Hosted by Steven Czarny of The London Whisky Club, this tasting was presented by Heather Tillott, head distiller of Sullivan’s Cove.
Originally a penal colony, Tasmania has a strong brewing heritage going back to the 1800s, so there’s plenty of barley around. Indeed, some of the country’s oldest established breweries are still running – Cascade for example, established 1824 – and are familiar with old barley strains and the Tasmanian conditions. It’s a good starting place for a whisky distillery. However, excessive over-use of grain for brewing & distilling at this time brought critical food shortages. As a result, Tasmania experienced a prohibition on distilling that lasted for around 150 years until late 1990’s. Cue Sullivans Cove:
- Operating for 25 years [Distilling since 1999: Malt Year Book].
- They produce just 30 casks a year, so rare whisky indeed – more so than even Daftmill [approx. 100 casks a year].
- From nowhere, Jim Murray’s 2014 Whisky Bible award catapulted Sullivans Cove onto the World stage.
- Made from 100% malted barley grown approximately 100 miles from Hobart.
- With little focus around yield, Sullivans Cove [SC] use old-skool strains of barley that promote fats, oils,… Perceived “inefficiencies” are deliberately celebrated.
- They’ve generally used four strains in the last 25 years. Mostly Franklin, Dedner?, and Westminster – and of late – a little Planet, but it’s mostly the first three. They like to mix it up [not sticking to one all the time] to avoid promoting mono-cultural activities.
- Using a secret yeast recipe, brewing occurs “two minutes down the road,….. in effect, in-house brewing”, says Heather. The distillery shares a kit with the local brewery which is crucial to give SC the right “chemical makeup” of the spirit later on.
- 120 hour fermentation.
- Like the wine industry, they use full sized casks – ASBs as well as 300 litre French oak/ex-tawny casks
From The Malt Year Book: The core range includes American Oak, French Oak and Double Wood [including port casks], Double Cask, and occasionally, Special Cask. Then there’s Old & Rare. We shall try a selection of all of these tonight.
I’ve, randomly, only tried one Sullivans Cove before. It was this:
Sullivans Cove [21/06/11] Ob. American oak cask #HH0182 47.5% WB0
- N: Burned homemade popcorn – as clear as day – with honey, butter, and cracked pepper. This has had an hour to open up yet the popcorn remains absolute. Also, buckwheat flour, stewed rhubarb, and burned toast.
- T: Honeyed buttery arrival becoming chewy and malty – building. Some wood spices develop with a hint of swede? or maybe it’s more stewed rhubarb, yet the scorched popcorn is ever present.
- F: There’s a little prickly ground black peppery heat into a light bubblegum and malty/honey finish with a touch of fennel toothpaste.
- C: Was burned popcorn a profile target? If so, job done! Scores well [low-mid 80s]. Simple yet characterful.
Let the tasting begin!
Sullivans Cove Fire Drum Vodka  Ob. 40%
Made from 100% local barley, this is essential Sullivans Cove’s new make spirit which has been reduced to 40% [import issues?]. Light filtration polishes it whilst retaining fats oils and textures.
- N: Pleasingly sweet, creamy/milky confectionary-sweet “Milk bottles” says Heather, yep!
- T: Oh yeah, more milk bottles,…. “fairly classic for the type of barley we use”, says Heather, into a textural creamy milky barley juice which hints at coppery Caramac,…liquorice,….
- F: ,… into slight citrusy Mini Milk vibes and a light yet lingering waxy fruitiness.
- C: Simple to the sublime=accomplished, thumbs up for a tasting that starts with the base spirit.
Scores 77 points
Sullivans Cove 2008/2019 11yo  Ob. Double Cask #DC107 [969 bts] 44.9% WB85
This is a vatted small-batch expression from two oak types: American oak and French oak [ex-tawny in the main], first and/or refill casks.
- N: Rather ‘New World’ [sorry world and indigenous peoples]. With some of that base milkiness, we’ve a confectionary fruitiness [red fruits: pomegranate and strawberry were noted], bananas,…
- T: Like the new make, now with savoury earthy and nutty hues. Arrives slightly unusually – as in, not like Scotch – with a surprisingly delightful release surge into a malty and complex journey: nutty “dark brown sugars, orange peel” – Heather spot on again – and with a mouthfeel to boot over a savoury slightly [Mini Milk] milky vanilla chew once again.
- F: Nutty light coppery savoury barley sugars. Unusually, the cask resinousness is utterly pleasing. Despite a more deliberate US vanilla malty profile towards the tail, it’s a refreshing alternative to bourbon or Scotch.
- C: Very nice. It doesn’t seem to want a great deal more ex-tawny influence here, but perhaps we shall understand that more against the spirit in a single cask version later on?
Scores 86 points
There’s talk/questions about Sullivans Cove’s abv’s and whether the [single cask] expressions are bottled at cask strength. In Hobart, they receive only 300mm of rain a year. A dry climate means that the alcohol actually goes up with maturation. Heather has seen a 16yo whisky at 85% abv. All of Sullivans Cove whiskies are diluted to some extent. The ‘sweet spot’ is generally around 47-48%, they’ve found out, through a slow dilution process that takes many weeks.
Sullivans Cove 13yo  Ob. American Oak single cask #TD165 [203 bts] 47.5%
Heather says this is “,… more modern-era spirit,…. very typical of what you can expect” [at Sullivans Cove].
- N: There’s more of that savoury [tawny-illusion?] sweet milky waxy-fattiness I’m beginning to tune into now, with some ease – a style the distillery are deliberately searching for. Much like the Double Cask, perhaps this lands somewhere in-between Scotch and bourbon?
- T: Same again. This is most alluring to my palate, a complex, firmly-savoury, biscuity, barley-heart,….
- F: ,….. with decent-length unravel. Clear vanilla ice-cream finish, yet there’s nothing garish about the vanillins nor the resins which are, just so.
- C: Being more one-dimensional than the double cask expression, you can see why the distillery would be adding another maturation ingredient [tawny] to the process.
Scores 83 points
Sullivans Cove 18yo  Ob. Old & Rare American Oak cask HH0296 [150 bts] 49.2%
In comparison to the last dram, this is a Sullivans Cove ‘previous era’ whisky. We are told the distillery have plenty of old stock: 21 & 22 yo’s and then more in the 17-19yo range.
- N: Heather offers “tequila,.. and agave roasted pineapple” notes – again, spot on! This is decidedly fruitier on greener ripe orchard fruits, a light huskiness, and overall, a nose that speaks of way more years than even 18.
- T: With a resinousness that brings us down to earth, there’s a denseness to this into chewy thick malt chocolate, Ovaltine,…. This ‘denseness’, Heather explains, comes from the distillery’s older regime where the cut points were wider.
- F: Shorter finish than the previous three on a slight musty mashiness, honeycomb and light vanillins.
- C: A fabulously fun whisky, and what a nose!
Scores 85 points
A virtual distillery walk-around reveals a modern unit except for Myrtle, a 2500-litre replica of an alembic brandy still commonly used for making armagnac. Note [see pic] the vertical lyne arm out from the still for high reflux and copper contact.
Sullivans Cove 2007/2019 11yo Ob. Special Single Cask #TD0214 [281 bts] 45.8%
Casks that don’t fit into the core range [i.e. different/idiosyncratic], may find their way into the Special Single Cask series, if stunning enough – perhaps just two releases a year. According to WoW, the exact dates for this single cask are: filled 7/11/2007, bottled 15/10/19. This came from a first-fill US oak ex-apera cask. Apera relates to “fortified and sherried” says heather – a bit like tawny port casks.
- N: Light red fruits on chewed printer paper, aromatic rice, “dandelion” [great call], savoury malty toffee-beer,…. One could go on.
- T: More dandelion, and burdock [> “tomato leaves”, Heather],… Stauning distillery vibes,…. light chew,….plenty of subtle mixed savoury-sweet action – bready doughy,….
- F: ,… orange zest, savoury-toffee-sweet milky > honey > light vanilla chew,… Long finish, the textural element remains to the last. Tobacco – pre-mentioned – occurs most prominently at the tail, for me.
- C: Rightly popular, special whisky.
Scores 87 points
Most new distilleries will spend much time promoting, creating exposure and inevitably boosting sales, says Samuel Cumming – Global Sales Manager – who spends much of his time trying to spread out distribution as carefully as possible to a small high-demand group that significantly out-weigh supply. Viable ‘sob stories’ or interesting tales via email are welcomed. Moving on.
Sullivans Cove 12yo  Ob. Tawny single cask #TD0324 [501 bts] 47.5%
US oak and ex-tawny cask maturation.
- N: Auchentoshan-esque, creamy light quince floral apple fruitiness, and gravy?!
- T: Oh yeah, that’s the modern engineered cask-finish taste. Rather predictable ‘pop’ whisky at this time,…
- F: ,… yet the more idiosyncratic underlying barley-led milky vanilla-ey spirit does play through, finishing with that pleasing milky savoury-sweet chew.
- C: Not quite my style, which is in overload/abundance in the industry right now. Still, very competent and no doubt popular.
Scores 82 points
Sullivans Cove 2007 XO Brandy Ob. cask #TDB009 [285 bts] 50.5%
Sullivans Cove XO brandy is made from single varietal wines, namely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This one is based on chardonnay, aged in an ex-tawny cask and fortified further with tawny port.
- N: Not realising this was actually brandy before I tried it,…. crikey! I’m glad this is at the end as it smells like a palate cruncher, but that’s because it’s so left-field with a fruity minerality, creamy, gritty, dirty heavily-dusty nose reminiscent of very old blends, and even tequila or cachaca. Heavy old sugars, molasses, “petricore” [Heather], nutty pine needles, hints of garden sprays [more tomato leaf], more molasses,… into Nocino, PX sherry,….. plum sauce > BBQ, smoked bacon, a burning match box, warm ashes, burnt sticks, burning painted & Creosote-d wood,.. This would pass as an old yet vibrant rum on the nose – Wedderburn, Vale Royal,… PX sherry. Wow, is this even whisky?!!!!!
- T: Whoa, this IS like mental rum! One can conjure a very dark old molasses/agricole-blended rum with savoury herbal earthy qualities, more plum sauce,… perfectly thick body and perfect savoury >= sweetness again, so curious. Amazing dynamics!
- F: Earthy. almost medicinal [= the worm tub influence, Heather], becoming sweeter at times, more Nocino-sweet savoury liqueur-like,… Dry yet sweet, luscious,…
- C: Mad!! Completely unexpected. A must-have bottle to confuse everyone at any [whisky] spirits tasting. What a result. From a wine-making nation, let’s hope we see more brandy from ‘daan under’.
Scores 90 points
Tonight’s tasting has been an eye-opener: a distillery making whisky low & slow/quality over quantity/inefficiencies=positive. Aside from the extraordinary brandy, the bottles I regarded the most were the double cask and the 11yo single cask, but where to buy. who supply? Suggestions included Amathus in London [> Brighton], and the Artful Dodger, but either way, I’d need a hefty wedge of cash. Let’s not get carried away. The rrp is already hefty – reflecting supply – so to pay closer to four figures on the secondary market for a single bottle is way off. Hence, what a privilege this tasting was.
Thanks to the Foz for sacrificing precious drops, to The London Whisky Club for organising, and to Sullivans Cove for presenting.
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