Sullivan's Cove distillery

We sent our man in Havana on a fact-hunting mission to Tasmania. Facing all manner of perils, from killer ants to the ferocious Tasmanian devil, he went boldly to every distillery on the island. In this series, we’ll detail his findings and give you everything you need to know about Tasmanian whisky, starting things off with Sullivans Cove from the aptly named Tasmania Distillery – recent winner of the World’s Best Single Malt at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards.

Located at the southeast of the island, Sullivans Cove is where the British first established the settlement which would one day become Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Starting out as a penal colony, one can only imagine what the inhabitants got up to. By 1824 there were sixteen legal distilleries, and a metric slew of illicit stills. In short, it was party-time in Tasmania. I’d even speculate the residents used the word party as a verb. History hasn’t recorded whether or not this is true.

Sullivan's Cove barrels

Fourteen years later, Governor John Franklin had had it up to here (I’m holding my hand level with my forehead) with all the shenanigans. He announced a prohibition on distilling, which was partially lifted in 1901 for stills of 40,000 litres and above were permitted. This was not repealed until the early 1990s – right around the time when Robert Hoskins (no relation) originally set up Tasmania Distillery. After only a few years, the distillery was put on the market due to (in the words of our reporter): “murky circumstances/financial ruin/got done for rebranding Scotch whisky as their own”.

Patrick Maguire bought the distillery in 2003, selling off much of the original casks to companies such as William McHenry and Sons, which now sells the whisky under their Three Capes brand. The distillery is in a rather unromantic setting, in a warehouse on an industrial estate outside of the city, though it looks set to move into new premises next-door, with an onsite own bar and visitor centre.

Sullivans Cove still

With a 2,500 litre copper and stainless steel still made by a Launceston still maker, Tasmania Distillery has a capacity of just 17,500 litres a year. To give you a sense of scale, Glenfiddich has a capacity of 10 million litres a year. At this point, you start to get a sense of the scale of production on the island. There’s a joke in the industry that the Scots spill more spirit each year than Tasmania produces. Nonetheless, what little they do make is already gaining the attention of critics. Panama hat-wearer, Jim Murray has been consistently awarding 90+ points to recent releases from Tasmania in his industry-leading Whisky Bible. In last year’s Whisky Bible, Jim described one Sullivans Cove whisky as “a staggering achievement”.

Sullivans Cove equipment

Behind the World’s Best Single Malt is a team of just five, working tirelessly just to meet demand, which massively increased with their prestigious award earlier this year. Tasmania Distillery fills 300-litre casks from McWilliams Winery in New South Wales, and 200-litre bourbon casks from America with spirit at 63.4%abv before a maturation of around a decade. The winning cask, HH0525, was a French Oak Port cask with an outturn of just 516 bottles, which, as you can imagine, are now few and far between. We were lucky enough to get hold of a sample, and here are our findings:

Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask labels


Sullivan's Cove French Oask Cask

Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask – 47.5%

Nose: Cocoa powder melds beautifully with dried figs, prunes and hints of marzipan. There’s a very faint hint of smoke. Plenty of malt and oak – a touch of vanilla too. With time in the glass, notes of cinnamon and praline emerge.

Palate: Big, rich, thick palate, with butterscotch and custard-drenched apple cake. Hints of almond and Christmas cake develop alongside notes of manuka honey, dry grass and light woodsmoke. It’s very nicely put together – everything balanced beautifully so that each element is present without dominating the palate. It comes together simply and gracefully.

Finish: Medium, sweet finish with a creamy, brandy butter feel. A little oak remains, with a final dusting of spice.

Overall: A lovely elegant little whisky, and the first non-Japanese or -Scottish holder of the title “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky”!

Sullivans Cove Double Cask is another fantastic whisky made by mixing both cask types used by the distillery. Aged for 9 years, this completed un-peated expression was bottled at the lower strength of 40% – apparently to cut down on excise duty. There’s a 12 year old on the way, but for now here are our thoughts on this delicious single malt…

Sullivan's Cove Double Cask

Sullivans Cove Double Cask – 40%

Nose: Sweet, spicy nose full of dried fruits: dates, figs, sultanas… This is an enticing, inviting whisky with plenty of creamy vanilla coming through form those bourbon barrels. Winter spice adds depth, and melds beautifully with notes of dried orange and rich honey.

Palate: Gentle palate entry which builds into a crescendo of dried spices, honey and fruitcake. There’s toasted, buttered fruit loaf, plums, hints of brandy and Chai Tea.

Finish: Long, spicy, mouth-filling finish. It fades away on cooked fruit and oak…

Overall: So much complexity that belies its low alcoholic strength – this is a fabulous whisky. I can’t help but wonder how this might have been at a slightly higher strength!

Sullivans Cove whisky bottle

Special thanks to our undercover Tasmanian informants Christopher Jaume and Abbie Neilson.

All in all, a couple of superb whiskies, and a fitting start for Tasmanian series! Join me next time for an introduction to Old Hobart – producer of our current competition whisky, Overeem.