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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!