Spotlight on: Willowbank

The New Zealand Whisky Company [NZWC] tells us:

  • Whisky distilling in New Zealand was born with the arrival of Scottish settlers in the 1830s. Many Scots settled in the Otago region and the industry flourished here until the 1870s when onerous government regulations effectively shut it down.

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Furthermore, NZWC says:

  • A distilling industry gradually re-emerged in the 1950s and in 1974, the Baker family opened the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin – [nicks.com] ‘after approaches to the New Zealand government allowed more favourable regulations.

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ESTABLISHMENT

The establishing year of the Willowbank Distillery sees differing reports. Whiskyphiles says the distillery opened in 1968 whereas Whiskipedia and Ian Buxton via a short piece for MoM says it was 1969. Whisky.fr is in agreement with NZWC, telling us:

  • [Willowbank distillery was] ,… founded in 1974 by the Baker family in the town of Dunedin (in the Otago region, better known for its wines), on the site of the old Water of Leith Brewery.

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WHAT”S IN A NAME?

Ian Buxton says:

  • Wilsons Malt began distilling in Dunedin under New Zealand’s first modern distiller, one Robert Logan. Over the years the distillery has had several names, including Dunedin, Lammerlaw and Willowbank.

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THE WHISKY

Like the distillery, Willowbank’s whisky was bottled under numerous brand names [WB] including Milford, Lammerlaw [named after a nearby mountain range], South Island, Spirit of Munrow, Wilson’s and Thomson – not to be confused with whisky from the new Thomson Distillery, est. 2014 [WB].

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There was also a 21yo named High Wheeler [WB] which is a blend of [30%] grain and [70%] malt [TWE] from the Willowbank [Dunedin] Distillery. As a single blend, this would indicate Willowbank had a column/pot hybrid still,… or distilled from other grains?

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THE DISTILLERY

Ian Buxton again:

  • According to Perry’s book [see pic], initial production was a modest 90,000 litres per annum though he notes that in 1975 the whisky was awarded a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ in a Chicago competition,…

,….putting that establishment date of 1974 into question once again.

SW, who more generally describes the world’s southernmost whisky distillery as opening in the 1970s, says:

  • [Willowbank] remained in business for over two decades.
Cyril Yates committed over 20 years of his life to distilling in New Zealand, pictured above as a young man in the Willowbank distillery

The distillery originally deployed stainless steel stills until Seagrams, who purchased the distillery in the 1980s, replaced them with copper. Seagrams sold the distillery to Fosters in 1997 who subsequently ceased production and closed the distillery. The stills were sent to Fiji around 2000 to make rum.

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LEGACY

In 2018, SW wrote:

  • Ever since Willowbank distillery closed in 1997, New Zealand’s whisky scene has been pretty quiet.

Greg Ramsay, who had recently managed the development of the debunked Nant Distillery in Tasmania [M-R], heard about Willowbank’s mature stocks and endeavoured to buy the entire stock.

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NZWC says:

  • ,… hundreds of barrels of cask strength whisky were auctioned off [,….]. In 2010, we bought the last 80,000 litres in 443 barrels from what had previously been stored in an old aeroplane hangar. The whisky now resides in the towering seaside bonds store in Oamaru.

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THE FUTURE

The stock was then repackaged for international export with more than 80 bottlings sold under the New Zealand Whisky Collection moniker [WB]. With just 15% of the old Willowbank stock left, distilling at a new distillery began in Dunedin once again at the new Speight Distillery around 2020.

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Inspired by an 18yo Willowbank from Boutique-y I first tried at Cut Your Wolf Loose earlier this year,…

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,… I ended up bidding on and winning four vintage single-cask bottles at auction.

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A bottle split commenced, courtesy of SWAG’s Garson:

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Having won the bottles at auction in April 2022, only now [in November] have I gotten round to tasting them. During that time, I’d also acquired two more Willowbank’s to make in a half dozen. Let’s begin.

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DAMN these cardboard boxes reak, mainly of cologne as well as soot/creosote. It has corrupted tonight’s pours and ruined the session though it provides me with my first cardboard review! Thank goodness I’ve 10cl of each bottle to play with. With the boxes now in the recycling bin, another week passes before my second attempt. Here goes.

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Willowbank 1989/2012 22yo Ob./NZWC cask #58 [btl #08] 52.8% WB82[1]

  • N: Initial lingerings of sweaty cologne and aspirin/washing detergent will lift and move decidedly towards tropical fruits such as papaya, melon, unripe berries, mashed bananas, ripe pineapple ~ cubes,… With a growing shortbread huskiness comes the emergence of slightly tart raspberry > strawberry tutti-frutti with a drop of sooty vegetal shoe polish and a tastily consolidated vanilla wafer. With an emerging theme, this is the more balanced and intoxicating nose of the four.
  • T: A touch greasy, there’s a chew of sorts on a sour-sweet vegetal fruitiness, berry & nettle tea, a touch of rosehip. Somewhat congested and butyric around aged resinous ex-bourbon, there’s a little liquorice and aniseed heat but all within acceptable limits.
  • F: After a fairly decent length unwind, we’ve another hint of dry dusty soot before turning slightly cardboard/paper mache-like by the tail with sour mash at the death.
  • C: Swings and roundabouts, neither unlikeable nor particularly recommendable.

Scores 83 points

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Willowbank 1989/2013 24yo Ob./NZWC cask #58 54.5% WB82[1]

  • N: Same cask a year or two on, I’m guessing. If that is the case, the rise in abv suggests it’s lost water not alcohol. Though the profile is similar to the 22yo, I find this one quieter/more subtle and less vibrant on the fruit front with a woody= mashy slightly cardboardy vanilla ice cream wafer dryness. Looking optimistically, dried ripe pineapples begin to come through, and with an unripe berry freshness, a touch more [raspberry] ice cream syrup. Furthermore, there’s some sort of [Inchfad-esque] putty/wax complex seemingly borne from an ashy/sooty char.
  • T: Works at strength more than the other three and with less congestion. With a passing hint/suggestion of cologne, the addition of water brings an improved form with a greasy waxy vegetal fruitiness – think unripe plums and green olives over rhubarb and liquorice wood. Quirky for sure!
  • F: Stays put, neat, but a little water helps it along significantly despite ending up in a slightly butyric aniseed < liquorice bitter-sour cul-de-sac. Either way, an unsatisfying mashy conclusion, as seen with all four bottles.
  • C: Again, swings & roundabouts. Same score as the 22yo for different attributing reasons.

Scores 83 points

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Willowbank 1988/2013 25yo Ob./NZWC cask #64 55.1% WB87.74[21]

  • N: A striking similarity to the first two bottles. Like the 24yo, we’ve a quieter nose compared with the 22yo, again with a little cardboard at first and a similar fruitiness with that intoxicating and prevalent sooty greasy boot polish note, more ice cream syrup, and a savoury-sweet nutty butter biscuit huskiness. We’ve hints of aromatic spices too [clove, nutmeg,…] into fruity charred toffee and an off-key [cask]-moist soapy~fungal~detergent note.
  • T: With a marginally higher abv, we see a larger bolder arrival in comparison to cask[s] #58. A somewhat congested affair [age/resins etc.], a little water management get’s you a fair developmental chew and a decent enough travel. Berry & citric sour on the turn, a little sharp and fresh,…
  • F: ,… with butyric > heat and yet more ex-bourbon woody congestion, an issue for all four of these bottles to a greater or lesser extent. More fresh vegetal waxy/greasy sooty mash concludes.
  • C: There’s a theme developing, profile-wise and fundamentally, but this one carries the most convincing form throughout.

Scores 84 points

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Willowbank 1988/2012 23yo Ob./NZWC cask #72 [btl #09] 56.4% WB84[1]

  • N: Again, a similar theme with a little cardboard, a wisp of struck match way in the background, tutti-frutti over sooty oily vanilla [ice cream] and barley sugar. Onwards, we’ve dusty books next to a new Chesterfield, a wisp of furniture polish, and fresh coconut flesh served alongside slightly stale biscuits.
  • T: Tumbles in all at once over some fruitiness and plenty of previous underlying ex-bourbon maturation noise. Escalating towards a soft malty-dry mouthfeel, a touch greasy, somewhat butyric and fizzy, again there’s an Inchfad-esque vegetal curiosity [albeit toned way down], the [barley sugar] sweeter fruity maltiness more muted.
  • F: A sour finish towards a bitter char note, there’s a tempered creamy berry-citric freshness [heat] to all of these casks. Again, a mashy conclusion.
  • C: Not without its ups and downs, there are plenty of plus points to this one.

Scores 84 points

As a session, that felt more academic than enjoyable. Let’s move on to a full bottle review of that Boutique-y Willowbank that I’ve been raving about for some months now.

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Willowbank 18yo [2021] TBWC Wine Cask Series Batch #2 [btl #17/506] 50.5% [50cl] WB86.33[3] WP85 WLP188 WLP288

  • N: The overall picture is one of a fully present yet cushion-soft consolidated sweet grapey oaky malty mix that gets me every time. Yes it’s woody, yes it’s tannic, and yes it’s stewed/consolidated, but this dark/rich sweet whisky is also something quite different, something from the norm. I pick out notes of pancake-y mahogany, berry fruits, confectionary vanilla, beeswax, sticky flapjack, thick maple syrup pancakes, a passing waft of coffee, [raspberry/strawberry] fruity coffee syrups, and a chalky malty spirity quality which relays this one’s malted barley roots beyond the wine and oak.
  • T: With certain sips with & without water in certain proportions, we’ve an oozing sweet [and sometimes gacky] woody/grape-tannic-dry/dry-ish and sour sherry-like arrival & mouthfeel [to die for] – grape first, closely shadowed by grain. You may pick up on the passing clove nutmeg > cinnamon spiciness coupled with straight-ahead bourbon traits and something of home-fried popodoms and the oil of. The slight addition of water in the mouth brings succulent textural injective layers/waves – Cadbury’s Flake styley – of malty berry juice into baked tart jam before returning back to the sweeter wine-derived joys on the turn. 
  • F: After all the confectionary-associated sweetness from the wine, we’ve grape & oak tannins to the last with a sour-to-bitter direction near the finish line. With a suggestion of [inner-tube repair] rubber/glue/chalk, at the tail end, we’ve vanilla pods, barley sugar, tutti-frutti, Hundreds & Thousands, Iced Gems, grape skins,… It’s a never-ending story. Never has a 50cl bottle provided such satisfaction.
  • C: Special stuff in my heart but then I do have a penchant for the grape and am fairly resilient to tannins and oak. On my whisky journey, this will stick in the memory. Better get me another bottle before it’s all gone.

Scores 88 points

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One more and we’re done.

Willowbank 18yo [2022] Ob./NZWC  TWE Exclusive Wine Cask [1371 bts] 57.2% [50cl] WB88[8]

Comprised from the last remaining stocks, the back label reads: ‘This bottle is a marriage of four casks that after initially being aged in ex-bourbon casks, have spent over a decade in French oak New Zealand wine barrels’. Shouldn’t this be New Zealand’s hallmark style?

  • N: You could enter this into a ‘Guess the Base Spirit’ quiz given this rather woody sweet vanilla-ey tutti-frutti grape juice expression is a little rum-like and certainly armagnac & cognac-like, such are the cask and production convergencies in today’s global drinks & spirits arena. I posthumously read this at Whiskyfun who says about a 29yo Willowbank: ‘Very curious whisky that nods to several other styles‘.
  • T: In short, sweet tutti-frutti and toasted vanilla into a splintered woodiness with a grapey maltiness. Arriving with a pinch, it’s a little basic overall yet very moreish. There was a chalky aspirin note [first 1/3rd of the bottle], but further down, that has all but disappeared and been replaced by more desirable oaky-aged sugars. After some malty grapey convergence – which proves divisive amongst many a malthead – we’ve some sawdust-covered cracked pepper over raisin juice on the turn.
  • F: As more splintered oak comes out from the sweetness and a slight sweet salty creaminess, we are diverging towards alternative spirit styles once again. Finishes as we began on the palate with splintered tutti-frutti over vanilla [wafer ice cream], that vanilla merging into bananas & cream by the finish surrounded by some forgivable heat.
  • C: Though not as magical as the TBWC 18yo, the overall effect of this wood & wine-steered Willowbank is commendable and to be celebrated as idiosyncratic whisky more reflecting its origins than the straight ex-bourbon expressions. A piece of whisky history is still available online [in the UK] at time of writing.

Scores 87 points

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This experience has given me a whole new respect for wine casks on whisky and the importance of embracing one’s surroundings/local industry to create a hallmark style that is unique to the place of origin. It’s a shame then that red wine casks are trickier to manage/utilize than, say, sherry. Is it the same with madeira and sauternes wine casks too, I wonder?

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2 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Willowbank

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