By an agreeable twist of luck, it turned out that the 2012 Whisky Live Sydney event was going on at the same time I found myself in Sydney touring it’s fine public houses, museums, and dens of vice and indulgence, as is my way. Truth be told, I have soured somewhat on large whisky gatherings and fests. There were only so many I could enjoy before the crowds, drunken amateurs, and repetitious marketing began to tip the scales into the negative. I still think such gatherings are a fantastic way to submerge yourself fully into whisky culture.
If you are a novice, they are a good place for sampling a wide range of spirits while also, one hopes, beginning to pick up some knowledge — or if not knowledge, then at least some lore. That I have gotten a bit tired of them is not necessarily a condemnation. I was intrigued by the chance to attend such an event on the other side of the globe and equator. Australia and the neighboring countries of Tasmania and New Zealand are by no means whisky producing powerhouses, but they do produce a lot of whisky — almost none of which makes the long journey to the east coast of the United States. And truth be told, I’d sort of insulted the Australia-New Zealand-Tasmania whisky industry in a recent article, calling it undeveloped and rough around the edges. Always one who is happy to eat his words, especially when those words taste like whisky, Whisky Live Sydney would be an excellent opportunity, I figured, to sample what the land downunder has to offer. So I sent out some feelers, and by the time the day had come to raise our glasses in honor of the water of life, I was surrounded by Sydney’s happy drinkers and whisky enthusiasts with a chance to both see how Whisky Live Sydney compares to it’s sister event in New York and, much more importantly, take a tour of the country’s south-of-the-equator whisky.
Whisky Live Sydney is different from its American counterparts in a few ways. First, it’s smaller. This isn’t really a drawback for me, as the crush of people at the American events is one of the reasons I’ve been shying away from them. Second, a lot of the major players don’t make the long flight down to Australia. No Diageo, so on and so forth. Again, this isn’t a major drawback for me. I’ve had those brands over and over with very little that’s new in the past few years, so I don’t miss them. And some of the big players have been skipping out on shows in the United States as well in the past year or so. Anyway, it’s not like you had to go through the entire night without drams from the big guns; local vendors and importers made sure to have some on hand. At the same time, I would imagine the lack of some of those major players would be a bit of a letdown if I was a local.
Another key difference, aside from the offered food — nothing to write home about at any whisky event — there’s a nook of the show dedicated to local chefs and restaurants, which means you can augment your meal (and insulate yourself against drunkenness) an assortment of tarts, Chinese tidbits, and best of all, the guy slicing off endless piles of salami and prosciutto. And rather than having to snap up bottles of water from the vendor tables, there are water coolers scattered around. These may seem like incidental and uninteresting aspects, but if you’ve been to a lot of these (and if you are there for a reason other than to just get drunk), you’ll appreciate what a good idea this stuff is.
But still, not that interesting, right? So lets move on from logistics and talk about whisky.
I had in my sights several whiskies from the region: Sullivans Cove, Nant, Lark, Overeem, and Hellyers Road. Mind you, I didn’t necessarily intend to limit myself, but given the ravages of alcohol on one’s ability to accurately taste something, I figured I best get the new territories properly dealt with and filed to memory before reeling about in the more familiar spirits. A quick reconnaissance mission around the floor — crowded but not packed — revealed a few other key targets: Ichiro’s Malt Chichibu from Japan, Diggers & Ditch from New Zealand, an entire line simply called The New Zealand Collection, and Bearded Lady — an American bourbon I’d somehow never had or even heard of despite my fondness for both bourbon and sideshows. It was going to be a substantial night, apparently, so well-armed with water and frequent raids of the salami and prosciutto table I dove in, beginning my journey with one of the only two drams with which I was familiar: Sullivans Cove.
Sullivans Cove is one of the only down under whiskies (from Tasmania, this one) that has made it to the United States. Well, sort of. Not really. But it’s been promised since 2009. The same importer who handles India’s spectacular Amrut whisky has been working on Sullivans Cove as well. The problem there: Amrut was years in arriving, and launch date after launch dates was missed as the importer struggled with the usual labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulation. Sullivans Cove was initially announced for a 2009 release. Nothing so far. The good news is that while Amrut’s release in the United States was delayed by years, it did eventually happen. So hopefully, Sullivans Cove’s gauntlet will be similarly successful just as it is similarly delayed. I was lucky enough to get a sample in advance thanks to Mark Gillespie of the WhiskyCast podcast. I found it…OK. I didn’t fall in love with it the way he had, and I wondered if that was the fault of the whisky or the fault of the fact that I’d just come out of Whisky Live New York and had taste buds that were not at their most trustworthy by that hour.
Well, it turns out most of the blame can be placed squarely on my tongue (oh, the number of times that has happened). Revisiting Tasmania Distillery’s Sullivans Cove in Sydney (how many locations can you cram into one description) was a bit of a re-education — though I still don’t find Sullivans Cover to be mind blowing, especially for the price one has to pay for it. They had three single malt expressions at their table: one finished in ex-bourbon American Oak casks, one finished in French Oak, and the Double Wood — where the whisky spends time in both American and French oak. Ever a professional, I sampled all three (pours overall at Whisky Live Sydney were slightly smaller than in New York — which is a plus, in my opinion, as someone who has a lot to work through but simply cannot abide the notion of pouring whisky out). Each of them are cask strength and, judging from the look of it, non-chill filtered and free from artificial coloring. No age statement, which is OK by me, but if you do the math, it’s a nine-year-old. Three great drams, with my favorite being the Double Wood. Fruity and earthy, with a bit of earth and spice. Not much smoke if you are looking for that, though it’s there way in the background. The Bourbon Cask also hits you with some coconut and banana and reminded me a lot of Old Pultney. Unfortunately, like I said, the price point on this is kind of painful, and while the whiskies are wonderful, they’re not THAT wonderful. Woody, a bit rough around the edges but in a good way, like a quality frontier whisky (which is what I would want from Tasmania). At $70 a bottle, I would buy any of these three without a second thought. At $170? Probably not. For that price, you are boxing against some of the best Scotland and Japan has to offer — and double what some of the very best America has to offer.
In terms of size, the average Tasmanian distillery seems to be similar in scope to American craft distilleries — which explains to some degree the high price. They don’t make much. However, the big difference is that Sullivans Cove (and most others) actually takes time to mature their whisky. Nine years is no Methuselah, but keep in mind that the average craft distiller in America can barely wait three years before they bottle, and many — if not most, at this point — barely let their whisky age for more than six months…and some think even six days is too long to wait to bottle and make some money. American craft distillers tend to charge high prices as well — $40-80 where the larger distilleries charge $10-50 except for the very old bottlings, which can push $80. I notice that pretty much everything in Australia costs about twice as much as it does here, so I guess the whisky follows suit — which is kind of a shame. I think a price point that high is damaging to the industry and will keep most people from experiencing some of the really surprisingly good stuff they have to offer.
Anyway, sorry for that meander into price points. Let’s right this ship and move on to the next offering: Overeem, from the old Hobart Distillery, also in Tasmania. This one I was also familiar with thanks to it being recommended the night before by a bartender at Sydney’s best bar for whisky lovers, Baxter Inn. That night, I had the cask strength sherry finish and liked it — admitting at the front that I’m actually not a huge fan of cask strength whiskies. Whisky Live gave me a chance to try the more standard 43% ABV version of the same whisky, as well as the Port finish. And my goodness. The sherry finish was plenty good but, like Sullivans Cove, not so good that I would part with such a large sum of money for it. The port finish, however? That is a whisky that seems like it was custom made to appeal to me. I loved it. It has all the Speyside characteristics I love in a dram, then some: sweet and spicy, with chocolate covered cherries, dark fruits, and honey. Dram of the night as far as I’m concerned, and one that earned a spot on the shelf at home.
On to yet another Tasmanian whisky — Hellyers Road. This one I knew nothing about, had never even heard of, so I was pretty excited to give it a go. Tasmania is wet and full of peat, which means it’s an ideal place for making whisky (as opposed to Australia, which doesn’t have a whole lot of water). Hellyers Road is one of the only peated Tasmanian whiskies I tried that night though — being more of a fan of sweet than peat, as I am. Waxy and malty, this one, with a sharp menthol flavor that I find in a lot of young whisky. If there’s peat in here, it’s very light. Reminds me of a grassy highlands whisky, with a bit of wood and bitterness. This is a good whisky I think — solid, if you will, but not spectacular. Lots of earth and a little anise. I think you’ll find a lot to like here. Once again, though, the price for what you get is brutal. Which is the last time I will mention that. Let’s just assume that everything here is too expensive, and that’s a damn shame. I don’t know what it is that jacks the price up so high, but whatever it is really damages the ability of the industry to play not just on the world market, but even locally.
Next up was Lark from…oh hey, what do you know? Tasmania. I thusly dub Tasmania the Kentucky of Australia. Lark came to me highly recommended by Greenie McGee from Greenie Travels. It’s another cask strength single malt, so water was applied in order to make sure I was still around to complete the rest of my list. Like many American and Tasmanian craft distillers, they are using smaller barrels to “increase liquid-to-surface contact,” a practice that is commonplace in small distilleries but not in larger — the argument being that the smaller casks speed up the maturation of the whisky and/or are a shortcut that does not yield the quality of a larger cask, depending on which side you are on. I’ll let that debate be for now and say that the difference between Tasmania and the United States is that most of the Tasmanian distilleries employing smaller barrels are still letting the whisky age for years instead of months, as is the way for many American craft distillers.
So anyway. Lark. Loved it. I would buy a bottle if I had the kind of money it takes to buy a bottle of Australian whisky, but at the end of the day Overeem wins out. Lark has a Speyside/highlands character — think Glenmorangie, only not quite as delicate. Honey, caramel, oak, a bit of bitter orange, and a dash of Highland saltiness — but not necessarily briny. More like salted caramel. There’s a hint of spice, and the whole thing seems to linger in your throat and belly for a nice long time. A thoroughly pleasant dram from nose to finish, and probably my second favorite whisky of the night.
Nant was my last official target (but by no means my last target) for Whisky Live Sydney. It’s another about which I knew nothing. Oh look — Tasmania. OK, I get the message. I am going to Tasmania at some point in the very near future. A professional fact finding mission and all that, right? Nant was one of the younger whiskies of the night but lacked the alcohol-heavy hash edge that characterizes a lot of young American whiskies. Creamier, smoother, but still noticeably raw and youthful, with a bit of cinnamon raisin English muffin (Thomas — for the nooks and crannies), star anise, and maybe a hint of something vaguely reminding me of grappa. I eventually got hit with a mocha flavor as well. A lot going on, but the flavors all play nice with one another. Not a mind-blower, but yet again I’m forced to eat my words from another article about the state of Australian (or Tasmanian) whisky. Fantastic stuff.
From here on out, we have to hurry things a bit lest we spend all week talking about whisky. Plus, I was several drams in by this point, and while I was still steady on my feet, there’s not a lot of dependability in tasting notes made after you’ve been through half a dozen (or more). Notables on the Whisky Live floor include the New Zealand Whisky Collection — a collection of what I gather is stock from mothballed distilleries, with the whiskies ranging in age up to the high teens. All really good stuff, but my notes on each are sketchy because the lads pouring it — while very friendly — didn’t know very much about it,or about whisky in general. This wasn’t uncommon at Whisky Live Sydney. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but because the master distillers and brand ambassadors who carpet the UK, America, and Europe can’t (or aren’t willing) to make the long haul down to Australia, one must depend on a lot of stand-ins, importers, and reps who maybe don’t know the ins and outs of whisky the way they could. All of the above-mentioned distilleries were there in person and could handle any question one might throw their way, but beyond that, one wades into increasingly shaky territory.
Also gave a try to Chichibu, a three-year-old malt from Japan’s prolific Ichiro’s Malt. I was hoping for more of a Japanese representation given the (relative to New York anyway) proximity, but that wasn’t the case. I guess everyone has that problem (though The Baxter Inn is remarkably well stocked with Japanese whiskey, so that’s your best bet outside of Japan or France’s Maison du Whisky shop). Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed with Chichibu. It’s only three years old, and it tastes only three years old. Nothing memorable, and with so many great whiskies in Japan (many of them from Ichiro’s Malt), I can’t think of any reason to hang around with Chichibu.
Finally, my only indulgence in an American whisky was Bearded Lady, but frankly, by the time I hit that one, I was bordering on unreliable. I think I enjoyed it, enough anyway that I’m on the prowl for it back here in the States where I’ve seen neither hide nor hair nor even a mention of its existence. Scattered throughout were samplings of the usual suspects — Compass Box, Tomintoul, Sheep Dip, Green Spot (an Irish I quite enjoyed, though have no notes on), and a few others before wrapping up by revisiting Overeem and Lark.
All in all, a pretty fun night and very educational for me. I can’t judge Whisky Live Sydney entirely accurately, as I said. My over-familiarity with scotch and American whisky means I didn’t miss the presence of some of the bigger names, and my excitement over trying a room full of unfamiliar local product made the evening a lot of fun. Given the price point and the distance, this was the first and possibly last time I would have some of them, and I think Whisky Live in Australia is well-served by highlighting whisky from Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. It was eye-opening for me. If I had any complaint — and this would hardly be restricted to Whisky Live Sydney — it would be that relying on importers to “rep” for some of the bigger brands, while making it possible to have those brands there even when they themselves aren’t willing to make the trip, means not everyone at every table knows what they are talking about or what they are pouring. But like I said, that’s a problem all over. Australia’s distance from the whisky hub of the US and UK just exacerbates it a tad. On the other hand — a lot less marketing speak. By the end of the night, Whisky Live accomplished for me what I hoped to accomplish: it taught me a ton about whiskies I’d never had, introduced me to some new people and new brands, and got me excited about exploring the world of Australian whisky, however difficult, geographically and financially, that might prove.