Behind every bottle of whisky, there’s a story.
A story of craftmanship; a story of dedication and persistence. These products that line the shelves haven’t appeared by accident. Some have been deliberately aged for decades; some have been blended to a formula evolved over generations to exacting particulars.
Behind those bottles, there’s also a team. That team might couont in the hundreds: brand ambassadors, marketers, executives, warehouse staff, the distilling team, freight, logistics, tour guides, right down to the cleaners who tidy up the café in the distillery shop at the end of the day.
Alternatively, that team could be two people with a passion who have built something from the ground up in Kinglake, Victoria.
Kinglake is a combination of forest, farmland, a national park, and a small township, home to less than 2,000 people. Situated about 60 km northeast of Melbourne, it is a popular area for camping, hiking or a day trip from the city. What it lacked – until 2018 – was a distillery. This is where Chantal Daniels and Sam Lowe entered the picture.
Kinglake Distillery released their first single malt whisky earlier in 2021. Any new entrant on the Australian malt whisky distilling scene gets my attention, especially one so close to my home. I reached out to Chantal and Sam for some background into their project.
Malt: Tell Malt Review a little about your background and how you came to be involved with distilling malt whisky? Are you both from the Kinglake area originally?
Sam and Chantal: Chantal is a 3rd Generation Kinglaker; her grandfather bought land here. Now her parents live here and her uncle lives next door. After studying an MA in Applied Science she went travelling for about 8 years! She met her partner (and business partner) Sam whilst working in a Ski resort in France. He owned an Apres Ski bar business, this was sold to help finance the distillery. Sam is from Cambridge in the UK.
We’re both passionate about spirits and have always been much more excited about cocktails and single malts than beer or wine. More exciting tastes, more challenging, often healthier if drunk neat or in classy classical cocktail. Give us a Martini over a G&T any day.
The Kinglake Distillery property is on top of the hill and one of the mountain streams rises on the property and runs almost all year round. We tested the water, and it has a great mineral content for making whisky. We both think Kinglake is a unique place so wanted to make a spirit that is influenced by its natural environment, single malt is great for this. Weather affects the barrel ageing; natural yeasts and pollens can get into the ferments.
Malt: What were the main challenges getting started in your location and what might they be going forwards?
Sam and Chantal: One of the biggest challenges was being off grid. Making whisky is quite a power-hungry operation, so not only did we have to work out what equipment we needed for each job when setting up, we also had to work out if we had enough power to run it. A big benefit, though, is having a huge dam onsite. Making whisky also uses a huge amount of cooling water and we can just cycle this through our dam.
Getting tradesman is more challenging than when your based in the city but we have found a great team, most of them local. Chantal’s Uncle does most of our engineering. We try whenever possible to support local trades.
Cash flow was a huge issue as we were determined from the start not to sell whisky that wasn’t ready and call it “white-dog” or “moonshine.” If it’s good enough to drink now, then why age it? And if it’s not good enough we shouldn’t be selling it. Also, we were clear that we wouldn’t make gin. It’s hard enough working out how to make a great whisky, didn’t want to start again with sussing out gin… and, again, didn’t want to release anything that wasn’t 100% great. It’s also about brand. How excited would I be about a Gordons Single Malt or a Hendricks Single Malt? We decided we’d rather sell everything we own and wait for the whisky to be ready. This is what we did.
Going forward, one of our biggest challenges is reducing our carbon footprint. Our aim is to eventually certify our whisky as carbon neutral meaning that drinking it has no negative effect on our natural environment. We will be working through all our processes to make them more sustainable where we can and using a reputable Australian offsetting company to cover the areas that will take longer to improve.
Malt: How did you go about determining the mash bill of a blend of 4 different malts? Was that a case of research and experimentation?
Sam and Chantal: It took two years to get from idea to production at the distillery and during that time we were playing around with our recipe. We bought a little still but ended up spending most of the time working out ferments and mash bill.
We were clear from the start that once we decided on a mash bill it would always stay the same. We believe a whisky brand must start at taste. We want people to be able to pick our whisky out in a blind line up. That’s never going to happen if we play around with all sorts of different iterations of mash bill. So, this made it even more important to get it right at the start.
We loved the richness that comes from adding a small amount of chocolate malt and were blown away by how little needs to be added to come through strongly. Any more than about 4% was, we felt, too much. We also have a heritage barley malt in there as well as the Australian equivalent of a Maris Otter. These three come from Voyager Malts in Griffiths and we know exactly which farmer grew them, and when.
The final element of the mash is a heavily peated malt that comes from the English/Scottish borders. We tried various local smoked malts but found that nothing gave us the level of peat we wanted in the background.
We also played around with yeast and were blown away but just how different our trial ferments were, depending on which yeast we used. We decided on 100% M1, which is the main yeast used in Scotland. It is re-known for giving a very high alcohol yield, but we also found that the complexity of the esters we got using this were just too good to ignore.
Malt: Can you talk to us a little about your barrel entry proof and barrel aging regime? I noticed your current whiskies available for sale have been aged in ex-bourbon barrels, but you are also maturing different styles such as port and sherry.
Sam and Chantal: Our whisky goes into the barrel at 63.5% ABV, or as close as we can get to that. Like many of our processes, we nod to what is done in Scotland. We spent an enormous amount of time working out what barrels we should fill and how long we could realistically wait before running out of money.
We decided to start by filling a large number of 50l ex-bourbon barrels. We both love ex-bourbon scotches and like that the residuals in the barrel don’t outweigh other elements of the whisky. We also were keen to use something that we could have a consistent supply of. Three to four years back it was all about filling ex-fortified [barrels], but we didn’t want to end up struggling to find [barrels], or using inferior quality barrels.
Using 50l barrels is expensive; it costs the same about to reduce the barrel size as it does to buy the barrel. So, each 50l barrel is twice as expensive as a 200l. Add in that it now holds only 25% of the volume and it works out about 8-10 time the cost to use 50l barrels. However, having more surface area of wood in touch with the spirit means it acts more quickly on the spirit and we could therefore get a very good whisky to market in a shorter period. Some say that using small format barrels means the whisky is too tannic, too woody. This is sometimes the case using small French oak barrels, as French oak is naturally more tannic, but we don’t find this problem using American [barrels] and we’re extremely happy with our first whisky.
We are also ageing full size bourbon barrels and the age of our whisky will likely slowly increase as we age as a distillery. We will leave some barrels for as long as possible, however we don’t think age is the be-all-end-all. Our main line will always be ex-bourbon but do have ex-fortified that are also ageing well and we foresee releasing something from here next year.
In the main we are steering away from numerous single cask releases as we believe this is often a strategy for “engineered scarcity.” We will vat several barrels to try and achieve some consistency of taste and hopefully a consistent level of supply without any stock-outs.
We also have various other one-off barrels for very limited releases, most of which will probably be bought by our Pioneer club members who get first dibs.
Malt: Which stages of production can you execute on site, and which are done off site?
Sam and Chantal: We use Voyager for our Single Origin malt (apart from the 25% heavily peated). Everything else is done on-site, from grinding to bottling.
Malt: What is the current monthly output off the stills and into barrels?
Sam and Chantal: We currently work on a 3-day production week:
Day 1: 2 x Stripping Run 1 x Mash
Day 2: 1 x Mash 2 x Stripping Run
Day 3: Spirit Run and Barrelling
This will produce approximately 480 litres of new make.
We can double this amount and occasionally do when we’re trying to get things moving faster. We have 6 fermenters.
But we don’t produce continuously, and only aim for 12,500 litres this year. We will slowly increase this to 20,000 depending on demand. We have the capability to produce 50,000 easily with the existing set up.
Malt: On your website, you talk about the Kinglake environment. What impact do you hope this is having on the flavour profile of your final whisky?
Sam and Chantal: There is an element to the taste of our single malt that is very hard to place, that we think really makes it stand out. I suspect this is down to the water. Lots of whiskies claim to be using water straight from the mountains or from streams, but the reality is many Scotches use a bore to maintain a very consistent water profile. Most Australian distilleries use water from the town supply with the chlorines etc. stripped out. The water for our mashes comes straight from Chyser Creek and is completely unfiltered.
We test the water each year and the mineral content is pretty constant. In the other factors we accept a bit of variation. In the summer you can see a layer of pollen from the gum trees lying on top of the water.
Our fermenters are also left open to local pollens and yeasts.
How barrels work on the spirit is very dependent on environment, and Kinglake has a unique micro-climate. It still gets the heat of the summer, but it also gets super cold and very damp in the winter.
Malt: Tell us about where you hope to see your distillery in a few years?
Sam and Chantal: We would like Kinglake whisky to be the go-to Australian handmade single malt. We want people to buy a second, third and fourth bottle rather than one for special occasions. We have been laser focused on our price point since before we even started to build the distillery. We built a bigger than average distillery for an operation of our size and spent extra money to make it as efficient as possible. This allows us to get an incredible handmade whisky out at a reasonable price point. We use all the best, often most expensive, ingredients on the market but price our whisky based on the minimum we can charge, not the maximum.
We’re gambling that customers will appreciate this and reward us with loyalty. Other Australian distilleries are starting to release lower priced whiskies as part of their range, but this isn’t the same thing as they are marketing these as a slightly inferior product. O’Grady’s Stand is the best whisky we can make at the best price we can sell it for.
Starting from an off-grid situation we have always been keen to improve our sustainability, particularly as our environment is such an important part of our whisky. We are currently exploring how we can further refine our processes to be kinder to the environment and working with an Australian carbon offset charity to see how we can best offset what remains of our carbon footprint.
We’re steering well clear of awards as this has become nothing more than an expensive, lazy marketing tool. You pay to enter and everyone is a winner with numerous categories, multiple gold winners and everyone receiving either a bronze, silver or gold medal. It’s not being honest with the customer.
Malt: Finally, can you tell us about the whisky reviewed here today: the OG2 False Start?
Sam and Chantal: This was a bit of a balls-up that turned out OK.
As part of preparing a whisky for sale it is reduced from cask strength to bottle strength, and to do this you add water and this creates a haze called floc. This is either chill filtered or left to settle out.
We took our very first 500 litres of whisky from the barrel, reduced it to bottle strength and left it to settle out. When it was finally ready, I tested it and was horrified to taste it and think I had not washed the settling containers out properly and the batch was slightly tainted. Chantal wasn’t convinced, and we spent days doing blind tasting and double checking. We finally agreed that if there was any doubt at all, we couldn’t release, especially as it was our first batch.
We thought we would have to write off and redistill the whole batch. In the meantime, we prepared a new first batch. Subsequently, some good friends and very experienced whisky industry people tasted the batch and said not only was it not tainted it was one of the best Aussie first releases they had tried.
This was a steep learning curve for me and showed just how subjective and complex the tasting part of the whisky process can be. I have been working hard ever since to refine my nose and palate… and promoted Chantal to chief taster and blender.
The batch in question became OG2 False Start. From the start we had a vision of the type of whisky we wanted to make: heavy, oily, with a hint of smoke but not over-powering. We take very deep cuts and our short fat still with downward sloping line arm should all assist in this aim.
We think we’ve achieved what we set out to do. The OG2 has some of the heavy, oiliness and slight peatiness of my favourite scotch – Springbank – but with some of the sweetness and more pronounced bourbon characteristics of a Highland whisky.
Thanks to Sam and Chantal for their honest and entertaining responses. Setting aside the economic realities of generating cashflow while waiting for maturing barrels, it’s refreshing to see a new Australian distillery focussing solely on malt whisky and not spreading their portfolio over a range of spirits. Kinglake’s releases are currently available through their website or from other Australian retailers. $100 for a 500ml bottle translates to $140 for a 700ml bottle – very reasonably priced for a distillery in their infancy and right in line with the prices at Headlands.
I can’t remember the last time I opened a bottle with genuinely no idea what to expect. I am interested to see to what extent the Kinglake environment translates into the bottle. This was barely aged for two years, the minimum for whisky in Australia.
Kinglake Single Malt Whisky OG2 (False Start) – Review
Bottled at 46% ABV. Distilled 11 December 2018 and bottled 16 December 2020
Colour: Dark Orange Gold.
On the nose: Soft, fragile even, grassy and hints of pollen. Some waxiness with floral notes from a meadow. The fruitiness of a fine Riesling. Layers of honey drizzled on wheat bread. A faint earthiness below it all. This doesn’t overwhelm on the nose but hits some satisfactory notes.
In the mouth: Oily for sure, young spirit clearly with some alcohol burn, that has been in some very active wood. I am getting stout beer, a light maltiness and rye bread. Some whispers of smoke, in line with cigars I remember smoking in Havana years ago. After a while a meatiness emerges – charred marinade on steak, saltiness of pork belly and boerewors. More time in the glass and there is some peat and coals from a campfire.
Fascinating that Sam and Chantal originally labelled this a failed batch; it is anything but. However, if it doesn’t represent the style they want to present going forwards, then it was smart to label it as an outlier, release it anyway, and forge ahead.
I can’t imagine the work involved in building a distillery from scratch, starting with nothing other than hopes and a dream. What is in this bottle is a signpost that Kinglake Distillery is on the right path. With the infrastructure now in place, the technique being refined, barrels (hopefully) aging towards a proper maturity, Kinglake may not be underdogs for much longer.