Bellwether? Yes, Bellwether! A small Australian single malt produced by a very small Australian distillery that has actually been around for nearly 10 years. And it's a good 'un!
Bellwether Australian single malt is produced by Geographe Distillery, which is part of the Old Coast Rd. Brewery located in the tiny rural town of Myalup in Western Australia, around 1.5 hours drive south of Perth. The distillery first opened in 2008 and their first release was bottled in late 2015, but you'll be hard-pressed to find any Bellwether whiskies on the shelves, even in Western Australia. Most releases sell out very quickly from the distillery's own website, despite the fact that the distillery is basically unknown outside of the more serious Australian whisky enthusiasts and local supporters. They're only released sporadically (when they're ready) and in tiny quantities, with the largest batch so far (Release 4) consisting of 300 x 350ml bottles. And that was a much bigger release than the previous three regular-strength releases, which totalled 520 half-sized bottles combined, so we're talking about a very tiny output here. The distillery currently produces around 100 litres of new make spirit per fortnight (one double-distillation run), with proprietor & distiller Steve Ryan doing the vast majority of the work himself.
Bellwether malts are generally made from imported Scottish barley, from Bairds maltings in Inverness, which is generally medium peated, to around 15-20 ppm, although there have been heavily peated releases. Since there's also a brewery on-site, the distillery obviously does its own mashing, brewing and fermenting, which is not always the case with small Australian distilleries, many simply source their wash "pre-made" from local breweries, albeit to their own specifications. The distillery is equipped with a single column still, but all whisky (they also make gin and limoncello) is double-distilled without the plates installed in the neck of said still, making it function like a pot still would. So far all Bellwether releases have been matured in French oak ex-port casks that were re-coopered in South Australia to a smaller size, typically 50-100 litres. There are currently over 40 different casks maturing on-site, including red & white wine, bourbon and fortified wine casks, with ex-cognac casks on the way, ranging from 50-litre re-coopered casks through to full size 228-litre hogsheads. Bellwether has so far released relatively young whiskies, often bottled at 3-5 years of age, but because of the smaller casks, and no doubt the roller-coaster Australian climate, they're quite mature for their age. All releases are non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, and have been bottled at anywhere from 40.8%-46%, with two tiny releases at cask strength getting up to 70% ABV.
I'm lucky enough to have a sample of the first Bellwether cask strength release, and there have only been around 85 x 350ml bottles of cask strength Bellwether released to date, so it's a pretty rare thing! This particular release consisted of just 45 x 350ml bottles taken from French Oak ex-Tawny (Australian Port) casks at approximately 5 years of age, and bottled at a cask strength of 61.3%. It was distilled from medium-heavy peated (30-50 ppm) Scottish barley from Bairds maltings in Inverness, and as mentioned above is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. I'm sure the 350ml bottles may raise a few eyebrows, but I can completely understand why the decision was made, and frankly I think it's a great idea. Since they're such small releases if they were full-sized bottles they'd be near impossible to get a hold of, and the half-sized bottle also helps keep the prices down to a very reasonable $80-ish for the non-cask strength releases, and around $100 for the cask strength bottlings. That may sound expensive for the sized to those reading from Europe or the U.S., but even at double the price (so equivalent to a full-sized bottle) that's very reasonable for a very scarce Australian single malt. Releases from many other Australian distilleries often command far higher prices, even with much larger outputs and much larger releases. So this is a great approach!
Bellwether Single Malt Cask Strength 1st Release, NAS, 61.3%. Myalup, Western Australia.
Produced at Geographe Distillery. Medium-heavily peated to 30-50 ppm from Bairds maltings Inverness, matured in 50-litre first-fill French oak ex-Tawny port casks, approximately 5 years of age. Bottled 9/2016, 45 bottles. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Rust red.
Nose: Sweet, spicy and juicy port. Dark, sweet caramelised stone fruit, cough syrup, sweet grassy malt behind. Some powdered aniseed, slightly smoky toffee and white pepper. Juicy toasted oak and a little citrus.
Texture: Medium-heavy weight, juicy and spicy. A little heat, but not what you'd expect for 5 years and 61% ABV! Small cask ageing at work here.
Taste: Soft entry, then more cough syrup, warm toasted spices, a big pinch of white pepper. A little ashy peat in the background, like cigarette ash, more smoky toffee, a little menthol and citrus behind.
Finish: Long, warming and spicy. More dark caramelised stone fruit, cough syrup again, and white pepper. Hints of bitter coffee grounds and more citrus, and more smoky & thick dark toffee. Grassy malt again towards the end.
Score: 3.5 out of 5.
Notes: Very impressive indeed. For such a young whisky at such a high strength it's surprisingly drinkable and disarming. I've certainly had much older malts and similar strengths that were far less approachable. The cask influence is certainly the dominant factor here, and it's hiding the peat quite well, so they must have been very fresh casks when you consider how relatively young this malt is. But then they're also smaller casks, which has obviously made a big difference. That's not a bad thing of course, just a different angle. It's quite a unique whisky actually, I wouldn't say it's close to any other Australian whiskies that I've tried. I'd say that's down to the Scottish peated malt and those fresh port casks, which makes for a unique combination, and it works. Keeping the pricing at a reasonable level certainly helps too, even considering the half-sized bottles, which means that this can be a whisky for drinking and enjoying, not squirrelling away or coveting.
For those reading from overseas this may not be the easiest malt to find, in fact it's probably impossible, but I suggest keeping an eye out for it if you venture down under any time soon. When you consider the size of this distillery and the number of whiskies it's released, and the very reasonable pricing, this really is a great product. I also remember tasting another cask strength release that was bottled at 70%, and I recall it being even more "easy drinking" than this one, so I'm sure we'll be seeing more of Bellwether and Geographe in the future! In fact the distillery's tenth anniversary is approaching this year, and the word on the grapevine is that there's something special in the works to mark the occasion. I look forward to that!