Tasmanian whisky maker Sullivans Cove has released a rather unique bottling to mark its 25th anniversary. Not only is it the oldest drop the distillery has ever released; it’s the oldest distillery release Australian single malt whisky has ever seen. We take five with head distiller Patrick Maguire…

Between 1994 and 1999, Sullivans Cove produced 162 casks of whisky, each one bottled and sold years before in one form or another. Their contents lost in time, or so the team thought – until a chance phone call earlier this year reunited the distillery with four of these historic casks. 

Just a few miles away in a warehouse in Hobart – Tasmania’s capital city and the home of Sullivans Cove – the 200-litre American oak ex-bourbon casks had been quietly maturing for more than 21 years; the liquid among the distillery’s earliest single malt. What an incredible find. 

Thrilled by the complexity of the liquid, the team married all four to create its “intensely creamy and incredibly textural” anniversary release, which counts pineapple, passionfruit, honeydew melon, among its tasting notes, along with Chantilly cream, mixed berry jam, sweet pastry, vanilla custard, toffee and caramel fudge –  backed up by “a deliciously warm barley grain note”. 

Patrick Maguire with all that lovely Tasmanian whisky

Yielding just 500 bottles at 49.6% ABV, the whisky carries a 21 year old age statement and is presented in Glencairn crystal decanter styled on Sullivans Cove’s first Tasmanian single malt from the late 1990s (it’s only available directly from the distillery). A fitting tribute indeed. We chatted with Patrick Maguire, head distiller, to find out exactly how this remarkable bottling came to be…

MoM: Huge congrats on the release – a milestone occasion for Sullivans Cove and Australian single malt! Could you share a little more detail about how your oldest whisky came to be bottled?

Maguire: I got a call from a storage company that was storing the whisky for some long-lost private owners. They were closing down their bond licence, couldn’t find the owners, and didn’t know what to do with the barrels. As they were produced at the old Tasmania distillery back in 1997, I was curious to see if there was any spirit left in them and if there was, what it was like. So I jumped in the car and went to the warehouse where we weighed the barrels and tasted the spirit. There wasn’t much left in them but the taste was much better than I expected – the years had done wonders to the spirit. Back at the distillery we had records of who these barrels were sold to by the original company. After a prolonged search we eventually found the owners or their families and arranged to buy them back. We moved them back to the distillery with the idea of bottling them some day. After experimenting with them it was decided the best thing to do was to blend them together – singularly they were good, but together they sang.

The Australian climate is quite unique – it’s difficult to age whisky for that long without it evaporating. Could you give us an idea roughly how much liquid was left in those casks and where the ABV settled on average?

Some of the 200 litre casks were as low as 48 litres. The best was 73 litres with ABVs up to 80% – strong stuff.

Sullivans Cove Distillery

Sullivans Cove Distillery in Cambridge, Tasmania

Sullivans Cove changed hands in 1999 – has the DNA of the distillery transformed since those formative years?

In the early days of the distillery, there was no real knowledge or experience in the art of making good single malt. It was highly experimental, to say the least. The original distillers did a great job, considering the situation. Everything was a challenge – from sourcing the barley, the wash, how does the still work, where to get the casks from, complying with the rules around excise and the production of alcohol. There’s nothing like a pioneering spirit to make good spirit! In the years since, not much has changed. Yes, we now know what we are doing, we know the rules and how the still works, what casks to use, however it’s still very early in this new era of whisky distillation. We are still learning every day. So the DNA of the spirit is the same today as it was then.

In 2004,you moved to a site in Cambridge. Why the move, how long did the transition take, and how has it shaped the spirits you produce and bottle today?

Unfortunately, no one was interested in Tasmanian whisky at that time. It was hard to sell a bottle, so the company was liquidated in 2003. I got together with a couple of partners, bought the plant and stock, moved to a small warehouse at Cambridge and started again with just two of us. A fresh start was needed. We moved from the city site at Sullivans Cove to Cambridge mainly because the city site wasn’t big enough or suitable for a distillery. Distilling was very difficult there – we had to find somewhere more suited to production rather than sales, which was the main focus of the city site. We did everything, from distilling, bottling, sales, trade shows and distribution. We slowed the production down and produced what we could only as the money came in. Today we are still using the same still, good Tassie barley and local water. The main changes have been in the packaging – new labels, new bottle, new image. That was one of the things that got sales going. We knew we had the quality of the spirit; what we needed was better packaging and distribution. It took about eight years to grow the brand from very little sales to not having enough stock to supply demand. During those quiet years, I tried experimenting with different cask types from wineries around Australia – only a few, just to see what they could do for the spirit. They are reaching maturity now and are very good indeed. Other than that, we are still only bottling a barrel when it is ready, not just because it reaches a certain age. It must tick all the boxes for me and our distillers before we consider bottling any barrel. That is the most important thing.

Sullivans Cove

Sullivans Cove 21 Year Old

Looking across the entire production process, is there a particular moment you enjoy more than the rest? From brainstorming ideas, distilling new make, overseeing maturation, and so on, which bit, if any, is your favourite?

It’s all part of making good whisky. It’s a good feeling to be running a still when it’s running right, flowing well, smelling good… Tasting the matured whisky years later when we find a cracker of a barrel. But the best thing is when someone tells me how much they enjoyed their glass of Sullies, you can’t beat that.

New World Whisky is getting people excited, and as one of the longest running craft single malt whisky distilleries in Australia, you’re perfectly positioned to ride the wave. What does the next year or two look like for you guys in the distillery?

There is growing interest in New World Whisky, however there’s a lot of work to do to persuade whisky consumers to try alternatives to Scotch and Irish. Most people don’t realise Australia makes single malt. Many don’t know that a number of other countries do as well. Collectively, we have a lot to do to change perceptions and be accepted as credible whisky-making regions. We’ll be busy doing that – there are good times ahead.