Thursday 25 January 2018

Getting re-acquainted with the Sullivans Cove range

Mention "Australian whisky" to anyone overseas, particularly in Asia, and if they've heard of it, there's a good chance they'll respond with "Oh, yes, I know Sullivans Cove"! Whilst Australia currently has a significant number of whisky distilleries (the exact number seems to be constantly changing, but is over 40 as of the time of writing), the old joke that "most Aussie distilleries make less than the Scottish distilleries spill" almost holds true, and by far the majority of this output remains within Australia.

Some distilleries (like Starward) are doing a great job of getting their product onto the world stage, but Sullivans Cove have been doing it for longer than anyone (I remember as far back as 2010 seeing Sullivans Cove in bars all over Asia, well before it won a slew of awards and gained even more fame).

On one of my recent trips back to Sydney, Sullivans Cove kindly treated Hendy and myself to a private tasting of the full core range, the rare (and very much sold out) "Special Casks", and a few other goodies too.

Over a few delicious sharing plates in The Roosevelt's private "Monroe room", we tasted 7 Sullivans Cove whiskies, including the oldest available cask (HH088, distilled in 1999), an at the time unreleased special Double Cask (DC095, now sold out), and a number of other drams which gave us a great insight into the portfolio. The full line-up included:
  • Double Cask DC090 12/12/07 to 11/04/17 @ 40%
  • Double Cask DC095 29/05/08 to 06/10/17 @ 49.6%
  • American Oak TD56 16/11/05 to 23/02/17 @ 47.5%
  • American Oak HH0088 7/12/99 to 29/06/17 @ 47.5%
  • Special cask TD0231 American Oak ex-tawny 29/12/07 to 10/02/17 @ 63.8%
  • Special cask TD0202 French Oak ex-Chardonnary 06/07/07 to 20/01/17 @ 47.5%
  • French Oak HH0516 12/10/00 to 14/04/17

As Tasmania's 2nd oldest (currently operating) whisky distillery, and 100% Aussie owned and operated, it's fair to say Sullivans Cove Distillery (formerly "Tasmania Distillery") is firmly ingrained into Aussie whisky folklore, and whilst their earliest output in the mid 1990s may have been a bit average, they well and truly turned a corner around 1999 and now produce some fantastic Aussie whisky...which we were ready to dive into.

With the delightful Amanda as our guide, we learned about the distillery's history and current state, its philosphies, and an idea of where its heading in the future. Amanda's business card may have read "Sales and Marketing Manager", but her knowledge and passion for the distillery genuinely exceeded that of many brand ambassadors we've met over the years!

Sullivans Cove's core whisky line-up consists of "Double Cask", "American Oak" and "French Oak" - the latter two being single cask, the former being a vatting of 3-5 barrels (a mix of American Oak ex-Bourbon and French Oak ex-Tawny, mostly from Seppeltsfield) yielding ~950 to 1,500 bottles each release.

We started with the Double Cask, tasting two expressions - one a 9yo @ 40% ABV (DC090), and another 9yo @ an unusual 49.6% ABV (DC095, which went on sale soon after and rapidly sold out).  DC090 had a beautifully creamy, vanilla nose, following through to a sweet, fruity palate but then deviating to an earthy, vegetal finish. Unexpected, but enjoyable. DC095 wasn't dissimilar in terms of flavours, but they were significantly ramped up, with more creaminess, spice and (for me) tannin on the finish. Same same, but different, and I enjoyed both equally.

The American Oak range was next, with two bottlings - one 11yo (TD56), and one at a whopping 17 years old (HH0088) - Sullivans Cove's oldest available cask. Both were at 47.5%. TD56 showed some citrusy paprika on the nose, with the citrus following through on the palate and an oaky, spicy finish. HH0088 was buttery but for my palate showed some slight hints of sulphur, albeit with a lovely caramel finish. Not my favourite of the two, but still a lovely dram, and a great chance to sample the distillery's oldest wares.

The famous French Oak followed - not the really famous HH0525 which helped kick off the Tasmanian whisky boom (are there even any left in the world?!) but HH0516, distilled in October 2000 and aged at 16 years old, bottled at 47.5% ABV. With an orange gold hue, and big sweet raspberries and blueberries on the, initial impressions lived up to expectations. The palate was initially drying, but then a berry-sweetness emerged, turning to a long and "chewy" caramel-oak finish. My favourite so far.

Up until last year, a discussion of the Sullivans Cove range would have stopped there. In 2017 though, the distillery saw the first new release (two actually) in over a decade - the green-labelled "Special Casks". At $750AUD each they don't come cheap, but that didn't stop them selling out in record time. Described to us as "exceptional malts that don't fit the core range", they're evidence of some of the experimentation underway at Sullivans Cove, and perhaps an insight into some of the more unusual and interesting whiskies we may see coming in future years.

Amanda was kind enough to allow us to taste both - TD0202, a 9yo French oak ex-Chardonnay cask bottled at 47.5%, and TD0231, a 9yo American oak ex-tawny cask bottled at a not-insignificant 63.8% ABV.

The dark-copper TD0231 had a hugely syrupy molasses nose, with lots of maple syrup which amplified with water. The palate was thick and syrupy, with a decent amount of allspice accompanied by treacle-soaked dates. The finish was long, with hints of charred oak.

TD0202 on the other hand couldn't have been more different, with a light yellow-golden hue, floral pineapple fritters on the nose, sweet chocolate-coated pineapple chunks, apple and honey on the palate, and a tropical, floral finish that went on for days. Whilst Hendy's pick was the TD0231, this one was my pick of the night.
You might note that Sullivans Cove don't actually specify an age on their whiskies, although (in the "spirit" of complete transparency), provide the exact distillation dates (for the youngest whisky, in the case of the Double Cask range), the bottling date, and the cask numbers. It doesn't get much more transparent than that!

Hendy and I owe a huge thanks to Amanda for giving up her time to walk us through the range. It's not often you get a private tasting, including a number of un-released, pre-released and sold-out drams, and to try them all together was a fantastic experience.

I personally can't wait to see what "Special Casks" are released in the near future, but if the experimentation we heard about and tasted is anything to go by, I'm sure they'll be a whole lot of fun.


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