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Sunday, 28 January 2018

Heartwood Beagle 5 Whisky Review!

Australia Day has just passed, so it seems like a good time for an Australian whisky review! It's another beast from my favourite Australian producer, Heartwood, with a bonus comparison at the end. Why not!

Tasmanian independent bottler Heartwood's Beagle series are vatted / blended malt whiskies, which are a blend of different single malts from different Tasmanian (in this case) distilleries. There have been five Beagle releases so far, and I've had the privilege of tasting the third, fourth and now fifth release, which was bottled in 2017. These bottlings do vary more than you might expect with a series of blended whiskies, since Tim Duckett, the mad alchemist behind Heartwood pictured above, actually destroys the recipe for each release after it's been bottled. So they're all one-off bottlings, and they're all entirely unique. The Beagle name refers to the HMS Beagle that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his exploratory voyage in the early 19th century, in this case referring to the evolution of whisky!

My journey with the Beagle series started at the same time as my journey with Heartwood as a whole, which was on a cold Tuesday morning in Heartwood's office in Hobart. Of the 5 magnificent drams that were tasted that morning (write-up here), Beagle 3 was my equal favourite. And it was a fascinating concept, a vatted malt from the only Tasmanian independent bottler, where the recipe is purposely destroyed after bottling to ensure that each & every release is unique. I eventually got my hands on a couple of bottles of that fantastic whisky, and still have a little left, so when I was lucky enough to be given a sample of the fifth release, Beagle 5, during a recent dramming session with a fellow whisky geek, it presented an opportunity: compare them! But since I've already reviewed Beagle 3 in depth (here), and since they're very different whiskies, this won't be a head-to-head review, it'll be a full in-depth review of Beagle 5 followed by a brief comparison to Beagle 3. In one very cool little tidbit, the evolution of man pictured on the Beagle labels have also evolved, like the whiskies have: Beagle 3 featured man evolving into a still, Beagle 4 swapped the starting ape for a canine beagle, and Beagle 5 now has an extra step: man evolves into a still, then lies down under the outlet of said still. Mr. Heartwood puts a lot of time & effort into his labels, and although it's a little difficult to see in the below image, little details like these are just brilliant!

On to the nitty-gritty. Beagle 5 is a vatting of seven different casks from two Tasmanian single malt distilleries, Lark Distillery and Tasmania Distillery (the producers of Sullivan's Cove). This release consisted of 175 bottles, bottled in June 2017, at a cask strength of 62.5% ABV, and like all Heartwood whiskies it was not subjected to any chill filtration or added colouring. The casks in this fifth Beagle release included ex-bourbon, ex-port, ex-sherry and ex-muscat casks. Muscat is a sweet fortified wine which is produced from late harvest muscat grapes, with the closest European equivalent being Moscatel, ala Caol Ila Distiller's Edition. I was lucky enough to taste a young Heartwood that was matured in a muscat cask during this incredible visit to the holy grail of Australian bond stores. It was only 3 years old at the time, and it was phenomenal, so this'll be very interesting! Some of the contents of Beagle 5 were peated, but that means peated to Lark Distillery standards which is very light, to the tune of around 8 ppm. And that's also using peat from the Tasmanian highlands, which is far lighter in character than anything you'd experience in a peated Scotch whisky. As you can see from the label below, the % of peated whisky involved is "still too hard to calculate". Love it!

Heartwood Beagle 5, NAS, 62.5%. Blended / Vatted malt. Tasmania, Australia.
Blended from 7 different casks, spirit from Lark Distillery and Tasmania Distillery. Cask types include ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-port and ex-muscat, and some peated spirit. Non-chill filtered, naturally coloured, 175 bottles. 

Colour: Dark bronze.

Nose: Dense & syrupy. Thick stone fruit jam, juicy sweet raisins and a couple of raspberries. Eucalyptus cough drops, burnt toffee, a little salt, and freshly polished oak. 

Texture: Heavy weight, dense & meaty. A little heat, but not much for the strength.

Taste: More thick, dense stone fruit jam, burnt plum jam here. Quite medicinal too, but not in an Islay way, more cough mixture, eucalyptus and aniseed. A little rubber, in a good way, creamy vanilla and some charred oak in the background.

Finish: Starts heavy but lightens up in true Heartwood fashion. More strong cough mixture, some lightly bitter coffee grounds, burnt toffee, more vanilla and a little earthy note. Becomes creamy for a minute before heading back to that medicinal cough mixture note, which is now berry-flavoured. 

Score: 4 out of 5. 

Notes: Another delicious flavour-packed beast from Heartwood! Quite sweet and medicinal too, more so than I've found in other Heartwood releases, but it works very well here. I'd assume the muscat cask (or casks) are responsible for that extra sweetness, and I'm liking it! That strong cough mixture note is very interesting as well, but not in an unpleasant way. I can't say I've found that before, but it's very enjoyable here. We'd usually associate medicinal flavours with more heavily-peated whiskies, but that's not the case here, there's no burning hospital / iodine notes to be found, just that strong cough mixture and eucalyptus. Keeps things engaging, challenging and very interesting, which is what Mr. Heartwood always likes to do! 

And now for the comparison!

Heartwood Beagle 3 is quite different to the fifth release, as expected for the aforementioned reasons, although the spirit was sourced from the same two distilleries. The third release, bottled in 2015, consisted of whisky taken from nine different casks including ex-bourbon, port, sherry, and pinot noir wine casks, and 18% of the mix was peated spirit (Lark Distillery origin). It was a larger release too at 220 bottles (thanks to those two extra casks getting the nod), and came together at a higher strength of 68.4%. Unfortunately this little taste comparison marks the end of my bottle of Beagle 3, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifice I'm making here! From memory this bottle has been open for around a year (with the use of argon preserver), but Heartwood bottlings love a bit of oxidisation and I haven't noticed any marked difference in quality or depth of flavour since the bottle was first opened. 

On the nose the third release is considerably lighter-flavoured and less sweet, perhaps easier to navigate, and there's more citrus with the delicious orange oil note that I've always loved in this whisky. There's more spices here as well, but not a big difference in detectable alcohol on the nose despite the near 6% difference in strength. But that could be down to how long this bottle has been open. It's definitely more punchy on the palate though, which would be that almost-6% higher strength showing itself. There's more of that old-school Heartwood hot Australian bushland character, plus a load of yummy chocolate and orange. I do find the finish to be a little shorter and a little hotter, but again that could be down to oxidisation.

Overall notes: I definitely prefer the palate on this Beagle 3 to the newer release, but the nose and finish on the Beagle 5 just beat the older version. They're both excellent whiskies of course, which we can and do expect from Mr. Duckett. In fact I suspect that these Beagle blended malts allow him to work his magic a little more than the single cask single malts do, since there are more ingredients to play with and there are basically no restrictions, it's all down to Tim's mastery of the alchemy that is whisky making. 

If you're yet to try a Heartwood bottling, particularly if you're in Australia, you need to get yourself to a good whisky bar and hunt down a bottle. The sheer volume of flavour and texture in these beauties is well worth the hunt, just be warned that you may end up trying to find as many bottlings as you can, which is not a cheap or easy pursuit. But what a journey it'll be...