Distillery Spotlight: Sullivans Cove Distillery
REGION: Tasmania, Australia
Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.
This is Sullivans Cove, Hobart, a charming town located in Tasmania, an island off mainland Australia, where Sullivans Cove Distillery originated. (Image Source: Traveller.com.au)
When someone mentions Tasmania, a couple of things come to mind – charming small towns, ridiculously fresh air, crystal clear waters, amazing scenery, and of course the Tasmanian devil. Who could miss those little furries out?
Lesser known to many is that Tasmania is also home to one of the world’s best whisky distilleries – the Sullivans Cove Distillery. And also apples. Tasmania is literally nicknamed “Apple Isle”.
The team at Sullivans Cove Distillery - it's a small team with a whole lot of heart. (Image Source: Proof & Company)
Today we’re headed to the land down under to check out Sullivans Cove Distillery.
“Distilled With Conviction”
Most distilleries start out from humble beginnings; that’s not unusual. But few would lay claim to being founded by convicts aside from Sullivans Cove Distillery. In fact, 74% of the Tasmanian population is estimated to have descended from convicts according to genealogists, something that has become a source of pride for locals who believed that their ancestors were unfairly punished for their struggles for freedom.
Hence, Sullivans Cove Distillery proudly goes by the motto “Distilled With Conviction”.
The early Hobart where settlers built their colony and would eventually establish the early Tasmanian distilleries which would later face prohibition. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Going back to 1804, a group of military men, settlers and convicts were led to settle alongside Sullivans Cove in the port city of Hobart. In those early days, these settlers labored away at building the earliest semblance of Hobart, and with that, distilleries too eventually came to existence. These colonists were soon harvesting their own barley for spirits production and within the next two decades, the place was home to at least sixteen distilleries.
However, by 1838, a new governor had taken charge and had deemed spirits a bad influence on the colony, precipitating an outright prohibition on distilling. This would go on to last 150 years.
It was only until 1990, that Tasmanian whisky pioneer Bill Lark fought to have the law overturned and eventually established Lark Distillery in 1992 – the first and till-date oldest Tasmanian distillery in over 150 years.
Fun Fact: Lark Distillery is listed on the Australia Stock Exchange under the name Lark Distilling Co. Ltd. carrying the ticker ASX: LRK.
Birth and Rebirth of Sullivans Cove
Just two years after Lark Distillery’s founding, Sullivans Cove Distillery was established, housed at the old brickworks at Sullivans Cove, Tasmania. This makes Sullivans Cove the second oldest distillery in Tasmania.
Unfortunately, due to poor management, the whisky produced at the time was not of quality and the distillery remained fairly muted.
Patrick Maguire has been pivotal in the success of Sullivans Cove, bringing the distillery up to world class standards. (Image Source: Oz Whisky Review)
This all changed in 1999 when a set of new managers took over the distillery. The first order of business: bring in the people who knew how to make incredible whiskies. And who would come to mind other than Bill Lark. But Bill had not come alone, he brought along long-time business partner Patrick Maguire, a man who himself was at the scene of the rebirth of the Tasmanian whisky scene. It was Patrick who together with Bill of Lark Distillery, were running a hotel at the time, got the idea to distil a 2L cask of whisky, eventually proving to be the spark that set off the Tasmanian whisky boom.
The "HH" series would go on to bag multiple world class awards. (Image Source: Whisky Intelligence)
Together they produced some 600 casks between 1999 to 2003, which were named the “HH” series. (You’re gonna wanna take note of this if you’re looking to collect some bottles from the Tasmanian distillery)
Going All In
Unfortunately, by 2003, the distillery as a business was still struggling to find its footing and so the second group of owners found themselves looking to sell the business. Yet Patrick had invested blood, sweat and tears into the distillery past five years and was not ready to call it quits yet. And so, he did what was possibly of the highest conviction.
Patrick himself bought over the business.
Patrick had the ultimate conviction in the distillery's future success and would go all in to seeing the distillery's full potential be realised. (Image Source: Traveller.com.au)
Patrick came in guns blazing and decided that the brickworks at Sullivans Cove was not suited for whisky production and hence moved operations to Cambridge, just 20 minutes outside of Hobart. He also got his hands dirty and took over the distillation and cask selection process.
The "HH" series would go on to bag multiple world class awards. (Image Source: Whisky Intelligence)
By 2007, Sullivans Cove was back in business, winning their first international award for their American Oak cask Single Malt. It took the team just 7 more years to hit the grand-daddy prize of them all – the distillery’s French Oak cask HH0525 Single Malt had secured the accolade of Best Single Malt Whisky in the World at the World Whiskies Awards (WWA). The world was finally taking notice of the small distillery out of Tasmania that was making some of the world’s best spirits.
Heather Tillott, the Distillery Manager of Sullivans Cove Distillery. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Today, the team is led by Heather Tillott, who runs the distillery as Distillery Manager, while Patrick continues to be a part of the distillery.
The Signature Sullivans Cove Profile
Ask any whisky aficionado what makes an amazing whisky and you’d probably get some pained expression along the lines of “y’know that balance, complexity, texture, …, that oomph” and that’s where you hit a brick wall.
The thing is taste is subjective and often times it is precisely when words fail us that we know we’re on to something. Certainly, whisky lovers and distillers alike bond over the passion for sharing a good dram. But what makes an award winning whisky? That is probably the holy grail question on the minds of whisky enthusiasts and distillers alike. How do you produce something so incredible that everyone unilaterally agrees that this whisky is simply worth conferring a title to?
The trio of Sullivans Cove whiskies that form the core range. (L - R) American Oak Cask, French Oak Cask, Double Cask. (Image Source: Quill and Pad)
Well, we could simply work backwards and look to Sullivans Cove, a distillery with no small number of accolades and a track record to boot.
Sullivans Cove has three core expressions: the Double Cask, the American Oak Cask and the French Oak Cask. This is alongside periodic special releases, limited edition offerings or special casks.
Sullivans Cove's whiskies are delightfully sweet, honeyed, perfumery with a nice malty base and light fruity and flowery high notes, reminiscent of earl grey tea cakes. (Image Source: The Polka Dotter)
When we taste across the spectrum of the distillery’s core expressions, we draw certain defining characteristics: sweet, honeyed flavors, a rich, creamy texture, standout notes of vanilla, clotted cream, baking spices, caramel, toffee, as well as orchard fruits, apricots, bananas, white flowers such as jasmine and elderflowers, a biscuit-y maltiness, it is sometimes powerfully oaky as well.
Their whiskies often seem to be reminiscent of a chai latte, custard pudding, a tiramisu or an earl grey tea cake. Very much the liquid embodiment of a bakery, tea time confectionaries or a cabin in the countryside.
Perhaps the world simply loves watching The Great British Bake Off too.
Here’s What You Need To Know About Sullivans Cove
Coming out of Tasmania, whisky production at Sullivans Cove was always going to be unique. As we know, the beauty of whiskies is in the exact balance of nature and human interaction in the formula of whisky making. The climate in which whiskies are made and aged bears a significant influence over the final dram but at the same time, how the distillery chooses to ferment, distil and age the whisky is just as crucial. And then of course there is the local influence, where distilleries find ingenious methods to meld in regional specialties into the whisky, that also contributes to allure that is whisky.
Let’s take a look at some of what makes Sullivans Cove so special.
Gorgeous Tasmania makes for gorgeous Tasmanian whisky. (Image Source: Time Out)
Air. When you imagine Tasmania, what do you visualise? A gorgeous sight of nature’s wonders, lush fields, pristine waters, astute mountain ranges, clear skies, pure air. You’d be pretty much on the mark.
The World Meteorological Organisation has three Baseline Air Pollution stations that form the basis to what is considered the benchmark for air purity. One of these three stations is on Tasmania – the air there is literally one of the world’s three cleanest. And while air doesn’t really play much into whiskymaking, it does affect the purity of rainwater.
Tasmania is home to the purest air on earth and with that, absolutely pristine waters. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
As you can infer, the water used by Sullivans Cove, harvested locally, is one of the purest, which makes for a clean, smooth, rich whisky. It’s also worth noting that Tasmania is mostly covered in temperate rainforests and as such its waters have passed through these natural purification systems and right into your bottle.
If you’re not into whiskies, get your hands on one of Sullivans Cove’s bottles, just to get your hands on that pure Tasmanian water, ignore the other 50+% abv of alcohol in it. Eyes on the prize.
Tasmania has a unique climate known as "maritime temperate" which gives the island long hot summers and short cold sunny winters. (Image Source: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service)
Climate. Tasmania has what is known as a “maritime temperate” climate – hot summers with long days and cold, sunny winters with short days. Compared to Australia, Tasmania gets much more sun and is generally low humidity.
This climate results in whiskies losing 5% of volume annually (the angel’s share), yet most of this volume loss is water, leaving more alcohol content behind. This is great because it allows the whiskies to develop more intense flavors and can be aged in full-sized barrels without getting too oaky even after 20 years of aging.
The temperate Tasmanian climate allows whiskies to age for longer and deeper, concentrating its flavors over a shorter period of time. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Barley. Aside from the same pure air and waters of Tasmania, the island is also blessed with highly favourable barley growing conditions – basalt-rich martian soils, a temperate climate, the local barley used by Sullivans Cove whisky are amongst the world’s healthiest crops.
The distillery uses 100% Tasmanian malted barley that is brewed into wash by local brewers, like the one pictured above, before being brought to the distillery for distillation. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Use of Local Wine Casks – Tawny
Australia is famous for many things, amongst them – wine. Australia’s wine industry has boomed with the likes of Penfold’s and Jacob’s Creek, who’ve conquered the Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Coonawarra regions across the land down under. The industry has become a massive contributor to the Australian economy as its fifth-largest agricultural export.
As such, would it be surprising that Sullivans Cove found a way to integrate this regional specialty into their whiskymaking? After all, location is yet another point of differentiation that can be capitalised upon.
The likes of Penfold's have made Australian wine one of the most popular wines consumed globally. You'd bet Sullivans Cove Distillery, located close by, would find a way to make use of this. (Image Source: Glam Adelaide)
Sullivans Cove being situated in the vicinity of such a major wine-producing region has allowed the distillery to develop an intimate understanding on how to best use wine casks to age their whiskies. This also comes with unparalleled access to top quality wine casks across a spectrum of wines produced in Australia.
Sure, wine cask aged whiskies are not uncommon but it is the depth of understanding as well as the access to high quality wine casks that sets Sullivans Cove apart.
Some of their favorite casks to use are the Tawny cask (Australian fortified wine casks) and Apera casks (Australian Sherry-style wine). While the wine is also more commonly known as Port, Sullivans Cove chooses to use the local nomenclature and hence its labels display “Tawny” instead.
Unlike Sherry casks that are commonly used in the industry, where they oak casks are seasoned with Sherry for a short duration for the purpose of being used to age whisky, Sullivans Cove does not use seasoned casks. Instead they work with coopers to seek out genuine ageing casks that have held Australian fortified wines for many years. This allowed the cask to imbue the whisky with much deeper and richer flavors.
An easy identifier for Sullivans Cove's special cask editions is to look out for a diagonal banner on the bottle label. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
The distillery also tends to prefer aging whisky in these Australian fortified wine casks for the entire maturation period, rather than using these casks for a short “finishing” (for example whiskies could be matured in ex-Bourbon barrels for 10 years and be “finished” in a Port cask for a final 9 months before bottling).
The distillery is also the first Australian distillery to release a single malt whisky matured fully in a white wine cask. Other wine casks that have been used seasonally by the distillery includes Madeira and Chardonnay, to name a few.
(Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Distillation Stills Made For Brandy
Given Sullivans Cove’s success in whiskymaking, you might be surprised to find out that the distillery doesn’t even use a whisky distillation still. When Sullivans Cove was first established, keep in mind that only one other whisky distillery had existed at that point – Lark Distillery, hence the original owners had little conviction in the plan. This resulted in the purchase of a traditional French Brandy-type still instead which was commissioned so the distillery could produce everything from brandy, gin, whiskies, amongst others.
Sullivans Cove Distillery uniquely uses a traditional French Brandy-type still which gives its whiskies a sweet, more floral and fruity, vanilla, caramel flavor. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
The same still is used today (they’ve named her Myrtle), where the distillery use a double distillation process to produce its whiskies.
Intuitively, this unique use of a still designed to distil Brandy for whiskies certainly has an influence on the character of the whisky. Brandy is comparatively lighter and sweeter than whisky, with more floral and fruity notes, ranging from “caramel, vanilla, dried fruit, banana, fig, rose petal, apricot and prune”. This explains the same notes you find across Sullivans Cove’s range of whiskies.
Sullivans Cove's whiskies have a distinctive apricot flavor, in part due to their use of a special Brandy-type still. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
It isn’t easy to find a bottle of Sullivans Cove whisky, not even its core range is a common sighting. Unlike more industrialised commercially-oriented distilleries, Sullivans Cove doesn’t maintain regular supply of its whiskies stocked on the shelves of purveyors. The reason is not vanity; instead, the distillery doesn’t follow fixed timelines on when its whiskies are bottled. It’s why you don’t see a core 5 or 10-year bottling and that each bottle has a batch code.
As the distillery does not forcibly adhere to timelines on when their casks should be bottled, each batch is only bottled when tasted and ready. Each bottle comes with a tag that tells you the Barrel No., Bottle No., Abv and the dates it was filled and decanted. Like a birth certificate! (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
The distillery truly treats each cask as unique and believes in only bottling it when it is ready. As such, one additional tidbit of allure towards Sullivans Cove’s whiskies is that most of its bottlings are single cask.
The production team checks in the casks of whiskies daily and over months and years, through the seasons; ensuring that each cask is chugging along towards the day that it finally expresses its maximum potential. Given how small each batch of production is, the distillery has a comparatively small amount of stock in bond and hence treats each cask with the care a parent would provide their child.
The team at Sullivans Cove checks in with their whiskies daily to monitor their progression as they mature, for the fine day that the cask is ready for bottling. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Truly admirable and yet another reason each bottling of Sullivans Cove has been so sought after!
Anyone sleeping on whiskies coming out from the land down under should certainly be paying closer watch to the amazing produce coming out of its distilleries; Sullivans Cove being a heavyweight contender.
With each bottle, you get a truly local product, where everything from the water and barley, to the maturation and casks are all from its proximity – a true taste of Tasmania! While granted, that may be said of a handful of other distilleries located in unique locations, I believe one that really stands out about Sullivans Cove is their use of a traditional French Brandy-type still to produce their whiskies which produces whisky that is highly floral and fruity, with a rich, creamy texture, full of vanilla, apricots, orchard fruits, toffee and caramel. Simply sublime and special to Sullivans Cove.
Sullivans Cove is special for so many reasons, not least of which can be attributed to Myrtle. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
I also like that the casks used by Sullivans Cove is locally sourced from Australia and typically of some sort of Australian fortified wine, which happens to meld magically with Sullivans Cove’s type of distillate. I believe this adds to just how much Sullivans Cove is representative of whiskies from Australia.
Sullivans Cove also produces some amazing Brandy. (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
That said, given how things work in the distillery with the lack of timelines and all that, their whiskies do not come cheap and even at fairly high prices (which I firmly believe are well worth it I should say), finding a bottle itself is not easy. Which is why if you have a friend from down under, it’s not the worst idea to hit them up, play friendly and ask them to help you find one.
What the new distillery and visitor experience center will look like when Sullivans Cove Distillery makes its way back to Huon Quays. (Image Source: Tasmanian Times)
“Huon Quays isn’t just a picturesque location for us to create a world-class distillery and visitor experience,” he explained. “It’s much more significant. In relocating back to the Hobart waterfront at Sullivans Cove, we are coming home to where our story began almost three decades ago.”
- Adam Sable, Managing Director of Sullivans Cove
Most recently, the distillery has decided to return to the Hobart waterfront and will invest in building a world-class distillery and visitor experience centre at the Huon Quay site in the Sullivans Cove area. Please do yourself a favour and make sure you are first in line when the new distillery is open to the public again.
Sullivans Cove's whiskies are one to look out for, but don't hoard them, drink 'em, they're incredible! (Image Source: Sullivans Cove Distillery)
Intermediate: French Oak, American Oak
Top Shelf: Special Cask #10 American Oak ex-Muscat Cask, Special Cask #5 First-Fill French Oak ex-Apera Cask, 2018 Casa De Vinos Collaboration
Worthy Mentions: Single Cask Pinot Noir Brandy, Single Cask Chardonnay Brandy