Tasmanian whisky making its mark on the international scene

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 July, 2014, 1:49am

In an industrial estate on the outskirts of Hobart is a warehouse filled with hundreds of oak barrels. It's the unlikely home of one of Australia's most celebrated whisky distilleries, Sullivans Cove.

This year, Sullivans Cove shocked the spirits community by beating incumbents from Scotland and Japan to win best single malt whisky at the World Whiskies Awards.

Around the same time, fellow Tasmanian producer Lark Distillery won the top prize for best world whisky at the International Whisky Competition in Chicago. It's a remarkable leap for a state where small-scale whisky distilling was illegal until 1992.

Tasmania was a showcase for all types of small producers long before the artisanal movement became hip. World-class wineries produce delicate pinot noir and roaming grass-fed hormone-free cattle provide beef as well as milk for some of the country's best cheeses.

I’m not trying to copy another whisky… our flavours speak for themselves

It's not a wealthy state, and with so much land-based seasonal work, locals are pushed to find inventive solutions to make money.

Tasmania "inspires people to become problem solvers in new and unique ways, instead of being a cog in a machine elsewhere", says Brett Steel, who left a marketing position at the Sydney Opera House to move to Tasmania two years ago.

He now runs his own business, Tasmanian Whisky Tours, which takes small groups to distilleries to meet the makers. "It's a golden era of Tasmanian whisky," says Steel. There are nine licensed distilleries in Tasmania, with several more in the planning stages, according to Tourism Tasmania.

"We're a tiny place, but there's an industry emerging," says Patrick Maguire, the director of Sullivans Cove, who joined the distillery in 1999 and became a part-owner in 2003.

The small scale of the island state means it's easy to visit a few distilleries in one day. For those who don't feel like driving, a number of the producers have their own bars in the centre of town, where rare local whiskies that might not be available for export can be enjoyed.

Maguire is a softly spoken former pub owner who also used to work in a pathology lab.

When pressed about what makes his whisky stand out, he says the methods he uses are similar to those used overseas.

Local malted barley is brewed to create the base for the whisky, which is then double-distilled in a copper pot still.

The liquid is diluted with local water and placed in a barrel for a number of years.

Different types of barrels give different flavours - the award-winning single malt whisky was aged in French oak port barrels, but Sullivans Cove also uses American oak bourbon. "The barrel is an ingredient; it's not just a drum for storing it. It drives 50 to 70 per cent of the flavour of the whisky, and all of the colour," says Maguire.

The barrel is the wild card in the process. "You can get one tank of spirit, 1,000 litres of spirit, put it into six different barrels, and you'll get six whiskies," he says. "We've got no idea until we get to tasting years later."

Since Sullivans Cove is a small operation, everything is done by hand, including the bottling. Maguire taste-tests every batch at intervals to determine when they're ready to be bottled, focusing more on the flavour than the time the whisky has been in the barrel.

When it's ready, the whisky is left to sit for a few more months for the sediment to settle. "A lot of distilleries chill filter when they're bottling their whisky," says Maguire.

"That means they bring it down to a really cold temperature which strips a lot of the flocking out, all the particles that become sediment."

Stripping out that sediment can rob the whisky of some of the colour and flavour. Letting the liquid settle naturally combats this. "We can do it because we're small, whereas the big guys, there's no way they could sit around like we do waiting for things to settle," says Maguire.

"They're doing millions of bottles a year, we're doing a few thousand. They produce bloody good whisky too, I've got plenty of it at home."

This might contribute to Sullivans Cove's standing with international critics. "Our whiskies are pretty robust in flavour and they're nice and creamy, too," says Maguire. But he admits the World Whiskies award blindsided a lot of people, including him.

Despite having to restrict sales of the award-winning single malt (the distiller also makes an American oak cask single malt, and a double cask single malt made with a combination of American and French oak barrels), the small outfit won't be increasing production too drastically.

Maguire is now experimenting with ageing in sherry and chardonnay barrels. He's also toying with the idea of introducing peat, which is plentiful in the highlands of Tasmania. This delivers the signature smoky notes in many whiskies, particularly those from Scotland. It'll just take 12 or so years to sample the results.

"All I want to do is produce a Tasmanian single malt whisky. I'm not trying to copy another whisky," says Maguire.

"I just want to bring out the flavours of our barley, our water, of our still. We're not making Scotch, we're making a Tasmanian whisky, and I think our flavours should speak for themselves."

Do the Hobart shuffle

For those who don’t have the time or inclination to embark on a driving tour of Tasmania’s distilleries, you can sample the best at bars in the heart of town.

Lark Distillery, a cosy pub that displays equipment from the Lark distillation process.

14 Davey St, Hobart, larkdistillery.com.au

Nant Whisky Bar, a dimly lit bar with tasting menus and limitededition runs of local whisky.

Wooby’s Lane, Salamanca Place, Hobart, nant.com.au

IXL Long Bar, the bar at the Henry Jones Art Hotel in the historic part of town has a fine selection.

25 Hunter St, Hobart, thehenryjones.com