of the best single cask Glendronachs I've had so far, especially if you factor in the price. And really a perfect way to see in Christmas! It's young & fresh, but still so flavourful & balanced. There's plenty of sherry influence, but it hasn't overwhelmed either. I'd say the original cask/s were ex-sherry as well, but they've been expertly selected and finished to come up with a result like this. Very impressive, and a great example of what my favourite mainland distillery can do. Some might have turned their noses up at the age statement on this one, but if so they really missed out here. Glad I was able to grab a bottle of this one before they all disappeared, and of course the very nice updated packaging also helps.    

Love your work Mr. Walker & team, please keep it up!

Cheers, and merry Christmas! 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

SMWS 132.2 'Stunning Panorama of Exotic Fruits' Japanese Whisky Review!

Since the short Christmas break is almost upon us, I thought I'd celebrate with a seriously rare bottling from a seriously rare distillery! Before you start googling the SMWS distillery codes, let me save you the trouble: it's a Karuizawa!

Even amongst whisky fans only die hard fans will have heard of this Japanese whisky distillery, as it went silent (ceased production) in 2001 after 45 years of distilling, and was finally closed altogether in 2011. Thanks to this fact, and the fact that it was Japan's smallest distillery, it's also one of the rarest and most sought after Japanese whiskies. The buy-in price for even a mid-range bottling of Karuizawa is well into the thousands, and can usually only be found at auction or specialist rare whisky stores (with pricing to match). A bottle of 52-year old Karuizawa holds the record for the highest amount paid for a Japanese whisky at auction, which went for almost $120,000 USD in Hong Kong in 2015. Absolutely insane. Needless to say Karuizawa bottles are way out of my price range, so this review comes to you via the extreme generosity of an anonymous benefactor.

 Karuizawa's old warehouse buildings. Image courtesy of jpninfo.com

Karuizawa Distillery was located in the town of Miyota, around 3 hours drive north-west of Tokyo, and is near the base of Mount Asama, an active volcano which last erupted just last year in June of 2015. In fact run-off and natural springs from the volcano supplied the water source for the distillery, which also imported Golden Promise barley (arguably a big contributor to the past successes of Macallan) from the UK for distillation in its two pairs of small pot stills, giving an annual production capacity of just 150,000 litres. To help you put that into perspective, the current production capacity of Hakushu Distillery is around 3,000,000 litres, while Yamazaki's maximum capacity is more than twice that. There are some remaining casks of Karuizawa still maturing, although they're now located at Chichibu Distillery and are owned by UK-based No.1 Drinks Company.

This particular bottling that I'm reviewing is an independent bottling from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and was released in 2013 with an 'out-turn', which is SMWS speak for release, of 335 bottles. I've covered more details on the SMWS here (along with a review of an amazing Ardbeg bottling), but to recap they sell single cask whiskies, and more recently also other spirits, from a large range of distilleries, and they always bottle at cask strength, without chill filtration or added colouring. This 132.2 bottling is a 22 year old Karuizawa which was matured in a single refill sherry butt (a 500-litre cask), and as the numbering tells us it was the second cask of Karuizawa to be bottled by the SMWS. It was bottled at a cask strength of 62.4%, which is quite massive for a 22-year old whisky, although a number of older Karuizawa bottlings do seem to be surprisingly high strength, so it could be down to the local climate and storage conditions.

SMWS 132.2 (Karuizawa), 22 years old, 62.4%. Miyota, Japan. 
Matured in a refill ex-sherry cask, distilled September 1991. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 335 bottles released.

Colour: Gold.

Nose: Richly fruity, spicy & sherried. Dried fruits - mango, red apple, orange, red berries and stone fruit. Some dusty toasted oak, and powered spices - sandalwood, cinnamon, roasted nuts, and some dried flowers. A little salty as well. 

Texture: Medium-weight, but quite punchy, spicy and drying.

Taste: Richly fruity & spicy again. More stone fruit, then hot dried chilli flakes. Sweet sherried fruits, oxidised red apple, saw dust, and something a little ashy, like cold ashes. 

Finish: Long, but quite light. Drying and spicy. More sandalwood and chilli flakes, fading to wood spices and more fruit - oxidising red apples, and sweet stone fruit, dried flowers, and more sawdust. A little of that cold ash comes back with more time, which I find surprising.  

Score: 3.5 out of 5.

Notes: As Mr. Vader would say, impressive, most impressive! Very complex and quite challenging as well. Started out a little hot, which you might not expect given the age, but this is definitely the highest ABV old whisky I've ever tasted, so by that degree it wasn't bad at all. And it settled down nicely with more time in the glass anyway. There's a nice amount of rich-yet-slightly-dry sherry influence in here too, which is very pleasant. Certainly completely different to any other Japanese whisky I've tasted, richer and more characterful, and of course more challenging. Granted I don't have much experience in this particular field, but I would guess this to be what an 'old school' Japanese malt would have been like. And thanks to the SMWS, it was unadulterated and most importantly, undiluted in every sense. 

I feel very lucky to have even tasted a Karuizawa of any sort, but even more so to sample one of this calibre and rarity. I'm struggling to understand why this distillery was closed, and even more so why the previous owners declined multiple offers to purchase the distillery before it was too late. Regardless, what an experience, and a fitting way to ease into the last weeks of the year. A big thanks to the aforementioned benefactor for this sample, I owe you one... again!

Cheers!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Benriach Albariza Whisky Review!

An 18-year old peated malt from one of my favourite mainland distilleries, which along with it's sister distilleries was recently purchased by a large American drinks company. So far everything seems to be business as usual, and let's hope it stays that way...

Benriach doesn't have the cult following of it's sister distillery Glendronach, but they're making some excellent whisky, including some very good heavily peated expressions, with my personal picks so far being the excellent value 10-year old 'Curiositas', and the 17-year old 'Septendecim', both of which are matured in ex-bourbon casks. In fact all of Benriach's peated whiskies use the same 55 ppm peated malt, which is the same level as Ardbeg, although they're using mainland peat which is quite different (and some might say more approachable) to what you'll find on Islay. Speaking of malt, Benriach re-commissioned their own floor malting facility in 2012, which means they're now one of the seven Scotch distilleries that are malting some or all of their barley requirements on site. Obviously we won't see the results of this return to the traditional methods for a few more years, but it'll be very interesting nonetheless.

Much like Glendronach, or perhaps even more so, Benriach aren't afraid of toying around with different cask finishes, particularly when it comes to their peated expressions. In the recent past there have been limited releases that were finished in port, sherry, madeira and even dark rum casks, and for that matter they recently released a whisky that has been fully matured (not finished) in ex-bourbon quarter casks, simply named 'Peated Quarter Cask', which to my knowledge is the first time any distilleries have attempted this. You'd would think that full-term maturation in these smaller casks would result in too much wood influence over time, and I'm yet to try it, but it's a very interesting idea which has certainly piqued my curiosity. Anyway, back to the cask finished whiskies!

Today's expression is an 18-year old peated expression which has been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in Pedro Ximinez (aka PX) sweet sherry casks, and it's been named 'Albariza', which refers to the chalky white soil preferred by the vineyards in Andalucia, the sherry-producing region of Spain. Despite the relatively heavily-peated malt used, we can expect those 18 long years to have reduced that substantially. The Albariza was released at the same time as two other limited-release 'finished' peated malts, the Madeira cask finished 'Latada', and the dark rum cask finished 'Dunder'. All were 18 years old, and all were bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. PX sherry casks aren't used anywhere near as often as Oloroso for maturing whisky, but the results can be beautiful when it works (looking at you Laphroaig PX), so I have high hopes for this one.

Benriach 'Albariza' 18-year old, 46%. Speyside, Scotland.
Heavily peated. Matured in ex-bourbon casks, finished in ex-Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Limited release of 3800 bottles approx.

Colour: Dark red-y amber.

Nose: Sweet & fruity, syrupy. Rich sweet stone fruit, musty red grapes and raisins. Light soy sauce, wet copper and a hint of earthy peat. Red licorice, mint and dried herbs come out with more time. 

Texture: Light-medium weight. Quite light & soft, no heat at all, and well balanced. 

Taste: Sweet stewed fruits in syrup, soft hint of earthy peat. Musty sherry, slightly salty which is surprising, some peppery oak and brown sugar. 

Finish: Short-medium length. Bitter oak and slightly burnt toffee. Getting drier. Stewed fruit, white pepper and something earthy and savoury - possibly mushrooms?  

Score: 3 out of 5. 

Notes: Good stuff, and good quality as usual with Benriach. I would've liked a little more weight and heft to the mouth feel, and a little more peat despite the age (I find the 17 year old Septendecim much peatier), but it's very approachable without being bland or boring. Nice and complex on the nose, but the palate didn't quite live up to my expectations. Still a nice dram though, maybe even a summer's day dram without being too light. The Albariza seems to be sold out everywhere, which is understandable considering the relatively small limited release, and it was quite reasonably priced when available. 

So far I've preferred the ex-bourbon cask matured Benriach's to the others, particularly when they're peated, so it's probably down to my personal taste as well. I must admit I preferred the 12-year old 'Heredotus Fumosus' PX finish to this older version, it had a little more peat and a little more weight to it from memory. Benriach are doing great work, and the news of them re-commissioning their malting floors is very exciting. I'm predicting we'll see some local barley-type expressions in the future, which will no doubt be excellent. Let's just hope the new owners have the same outlook as the guys who brought this distillery back to life.

Cheers!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Gordon & MacPhail - The Wood Makes The Whisky!

I was lucky enough to receive four samples recently, direct from independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail in Scotland! Well, after I pried them out of the cold, ruthless hands of Australian customs that is (it was three weeks between them landing in Australia and me being notified of their arrival. Go team). Two of these samples are from slightly obscure distilleries that I've never tried before, one is from a distillery that I've only tried once, and the other is from a favourite Islay giant. So I'm going to give a quick rundown on the distillery details, and since I'm sampling four different whiskies in succession, a 'quickie' review of each.


But before we get into that, let's re-cover the story behind Gordon & MacPhail. G&M, as they're commonly known, is one of Scotland's oldest and most highly regarded independent bottlers, with roots dating back to 1895, and the company has been independently and family owned ever since. They also purchased the excellent Benromach Distillery in 1993, which since it reopened in 1998 has been garnering fans worldwide with their very high quality bottlings. G&M recently launched their 'The Wood Makes The Whisky' campaign (along with a very informative website), selecting a range of their bottlings that they feel highlight the relationship between the whisky and the cask. And since they've been maturing whisky in casks for over 120 years, they have plenty of experience, and a massive library of cask samples, to call on to get the resulting whisky exactly how they want it. To this end, the majority of G&M bottlings do not carry clear official age statements, but they do give the year of distillation, and often the exact date of bottling. They're also behind some of the oldest whiskies ever bottled, including a Mortlach that was a whopping 75 years old. If you have to ask, you can't afford it! So, let's get into the whiskies at hand, shall we?

First cab of the rank is a young bourbon cask-matured malt from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, distilled at Glen Spey Distillery, a Diageo-owned distillery which as you can probably guess is in Speyside. The vast majority of Glen Spey's production goes into blended whiskies, mainly J&B, and there have only been a couple of official bottlings, most of which aren't highly regarded. This bottling from Gordon & MacPhail was bottled in 2013 at 46% ABV, having spent approximately 9 years in refill bourbon casks.

This one was very pale gold in appearance, and I didn't pick a lot of cask influence here at all. On the nose I found dusty straw, red apple and acetone. On the palate it was lightly malty, with some wood spices and a little charred oak with some raw spirit on the finish. Overall I found this Glen Spey was pleasant enough and relatively easy drinking, but was rather bland and uninteresting, with very little cask influence.

Next up we have a whisky from G&M's Distillery Labels range, which carry very cool retro-style labels that are recreated from the respective distilleries' historic labelling. This bottling is from Strathisla, a little known Speyside distillery owned by Chivas brothers (and I'm sure you can guess where a big chunk of their production ends up), which is actually Scotland's oldest operating distillery, having been founded in 1786 under the name Milltown Distillery, before being renamed Strathisla in 1950. I have tasted an SMWS bottling of Strathisla before, a young cask strength version that was matured in a refill bourbon cask, which to be honest did not impress me at all. This G&M bottling is a little different though, as it has spent approximately 10 years in first fill sherry casks, and was bottled at 43% ABV in 2015.

This one is pale gold in colour, and is immediately warmer and richer on the nose, with plenty of fruit, malt syrup and is also a little nutty. On the palate it's really quite fruity, with grapes and light tannins, a little dark chocolate, lightly waxed fruit and peppery oak. Very enjoyable with more complexity and more flavour than the Glen Spey, and definitely far superior to the other Strathisla bottling I've tasted. Not a sherry monster by any means, despite the first fill cask, but very enjoyable. This bottling has certainly changed my perception of this distillery, despite the relatively low strength.

Next we have an Inchgower, a Diageo-owned Speyside distillery located nearer to the coast, which is a big contributor to Bell's blended whisky, and is also a component of some Johnnie Walker expressions. This bottling is from G&M's Connoisseurs Choice range, and is approximately 14 years of age, having been bottled in 2016 at 46% ABV, and was matured in refill sherry casks. This will be my first Inchgower, although it seems to be quite a highly regarded distillery in the whisky community and there are quite a few independent bottlings out there.

This one is shining gold in colour, and on the nose is sweet & fruity, with good pinches of spice and pepper, and a little damp grass. On the palate I found stewed fruits in syrup, some gentle warm oak, a little peppery spice. Enjoyable again, with only slightly less cask influence than the Strathisla, so I'd guess this was still quite an active cask despite being a refill.

No surprises here really, but the Islay is my pick of the bunch! This is an (approx) 11 year old Caol Ila from G&M's excellent Cask Strength series, distilled in 2005, and it has spent all of those years in first fill sherry casks! Caol Ila should need no introduction, being Diageo's workhorse Islay distillery, and producing some lovely understated and often overlooked peated malts. I believe this is the first Caol Ila I've tasted that was matured in first fill sherry casks, since the vast majority of bottlings are mostly matured in either refill sherry or refill bourbon casks. As the name suggests, this series is bottled at cask strength (57.3% in this case), and is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. I've previously tasted the 2003 and 2004 versions of the G&M Caol Ila, both of which were matured in refill sherry casks, and they were both very good quality, particularly the 2003.

Straight away this Caol Ila feels more familiar, but with a noticeable difference to most bottlings. Light gold in colour, it's surprisingly sweet on the nose, with boiled sweets, baked ham glazed with honey & balsamic vinegar, a spicy and grassy peat, some blow-torched dried herbs, slightly metallic coal dust, and a little chilli spice. On the palate it's very sweet again, rich thick fruit syrup with a gentle smoky edge to it. There's chunky dry peat, a little chilli spice, and sugar-topped baked fruit. The finish is medium length, and is gently peaty & spicy, with more of that glazed ham and dried herbs. Lovely stuff. Definitely sweeter than your typical Caol Ila, in fact I think it's in a similar vein to the excellent Distiller's Edition official bottling (which is finished in Moscatel sweet fortified wine casks), which is pretty high praise! As such it's also quite different to the other G&M Caol Ilas I've tasted, sweeter of course but also a little less peaty, and perhaps more refined and elegant. Very, very good stuff. These guys certainly know what they're doing!


Overall, all four of these whiskies made for an interesting exploration into cask and wood influence, across a range of quite different 'base' spirits. None had a massively overt cask influence, and none had any one particularly dominant note, which of course is what Gordon & MacPhail aim for: well balanced, subtle, flavourful and drinkable whiskies. They're certainly one of the more consistent independent bottlers out there, and thanks to the brilliant efforts of their Australian importer Alba Whisky, we residents of this great southern land also have access to a good range of their bottlings! And that's not something that can be said as often as I'd like!

Thanks very much to Gordon & MacPhail and Ian McKinlay for the sample pack, and for helping me tick some new distilleries off the list, and thanks for doing such great work!

Cheers!

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Chapter 2, Pt. 4: Heartwood Revisited!

Yes, I did visit this slightly-mad alchemist and all-round gentleman during the last Tasmanian adventure, but I couldn't visit Tasmania without knocking on his door again! Once again I was lucky enough to taste some more amazing examples of his whisky, including a couple of very special 'previews' which aren't ready for bottling just yet. This visit was definitely the other highlight of the trip!

I don't think it's much of a secret that I'm a massive fan of Tim Duckett's work, and I still believe Heartwoods to be the best value for money Australian whisky you can buy. Yes they're expensive, but they're absolutely worth every cent if you ask me. In fact Tim's range of single malts and vatted / blended malts are the only independent bottlings I will buy without tasting them first. If it has Tim's personal seal of approval, you can rest assured it's going to be good! Heartwood's popularity is ever-increasing, and nowadays there's a lot more attention and interest coming from overseas (and a couple more awards from Jim Murray), to the point where Asian companies have wanted to buy entire Heartwood releases to re-sell in their local markets (and he turned them down, which is awesome). But he has his feet planted firmly on the ground, he's not going anywhere, and as always quality is king: if a whisky isn't ready for bottling, and/or he isn't entirely happy with it, it doesn't get bottled.

I did cover more of the details in Part 1 of last year's adventure, and in previous reviews, but let's refresh our memories! Tim purchases new make spirit from a number of different Australian (primarily Tasmanian) distilleries, and matures them long-term using full-size 200-litre and larger casks, before bottling them at natural cask strength, without any adding anything or taking anything away. His methods are a little unusual and unorthodox, including literally beating and verbally berating his whiskies, and/or moving them into the 'sweat box', the hottest area of his bond store, to bring them into line. Heartwood's past releases have been some of the oldest and highest strength Australian whiskies ever bottled, such as the 15-year old and 73.5% ABV 'Devil in the Detail', and if a cask isn't up to Tim's standard he has no hesitation in blending them in with other casks or moving them into a fresh cask to fix any shortcomings.

The 'Smoking Gun' - one to look out for!

He actually starts this process when he tastes the new make spirit, identifying what the spirit needs to meet his desired standard and dinosaur-shaped style, e.g. more length or more sweetness, and puts that plan into action when he sends the cask/casks for filling. It's important to note that this is actually rare among many independent bottlers, who typically buy filled casks of already-mature or maturing whisky from the distilleries, and either mature them further themselves or bottle and sell them straight away. Tim's quite modest when it comes to his own abilities and talents, but there's absolutely no doubt that he knows what he's doing. And there are plenty of awards and tasting panels, not to mention a growing legion of die-hard fans, who can attest to that!

I think I know how Indiana Jones felt when he found the holy grail...

During this visit I was actually lucky enough to get a peek inside the inner sanctum, the holy ground that is Tim's bond store! And I was treated to a few very special nips straight from the cask, that won't be ready for bottling for some time yet. These included the current iteration of what was to be Beagle 4, and the sulphurous and astringent casks that were responsible for it being held back, which are currently being finished in fresh heavily-charred sherry casks to fix them up (and apparently they've already improved substantially). I was lucky enough to taste the current iteration of the next Dregs release, and a delicious future release which was only 3 years of age at the time, but has spent those 3 years in an Australian dessert wine barrel. The plan is to aptly name this one "Smoking Gun" thanks to it being 100% peated Lark spirit aged in a muscat cask (which is pronounced like 'musket'...), and it'll definitely be one to look out for. Hell, it's pretty much ready now if you ask me! Oh and speaking of Dregs, as an interesting little point, the iridescent labels on these very limited releases (the second batch will be yellow rather than green) cost a whopping $15 each to have made! Just something to bear in mind next time you're admiring the collection.

The proud father himself!

I was also treated to a nip of the very tasty bourbon cask-matured 'We are Cousins' bottling that was due to be released in the coming days (and is now sold out), and a couple of nips of the incredible Dare to be Different that was already in the decanting vat, and which has since been bottled and subsequently sold out! Tim has actually declared that this is (or rather, was) his best release yet, and while I haven't tasted it since my visit, I don't doubt that it'll be right up there. It was fresh out of the 'sweat box' at the time I tasted it, and while the initial taste was already very good, Tim then grabbed the paddle that he often smacks his whiskies around with, and gave the vat a stir before I tasted the contents again. There was a definite and noticeable difference! It makes sense of course as some of the heavier compounds will settle towards the bottom of the vat (and the same would also happen in casks), but it was a very interesting demonstration of yet another aspect to consider in the art of whisky making.

We are Cousins. Lovely stuff.

Since this is the final instalment in the Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, I've decided to review a very special Heartwood which followed roughly the same recipe as the Dare to be Different, but the end result is actually quite different (get it). This release was named Mediocrity be Damned, and is an almost 8-year old, 100% peated single malt from Lark Distillery that was matured in an Oloroso sherry cask. It was bottled at a pretty substantial cask strength of 67.2% ABV, and of course is not chill filtered or tampered with in any way, and of course is completely sold out. This bottling was dedicated to Lyn Lark, who along with her husband Bill is pretty much responsible for the existence of Tasmanian whisky as we know it!

Heartwood Mediocrity be Damned, NAS (but see below), 67.2%. Tasmania, Australia.
100% peated Lark single malt, matured in an Oloroso sherry cask. Cask LD530, 280 bottles. Distilled 9/2008, bottled 8/2016. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.

Colour: Reddish bronze. Gorgeous. 

Nose: Hello there! Big, bold and complex. Very fruity, with rich dry sherry - raisins soaked in booze, wood spices (nutmeg, allspice), roasted nuts (walnut, almond). Cough drops, warm rich oak, hints of menthol and baked stone fruit. Very dynamic and quite complex. 

Texture: Boom! Massive flavour explosion. Rich and intense, but not overly heavy and very little heat.

Taste: Intense fruit and spice. Burnt toffee, toasted spices, tropical fruit juice (guava and mango in particular?), slight hint of earthy peat behind. Drying sherry, coffee grounds and more warm oak. 

Finish: Long. A little spirit-y and drying, but in a pleasant way. Then a little tannin, stone fruit syrup lasting for quite a while, and more oak & spice. Hint of soft earthy peat. Quite subtle, but still complex.

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Delicious, as always! This being the first 100% sherry cask-matured Heartwood I've looked at this closely, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, especially considering my love for the port cask-matured releases. But this is a beautiful whisky, and it certainly lives up to its name! It is definitely different to the Dare to be Different, despite it following the same recipe, although I haven't tasted the bottled version of that release yet. From what Tim has been saying, it's even better than this one, which is very high praise indeed! If you manage to find a bottle of either of these releases out there, it almost goes without saying, I'd recommend that you grab one while you can! 

I can't wait to see what Tim Duckett comes up with next, although it sounds like there may be a few months' wait until we find out what that is! But having tasted a few potential future bottlings, I have no doubt they'll be well worth the anticipation. I know I'm repeating myself, but I still believe Heartwood bottlings to offer the best value for money you can find in Australian whisky. Yes they're expensive releases, and they're only 500ml bottles, but for the level of quality and the massive flavour experience you get in return for your hard-earned money, they're worth every cent. And remember, you're getting the true natural cask strength in these bottlings, presented in the most natural way possible. Outstanding stuff.

Love your work Mr. Duckett, and thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to give me a peek inside the inner sanctum. Keep 'em coming! 


So, this brings chapter two of the Tasmanian whisky adventure to a close. While I'm sure there'll be more chapters added in the future, I'm already missing the place. If you haven't visited the whisky isle (forget about the apples), get yourself down there and take a look. Chances are you'll love it just as much. 

Cheers!

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Chapter 2, Pt. 3: William McHenry & Sons Distillery!

Our third stop is certainly one of the prettier Tasmanian distilleries! Situated on the side of a mountain near the world heritage site of Port Arthur, a former convict settlement and prison established in the 1830s, William McHenry & Sons Distillery is actually Australia's Southern-most distillery. Located on the Tasman Peninsula, around 1.5 hours drive south-east of Hobart, it may not be the easiest of the distilleries to reach, but it's well worth the effort if you ask me.


William McHenry was a pharmaceutical executive in Sydney in a past life (well, just over 10 years ago), and the career chemist and agricultural scientist decided that he'd had enough of that life, and needed to make a change. When a friend suggested that with a name like his he should be playing bagpipes and making whisky, it struck a chord, and became embedded in the back of Bill's mind. Then during a holiday to Tasmania the family became enamoured with the place, and Bill then began searching for the ideal location for his distillery, with a few research trips to Scotland in between! He found it around 2010, an undisturbed 100-acres near Port Arthur which ticked all the boxes, and the McHenry family relocated to Tasmania.

Bill's cottage on top of the mountain. Not a bad spot!

Thanks to the southern latitude and proximity to the ocean (Antarctica is the next stop south, a few thousand km away), the distillery enjoys a cool, stable and often wet local climate, quite different and more consistent than that experienced in Hobart, in fact it's closer to what you might find in Scotland. This means that the whisky matures considerably slower than its Northern cousins, and the long-term plan is to mature the whiskies for longer and in full-size casks to take advantage of these local characteristics. Another key point of the location is the abundance of natural underground springs on the property, which provide the distillery with extremely clean, soft, naturally-filtered water which is then put to use as cooling, diluting and of course distilling water.

The distillery's hybrid-style steam-jacketed still.

The set-up at William McHenry & Sons is very interesting, particularly with regards to the still itself (pictured above) which is a hybrid style, having the base / body of a traditional pot still and the neck of a column still. The entire still is made from copper, and what you're seeing above is a stainless steel water jacket which encases and heats the body of the still itself using steam. This unique design allows for more versatility across different spirits and more stable temperature control, and the hybrid design is utilised to produce a lighter and more refined product through high levels of reflux. There is also a larger second still in the works as part of the large expansion that is currently under way at the distillery. The wash for McHenry's whisky is sourced from Moo Brew, a popular craft brewery in Bridgewater, north of Hobart. The narrow spirit cuts are done by hand, and once collected the new make is typically filled into 100-litre American oak ex-bourbon barrels, for a long, peaceful maturation. You'll also also find ex-port, sherry and wine casks in the bond store, which will definitely be worth keeping an eye out for!

The afore-mentioned expansion also includes a larger bond store, a separate visitors centre / cellar door, and even boutique accommodation towards the top of the mountain. This accommodation will share the incredible views with Bill's own cottage pictured above, and guests will be able to look across at Hobart to the north, and as far as the Hartz mountain range to the west. Not a bad spot to spend the night as it is, but when you add the fact that this spot is located at a whisky distillery, and is about five minutes from Port Arthur itself, it doesn't get much better than that!

The current range of spirits produced at the distillery.

The distillery is producing a range of different spirits, from a barrel-aged gin, and a gin-based liqueur flavoured with sloe berries, to a triple-distilled vodka, and of course their flagship single malt whisky. The distillery also runs gin workshops, where customers can make their own custom-made gin, learn how the entire process works, and finally can bottle their own bespoke gin. While many young whisky distilleries produce white spirits merely as a stop-gap to keep the wheels turning while their whisky matures, McHenry's range of spirits have been widely acclaimed, and are very popular in their own right. I have to say as far as gins go (it's not my usual go to spirit!), the barrel aged example from McHenry's, which is given a quick maturation in a solera-style system of ex-bourbon casks, was very enjoyable and offered more depth of flavour and a softer experience than I typically find in your average gin.


Whisky-wise, in the early days Bill released a whisky under the label Three Capes, which was a private bottling of 10-year old single malt from Tasmania Distillery (Sullivan's Cove). It was an enjoyable whisky and was quite reasonably priced, but has since completely sold out. Not to worry though, as the first release of Bill's own whisky debuted earlier this year. There have been 3 releases to date, which were all matured in 100-litre ex-bourbon casks before being finished in smaller dessert or fortified wine casks, and all have been around 5 years of age. Thanks to the local climate and the other factors explained above, they are quite different to what you may expect from a Tasmanian whisky, being of a lighter and more gentle style than most of its cousins. So far they're also bottled at a slightly lower strength than most, but much to the distillery's credit they're still non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. so there's no tomfoolery here, and they also have distillation & bottling dates and cask details printed on the rear labels. Great stuff!

I'm looking at barrel number 3 here, which was finished in a 20-litre tokay wine cask. Tokay (also known as Tokaji) is a non-fortified dessert wine where traditionally the grapes are left on the vines for an extended period, also known as 'late harvest' or 'noble rot', to maximise the sugar content of the fruit. Whisky matured in tokay casks seems to generally be quite lightly influenced flavour-wise, at least in all-but-one of the examples I've tried so far, particularly when compared to the more common port or sherry cask. This release of 200 x 500ml bottles is largely sold out, but barrel number 4 is due for release in late November 2016. Unfortunately I reviewed this whisky in a bar in Hobart (I didn't think to do it at the distillery), so in the interest of fairness I'm not going to score it, and my notes are not as detailed as usual. But I hope it's enough to give a general impression of what we're looking at here.

McHenry Single Malt Whisky, barrel 3, NAS, 44%. Tasmania, Australia.
Approx. 5 years of age, bottled 2016. Matured in a 100-litre ex-Maker's Mark bourbon cask and finished in a 20-litre tokay wine cask. 200  x 500ml bottles. Non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. 

Colour: Amber.

Nose: Sweet & quite fruity with spicy oak, toffee sauce, a hint of spent coffee grounds.

Taste: Light, sweet and subtly spicy with peppery oak, vanilla and dried fruit, both stone & tropical. 

Finish: Fairly short and delicate, slightly floral with spiced stewed fruit and drying, slightly tannic oak. 

Notes: This is certainly a well-made whisky, particularly considering the relatively young age. And remember that's largely without the accelerated maturation that most Tasmanian distilleries enjoy. This is perhaps not the most complex or exciting dram, but it's very drinkable and easy going, and would certainly be a crowd-pleaser, and even a summer's day whisky. It's also important to note that this is only the third whisky released from William McHenry & Sons, and it's only six months or so since the first release, so I'm sure there'll be bigger things to come from the distillery in the near future. 

If you can't make it to the distillery itself, there's currently a cellar door conveniently located on the Hobart waterfront inside the Brooke Street Pier, where you can sample the wares and purchase bottles. But if you ask me the distillery is handily located, being close enough to Port Arthur for a quick stop before or after visiting the site, which really is a must for visiting history buffs. And of course both the distillery and the general area are beautifully scenic, remote and unhurried. Certainly an excellent day trip from Hobart, at the very least. Just be sure to email or call ahead to check availability.

A big thanks to Bill & team for taking time out of their day to show us around. We're looking forward to visiting again and seeing the new additions in action!

Cheers!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Chapter 2, Pt. 2: Belgrove Distillery!

This next stop on the Tasmanian whisky adventure would have to be the world's most environmentally sustainable distillery. At the time of writing it's also Australia's only rye whisky distillery, and the man behind it is easily one of the most multi-talented people I've ever met. We're headed around an hour north of Hobart, on the outskirts of the town of Kempton, to the absolutely extraordinary Belgrove Distillery. It may not be as visually appealing as some, but visiting this totally unique distillery was without a doubt one of the highlights of the entire trip.


Peter Bignell (pictured above) has been a Tasmanian grain and sheep farmer for over 40 years, but is also much, much more. This man's resume would be enough to crash the servers of your average recruitment agency. He studied agronomy and microbiology, has a bachelor's degree in agricultural science, and dabbled in physics and chemistry, among others. He's also an ice sculptor and sand sculptor, an engineering genius and master innovator, and clearly a very talented distiller. He made his own copper pot still (which is an ingenious item in itself), and is in the process of designing and building his own column-style wash still, he coopers and chars his own casks, and makes his own bio-diesel (from used cooking oil) for use in the distillery and on the farm. Oh, and he restored the historic water mill at Nant Distillery / estate while the distillery was being built. Meanwhile, I can't remember the last time I used a screwdriver...

Belgrove's malting machine and peat smoker: a re-purposed spin-drier!

After harvesting a particularly large crop of rye one year, Peter decided to put it to use by making what was Australia's first rye whisky, building a distillery in an old stone stable behind his house. He now grows his entire grain requirement on the farm, which makes Belgrove one of three 'paddock-to-bottle' or 'farm' distilleries in the world. This means that the entire whisky making process, from growing the grain to bottling the finished whisky, is done on site. There's no commercially produced malted grain shipped in from outside sources, and there's no centralised maturation warehouse or commercial bottling plant involved here. Everything is done by hand (mostly by Peter himself), on-site at the distillery, including the malting, (where necessary for the desired type of spirit - rye whisky is not required to be 100% malted), and the milling of the grain, and the fermentation and brewing of the wash (using both commercial and wild yeast) prior to distillation. In fact the entire grain malting process takes place in the re-purposed industrial spin-drier pictured above, which when desired is also a peat smoker (well, it's usually peat smoke - read on!). 

Belgrove's hand-made pot still, with cooling jacket fitted over the neck.
  
Peter built his copper pot still (pictured above) entirely by hand, including the welding and rolling of the sheet metal, after a couple of quick lessons from a local copper-smith. The still is direct-fire heated using either biodiesel, waste cooking oil collected from nearby food businesses (to quote Peter directly - "with the chips filtered out" - !), or even used engine oil or animal fats, and the heat is regulated by a re-purposed domestic kitchen mixer! Instead of the normal lyne-arm and external condenser found on your average pot still, Belgrove's uses a removable copper cooling jacket which is fitted over the neck of the still to condense the alcohol vapours into liquid form, using water sourced from the farm's dam which is recycled after use. In fact the distillery uses no town water, it's all collected from the dam and the farm buildings' roofs, and any hot water required (i.e. during mashing and brewing) is heated using bio-diesel. Peter also discards the first few litres of the foreshots (the methanol and other volatile compounds produced early in distillation) collected from each spirit run, rather than recycling them back into the next spirit run like most distilleries, to give the spirit a head-start when it goes into cask. Oh, and the spent grain mash leftover after distillation is fed to the farm's sheep, who in turn provide the farm with fertiliser, and in one case, something else which is just slightly different!

Peat, glorious peat! And there's more to the story in this case...

As I mentioned above, Peter is using peat to smoke the grain in a couple of his whiskies, but there's something very important to note about the peat itself. While Lark Distillery has the license and lease to mine peat in Tasmania's highlands, the peat used produced at Belgrove is different. The peat came from the family farm on the north-eastern coast of Tasmania (harvested some time ago), giving it a character which is more familiar to the Scotch drinker than its inland equivalent, and making Belgrove's peated expressions totally unique. There are currently only two casks of this whisky, one rye whisky and one single malt, and they're the only whiskies in the world which have been made with coastal Tasmanian peat. In fact you could say Peter is single-handedly taking on a certain Scottish island which also happens to use the odd bit of coastal peat when making whisky. Very, very exciting stuff! As for casks, Peter is mainly using ex-Tasmanian malt whisky barrels, which are often re-coopered and often re-charred (all by Peter himself) prior to being filled.

Part of Belgrove's current range of spirits, with many more in the works!

Belgrove Distillery produces a very diverse and very impressive range of hand-crafted spirits, so far including un-aged white rye spirit, a distilled cider / un-aged apple brandy named Apple Hatchet, a distilled ginger beer named Ginger Hammer, a delicious black coffee & white rye liqueur, a barrel-aged grappa, an eau-de-vie, an oat whisky (which is also delicious), and of course his excellent rye whiskies, including a peated rye and a rye finished in pinot noir wine casks. Also due for release in the near future are a chocolate malt (heavily roasted malt) whisky, a whisky distilled from spelt wheat, a distilled IPA beer, the peated rye and peated single malt that I mentioned above, plus a highland-peated rye (which Peter has released previously), and a true peated cask-matured whisky, where the cask itself was rinsed and dried over peat smoke prior to being filled with un-peated spirit. Like I said, totally unique and absolutely extraordinary! Speaking of which, it almost goes without saying in this case, but naturally (heh) there's no added colouring or chill filtration anywhere to be seen near any of Belgrove's products.


There's another one-of-a-kind barrel (pictured above) that I can't resist mentioning, and I was lucky enough to actually taste. Sitting in Peter's warehouse is a single barrel of young spirit, distilled from rye that was smoked with... wait for it... sheep manure, that was kindly donated by the farm's sheep! As Peter puts it, that's taking recycling to the extreme! Aptly named 'wholly shit', it was a very enjoyable dram, with a very interesting grassy smoke that only emerges on the finish, but is quite prominent. I don't think you'd suspect anything if this was tasted blind. It's only a few months old at this stage, and has to be at least two years old before it can be called whisky, so it's still a while away from bottling.. Definitely one to watch out for though, as with all of Peter's products!

Peter also graciously and generously parted with a sample drawn straight from the cask pictured below, so I could share the love with yourselves! This is a 50-litre re-coopered and re-charred ex. Tasmanian Distillery (Sullivan's Cove) barrel filled with the afore-mentioned peated single malt whisky, smoked with coastal peat from the Bignell family farm in north-eastern Tasmania. This cask is currently the only one of it's kind, and is therefore some seriously rare and absolutely unique stuff with less than 50 litres (thanks to the angel's share) in existence world-wide. What a time to be alive! As you can see it was filled in March 2015, so has another six months or so left to mature before it can be called whisky, so we'll refer to it as malt spirit for the moment. Since it won't be ready for bottling for another 6 months or so, and since it's completely one-of-a-kind, I'm not going to score it (it'll likely change dramatically in those 6 months anyway), I'll just share my tasting notes and give my thoughts. Hold onto your hats folks, because this review just might be a world-first!

Belgrove Peated Single Malt Spirit, 18 months old, approx. 63% ABV. Tasmania, Australia.
Peated with coastal peat from north-eastern Tasmania. Matured in a single 50-litre re-coopered ex-Tasmanian malt whisky barrel. Barrel number PB061, due for bottling March 2017.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Sweet dusty malt, thick & slightly burnt oatmeal porridge, hints of very sweet tropical fruit. Something reminiscent of a dunnage warehouse, particularly the earthen floors and dusty casks. A little mild acetone, subtle vanilla, and a hint of that slightly salty coastal peat.

Texture: Light-to-medium weight, and only a slight touch of heat - hardly any considering it's around 63% ABV and only 18 months old!

Taste: Spicy wood smoke, some subtle dry oak, warm (not hot) chilli flakes, spiced honey, slightly herbal as well.

Finish: Long and quite complex. Some hot ash, a little cinnamon, more of the slightly burnt oatmeal porridge from the nose. A little soft, dry smoke, then that dusty sweet malt again but with a lingering soft peaty edge.

Notes: Really impressive, and really unique! The peat influence is quite subtle compared to what you might expect, but it's definitely there, and compared to other peated Australian whiskies it's quite prominent. It's also markedly different to it's distant cousins, even those made with peated barley imported from Scotland. It's already a great quality spirit, and I look forward to trying it when it's come of age and can finally be called whisky! Let's hope this stuff becomes a regular part of the Belgrove line-up.

Like many Tasmanian whiskies Peter's products are in high demand, they sell out quickly and are not the easiest to find, but some can be purchased directly from his website when available, and a few specialist whisky retailers usually manage to find some stock. The fact that Peter is often invited to speak at international spirits shows and conventions is definitely testament to him being able to teach even the 'big boys' a thing or two. Let's just hope that doesn't keep him away from the still for too long!

Belgrove Distillery doesn't have a fancy visitor's centre or carefully practised tour guides, and isn't really open to the public, but tours can be booked in advance by emailing Peter and asking nicely! If you're a whisky or distilled spirits fan, I highly recommend doing so, because there's no distillery quite like this in the world. I can honestly say this was the most eye-opening and mind-blowing distillery I've ever visited. Without a doubt.

A big thanks to Peter for showing me around, and for all his hard work, and of course for that very special sample. I will be back!

Cheers!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Chapter 2, Pt. 1: Lark Distillery!

Some of you may remember last years' Tasmanian Whisky Adventure. Well, my wife & I loved the place so much that we went again this year, and I managed to visit a few of the distilleries that I missed last time, so here starts chapter 2 of the Tasmanian Whisky Adventure! This will be a four-part chapter, and as with last year, I'll be giving a little history and further details on the distillery, and reviewing one of their whiskies.


The last Tasmanian adventure was in the middle of winter, which was very cold, windy and even snowy, so we thought we'd go a little later in the year this time. Aiming for late spring, we assumed the weather would be milder. In reality it was only slightly milder, with a few beautiful sunny days mixed in with the new additions of more rain, grey skies and even stronger winds, but it was still very pleasant and very beautiful, and the weather certainly didn't dampen spirits at all (get it?). In fact I have no doubt this adventure will have even more chapters added to it in the future.


The first stop for this chapter is the original Tasmanian whisky distillery, Lark. But before we get into the distillery itself (since the two are linked) we need to briefly cover the history of Tasmanian whisky. We essentially have one man and wife duo to thank for the existence of Tasmanian whisky in its current form: Bill Lark, the Godfather of Australian whisky, and his wife Lyn. In fact I had the honour of briefly meeting the humble couple on this trip, and despite having consumed a few quiet beverages at the time, I made sure to thank them both for their efforts. It was Bill who first realised that Tasmania was the perfect environment for making whisky in the early 1990s, with clean soft water, a supply of good quality barley, the ideal climate, and even its own peat bogs. But there were a few hurdles to get over before things could get underway.

Distillation had been illegal in Tasmania for over 150 years, and the federal distilling act also proved a massive obstacle, making distillation illegal in stills under an industrial-sized capacity. Bill took the issue to his local member, who took the issue to the federal customs minister, who had the laws altered and enabled legal distilling in Tasmania on a more realistic scale. Bill then obtained his distilling license, and started Lark Distillery in 1992, at the site which is now the Lark cellar door (and also an excellent whisky bar) in Hobart. In fact when you think about it, without the Tasmanian whisky industry paving the way, would we have an Australian whisky industry? I don't think so, or at least not to the same extent that there is today. So we fans of Australian whisky owe quite a lot to the 'why not?' attitudes of Bill & Lyn Lark.

The 'Drambulance' awaits...

These days the distillery is located in the coal river valley area near Cambridge, around 20 minutes drive North-East of Hobart. While the distillery itself is not open to the public, organised tours leave twice-daily (in the 'Drambulance' pictured above!) from the cellar door in Hobart, and give a much more in-depth and hands-on experience than most distillery tours. And there's no need to organise a designated driver, so no-one misses out! There is a choice of the standard tour which runs for approximately two hours, or a full-day catered 'premium experience' which will also have you put to work in the production process, helping to actually make Lark single malt whisky. I attended the standard tour, which certainly gives a close and more technical look at the distillery's operations.

In fact where possible the tours are timed to witness the cuts being made during the spirit runs, and often include sampling of the brewing wash and the resulting new make spirit as it comes off the still, while learning about the process from the distillers themselves. You'll also be treated to a couple of samples drawn straight from the cask, surrounded by slumbering whisky in one of Lark's bond stores (warehouses). You'll also see Lark's peat smoker in action, pictured below, which gives some perspective on the size of this distillery compared to the massive kilns in use in the Scottish distilleries and commercial malting facilities.

Lark's peat smoker in action. What a wonderful aroma!

The Tasmanian barley used is sourced from Cascade brewery in Hobart, and has already been dried in the malting process, so the malt is re-wet and dried in the above peat smoker to a level of around 8 ppm. Thanks to this different process the peat influence is only light, roughly equivalent to a Springbank or Benromach level, but with the different flavours resulting from the Tasmanian highland peat it's a very subtle influence. This extra-step also means that the peating level can be varied between batches (and heavily peated batches are currently maturing), and the peated malt can of course be mixed with un-peated for an even lighter influence. Interestingly, Lark lease an area of one of the largest peat bogs in Tasmania, in the Western Highlands, and despite needing a relatively tiny amount of peat for their requirements, they had to acquire a mining license from the Australian government (not a cheap or easy process I'm sure) to be legally permitted to harvest it.

Lark is essentially using town water in their whisky production, which is very clean and soft in Tasmania, although they are a little unusual in that they are producing and brewing their own wash (the basic form of beer that is then distilled to produce whisky), rather than purchasing 'pre-made' wash from one of the local breweries. Lark also supplies wash to Old Hobart Distillery (Overeem whisky), although the methods and ingredients are a little different as per Overeem's requirements. After the seven-day fermentation process, the wash is double-distilled in Lark's two copper pot stills, and interestingly the wash still uses a worm-tub condenser, much like Mortlach or Benrinnes, while the spirit still uses the more common shell-and-tube condenser. The reason for this is to achieve a compromise between the heavier spirit (or low wines, in this case) produced by the worm-tub condenser on the larger wash still, and the lighter spirit produced by the more modern and more efficient shell-and-tube design on the spirit still.        

Lark's wash still, with worm-tub condenser seen behind

Once the cuts have been made from the spirit run, the new make is then filled into casks, with 100-litre re-coopered Australian port casks being the preferred type & size, although Lark also fill ex-bourbon, sherry, brandy and rum casks, among others. And at no stage are any of the whiskies chill filtered or subjected to added colouring. While most of Lark's whiskies don't carry age statements, they are usually bottled at around 6 years of age, although this varies depending on cask size and a few other factors, and of course the maturing whisky is given a boost by the indecisive Tasmanian climate. During our tour we were treated to samples of Lark's 'classic cask' and 'cask strength' expressions, which are matured in a mix of first- and second-fill ex-port and ex-bourbon casks, as well as cask strength drams drawn from a 20-litre ex-port cask (my pick of the bunch) and a 20-litre ex-bourbon cask, and thanks to distiller Craig's generosity we were also treated to a surprise nip of one of the 'special releases', a very interesting apple brandy cask-matured whisky bottled at 46%. Not such a bad way to spend an afternoon, and it gave a very enjoyable insight into Lark's range of expressions and the effects of the different casks that are in use. 

I stumbled across another of the 'special releases' behind the bar at the cellar door later in the trip, and since I knew I wouldn't get another chance to try it, I decided to review it on the spot for this write-up. As such my notes aren't quite as detailed as usual, and I decided not to score this dram out of fairness. This particular expression is the oldest official bottling released by the distillery, at 9 years of age, and was matured in a single ex-bourbon cask (cask no. LD240) from Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky, before being bottled at 43%. It's certainly not cheap though, at around $450 AUD for 500ml bottle, and is only available from the cellar door in Hobart. 
Lark 'Special Releases' 9 year old ex-bourbon cask, 43%. Tasmania, Australia.
The oldest official bottling released by the distillery. matured in a single Heaven Hill bourbon cask, LD240. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. Reviewed at Lark cellar door in Hobart.

Colour: Light gold

Nose: Sweet, soft and delicate. Slightly dusty honeyed malt, oak, ripe tropical fruit, hint of bees wax.

Texture: Light. Sweet and delicate, a little heat towards the finish.

Taste: Sweet, toasted grains, tropical fruit again, tiny hint of earthy peat towards the finish.

Finish: Quite short. A touch of spirit-y heat, then more toasted grains, oak and vanilla. 

Notes: A very different expression, which is unlike any other Australian malt I've had. In fact it's closer in comparison to a youngish ex-bourbon matured Scotch I think. I can't help but think I would've preferred it at a higher strength, but it's not unpleasant by any means. It's very easy-drinking and more laid back / delicate than your average Tasmanian single malt. It's a very expensive release unfortunately, but when it's roughly 50% older than most releases from the distillery, and single cask releases of this age are hardly going to happen often, you can understand why it's commanding a higher price. Besides, it's not far removed from the pricing from some of the other Tasmanian distilleries' bottlings. 

I'm very impressed with Lark's entire operation. They may not yet have the massive international renown of Sullivan's Cove (although I'm sure that will change), but they're working tirelessly on trying new things and constantly refining their practices. They're also a very nice bunch of people, very professional and knowledgeable, and are clearly happy to be involved. The tour in particular was one of the best I've attended, it is a far more technical and inclusive experience than most, where you're actually talking to the people that make the whisky, while they're doing exactly that right in front of you, while explaining what they're doing and why. You're not fenced off at a distance or constrained by yellow lines, you're right in the middle of the stills and equipment, enjoying the sights, smells and tastes of a working distillery. If you ask me, this is an absolute must-do for any whisky fan. And make sure you allow plenty of time afterwards for a dram at the cellar door. And now I'm wishing I was still there...

Cheers!