When you say Tasmanian Whisky, Sullivan’s Cove is what most people will respond back to you. The craze for this brand started in 2014 when it was named World’s Best Single Malt by the World Whiskies Award. Between Jim Murray’s awards and the World Whisky Awards, these accolades can propel any brand into the spotlight. It wasn’t without patience and hard work. Sullivan’s Cove was one of the first distilleries to open after the distillation ban was lifted from Tasmania in the 1990’s.
The distillery is situated in an industrial area of Cambridge not far from the Hobart Airport. It may not be the most picturesque scene outside and around the distillery, but once inside there is a hustle and bustle that appeals to any whisky lover’s dream. The alembic pot still sits stoically on the main floor as you stand on the mezzanine overlooking the whole of the production site. That’s where your tour will start when visiting the distillery. Take in the full view of a true boutique style whisky distillery, only producing about 100,000 liters of new make spirit per year and yet creating huge waves on the global stage.
Just last year they only released 18,000 bottles into the market. It is quite impressive what they have been able to accomplish in regards to quality and consistency over the past few years to take the center stage at these world awards. This does not look like a Scottish distillery by any means, and they are going toe to toe with the classic Scotch and Japanese brands. In 2014 when they won “World Whisky of the Year” award from the World Whisky Awards, they were the first ever non-Scottish or Japanese whisky to win the title.
The unique pot still is just one of their many trade secrets. They have always focused on making single malt, similar to a scotch style and have primarily used the same two style casks which would in turn lead to their core range of three expressions. They use French and American oak either one in it’s entirely or a marriage of the two. In the early years they did experiment with alternative casks and even sold 20 liter barrels to the public. This ended about 3-4 years ago due to demand.
Being one of the first Tasmanian distilleries during the revitalization of the craft would leave Patrick, the previous owner of Sullivan's Cove, focused on superior quality and as the industry grew around him, they would thrive. There is this sort of cohesive energy that most of the Tasmanian Distillers have and it is to remain adamant on quality so that the country and more specifically the island as a whole continue to grow into a positive reputation.
Although they are outsourcing the beginning of the process, the barley used is still sourced from Tasmanian’ farmers. These brewers are using a brewer’s style yeast for fermentation and typically the beer they can expect to receive is a pale ale recipe. Once the wash is received they are then moving it into a holding tank or into their singular alembic brandy pot still. The still is made of copper, wood and stainless steel with a capacity of 2,500 liters. It has an onion bulb at the top that helps with reflux. They will run a few wash runs, one after another achieving about 700 liters of low wines per run. Each wash run lasts about 9 hours. After a few collections of low wines, they then will start a spirit run through the same pot still. The spirit run will last for about 11 hours. Sullivan’s Cove is unique from most distilleries around the world in that they use worm tub condensers. Most distilleries use shell and tube condensers to turn their alcohol vapor back into a liquid. Worm tubs are known to evoke less copper contact with the spirit than shell and tube, which allows for heavier qualities in the spirit to make it to the spirits receiver. Less copper contact means heavier and oilier spirits.
All spirit cuts are done by smell and taste. Nothing is run on a time constraint or computer. Each production cycle will yield them about 1,200 liters of new make spirit to then be moved into casks. The new make spirit, right off the still, is usually sitting at around 73% ABV and is cut down with local water to 63.4% ABV before being filled into casks. Casks are filled on site and aged on site as well. You will see these vast, oak vessels lining the facility as you overlook the mezzanine. The cask maturation process is quite straight forward. They have never used small cask aging techniques and fill 200 or 300 liter casks. The only point in which they did fill smaller casks was when they used to sell private casks of about 20 liters. The casks are either American oak/ex-bourbon barrels at 200 liters or European Oak from Australian wineries at 300 liters. The ex-bourbon casks come from a range of American Distillers. These include Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Heaven Hill. The European Oak casks typically come from McWilliams Winery in New South Wales.
Besides the pot still and the wine casks, Sullivan’s Cove production method and methodology behind aging is very similar to single malt from Scotland. They will typically will let their casks age around 10-13 years. At the moment due to demand, most of their casks are around 3-4 years old. This current location outside of Hobart typically allows about a 3% angels share evaporation loss. Casks are emptied on site as well. Nothing is ever chill filtered and only a basic filtration to take out char and debris is used. In a few special editions they have done what they call “raw cask” where there is zero filtration and sediment and debris is left in for bottling. The whole of the staff is used for final cask tasting in a panel format. Everyone is involved in deciding which casks are ready. Most of their releases are single casks, but a few editions, specifically the double oak, are a marriage of casks.
Here is my review of the three core expressions..
Sullivan's Cove Double Oak ~15 Years Old @ 47.5% ABV -- 40% French Oak and 60% American Oak
Casks - HH0251 , HH0301 , HH0303 , HH0365
Nose: Oak spice, pepper, tea tree oil, oily, sugar cookie, yellow raisins.
Palate: Figs, roasted pecans, trail mix bar, vanilla.
Sullivan's Cove French Oak ~13 Years Old @ 47.5% ABV -- Cask TD0035
Cask HH525 was voted World Whisky Awards 2014 Best Single Malt Whisky Award
Nose: Red raspberry, black cherry, cola, jam and nougat.
Palate: Coco, toffee, nuttiness, blackberry jam, pepper finish.
Sullivan's Cove American Oak ~12 Years Old
47.5% ABV -- Cask TD0044
Nose: Honey, french vanilla, peach, caramel corn.
Palate: Peach laffy taffy, vanilla cream, herbal honey tea.
Thanks for an incredible tour Nathan Campbell!