By Richard Thomas
With whiskey-making spreading so far and wide that even Taiwan has gotten in on the act, that distilleries are making malt whiskey in Australia ought to surprise no one. Yet Australian whiskey-making is hardly new. Down in Tasmania, some outfits have been in the whiskey distilling business for quite a while, such as Sullivans Cove, which began operations in 1994.
In fact, the only reason Australians haven’t been making whiskey all along, the way their British Isles heritage and famous love of fun and drink suggests they should have been, is because of a complete prohibition on making spirits imposed by Governor John Franklin in 1838. One wonders why there wasn’t a Bligh-style revolt against that guy. That ban stood right up until the 1990s, making Sullivans Cove one of the very first to get take advantage of the new freedom to distill.
I was lucky enough to try the black-labeled American Oak Cask whiskey, which Sullivans Cove bills as “the one that first grabbed the world’s attention and gave them cause to take us seriously!” It’s a single barrel malt whiskey, made from Tasmanian barley, and aged in new American oak. My bottle came from a barrel that was just a few days past 13 years old, and the line as a whole is bottled at 47.5% abv.
Sullivans Cove uses a heavy, squat, and rounded clear glass bottle, a fairly typical but still very attractive style for an upper-end whiskey. The cap is a plastic screw-on, which is usually a turn-off for me, but this one is so chunky I was surprised to discover it was not a stopper. If all plastic caps were like the kind Sullivans Cove uses, they wouldn’t be so bad.
In the glass, the whiskey has a pale yellow color, a little suggestive of pear juice. That color is a nice little teaser for what waits on the nose: vanilla and liquor candied apples and pears. That sweetness lasts only a second or two, and then a strong dash of pepper kicks in, along with notes of wood and leather.
The flavor is surprisingly subdued, given that nose. The vanilla apples and pears aspect disappears altogether, replaced by a light, malty sweetness. The wood and pepper are still there, though, and boldly so at that.
In yet another of the whiskey’s twists and turns, the finish is almost the polar opposite of the palate. Not subdued at all at this point, the whiskey goes down peppery, with a long, warm, lingering finish that develops into a toasty aftertaste. It’s complex stuff, and very enjoyable if you like your scotch peppery.
This stuff isn’t cheap. I’ve seen it listed for €105 in Europe and $115 in the U.S., and based on what I saw through an Australian retailer, those prices are actually pretty suggestive of what it costs in AUD.
Sullivans Cove wasn’t kidding when they implied this was a break-out whiskey. It won the Liquid Gold Award from Jim Murray in 2007 and 2010. At the World Whisky Awards, it bagged Best “Other” Malt in 2007 and Best Rest of the World 12 years and Under in 2011. Add to that a gold at the World Whisky Masters 2011.