The origin stories of some distilleries are more romantic than others. We hear about the industrial looking, utilitarian behemoths constructed in Scotland throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s to meet demand for blending, but no one is delving any further into telling the lost tales of the founding of Auchroisk, Mannochmore or Allt-A-Bhainne.
What excites me about Australian whisky is that the stories of our distilleries are so new. Each story an evolving, living history. We can’t sit down with James Findlater and discuss the inspiration and challenges behind founding Mortlach in 1823. But I am happy to be able to bring you the tale of Shene Distillery, housed on a stunning estate in Tasmania.
Shene made news when they launched a refreshed range of core products in March 2021, however they have been around for some time before this. Things kicked off when Damian Mackey (backyard distilling enthusiast) met David Krenke (the owner of Shene Estate) in 2009.
I had been aware of “Mackey”-branded bottles of Australian whisky but – with prices around $300 – investigated no further. Before I sampled their whisky for the first time, I spoke to Shene to find out more about their journey together.
(answers have been edited for clarity and length)
Malt: There is a lot going on at Shene Estate besides whisky production! Can you give Malt some background about the size, history, and various activities of the Estate?
Shene: Shene Distillery is located within the homestead block of the historic Shene Estate at Pontville, about 30 minutes north of Hobart in the Bagdad Valley. The homestead block comprises about 40 acres and is surrounded by the working Shene farm which today has an area of around 4,500 acres. In the late 1800’s the area of Shene was recorded as being around 3,000 hectares but during the Butler family period of occupation, with adjoining lands, the area of Shene extended to around 8,100 hectares. A huge land holding well known for its fine merino wool and the production of wheat and barley.
Today the focus at Shene is the Distillery with all its various elements. We call ourselves the only Whisky Village in Tasmania because we mill, mash, ferment, distil and mature on site and also have our own Cooperage on site.
In 2014 Shene Distillery was formed and a falling down early 1800’s split timber clad building was rebuilt as a purpose-built distillery complex. In 2016 we were joined by our now business partner John Ibrahim and his wife Luda. This partnership has enabled us to expand our operations to include 4 Tasmanian made copper pot stills – 4,500 litre wash still, 2,000 litre 1st spirits still, 1,100 litre 2nd spirits still and our original 300 litre copper pot still. Our brewing section incorporates eight 7,500 litre fermenters.
In 2017 we further expanded to include the cooperage complex, a bottling building and 5 bond stores. The added buildings incorporate mostly rough sawn timber cladding and steeply pitched corrugated iron rooves so as to enhance the heritage nature of the site.
The adaptive reuse of some of the historic buildings on Shene for the distillery is like a hand in glove – amazing! The owners of Shene Distillery pride themselves on being good corporate citizens with a focus on sustainability and conservation – the adaptive reuse of the property for the distillery ensures the survival of this very significant property for the benefit of future generations.
Sustainability wise, water usage for manufacture is minimal due to the purpose-built design of our equipment and all wastewater is treated on site to a good irrigable standard and irrigated onto the pastures of Shene. By-products of the whisky-making process are used to feed stock – the draff is fed to the cattle on Shene and the yeast and spent gin botanicals is provided to a local pig farmer to feed his stock. Electricity used in the manufacture of our products is predominantly sourced from hydro power. The Cellar Door is located in an 1846 former granary building. It has been convict built and is of sandstone construction.
In Scotland, the definition of a single malt whisky stipulates one single distillery, a mash made at the distillery from a single grain – malted barley, fermented onsite, distilled by the distillery, aged in oak casks and bottled. At Shene we mirror this approach. We operate 7 days per week and crush in 1.25 tons of locally grown barley, malted in Tasmania. Daily, this process produces 5,500 litres of wash.
The end result, after triple distilling, is the production of around 550 litres per day of cask strength new make spirit. At Shene we pride ourselves on taking that extra step: we ferment for 7 days instead of 4, we triple-distil along the lines of the Irish Style of whisky making. Scottish whisky is distilled twice. The Irish say they do the process three times to be sure, to be sure, to be sure the end result is perfect. We agree with this philosophy and approach. Our awards bear testimony to our methods and this approach. And I believe we are currently the only commercially operating distillery in Australia to produce triple distilled whisky. We are very proud of our operations and the quality of our Single Malt Whisky.
Tasmania produces some of the finest Single Malt Whisky in the world. One day the world will sit up and realise this. Our climate, similar to Scotland in winter but warmer in summer, our barometric weather patterns, the quality of our water (our water is arguably the finest in the world) our fertile soils well suited for the growing of barley, the older varieties of barley grown here in Tasmania – these factors all contribute to our wonderful Tasmanian Single Malt Whisky.
Malt: The Kernke family had owned the Shene Estate for several years before converting a section into a distillery. Did the family have any prior background in distilling and, if so, what was it? If not, what was the impetus for taking on such a monumental task?
Shene: David and Anne first visited Tasmania in 1996 on a family holiday with daughters Myfanwy and Ceridwen. They literally fell in love with the place: its natural beauty, the climate, the pace of life, its history, its heritage and stunning Georgian buildings. They pledged that one day they would move to Tasmania. So, 10 years later after discovering Shene, this goal was achieved. Shene was acquired in 2006 and they relocated to Tasmania from Queensland in 2008.
Their love of heritage conservation and desire to live in a quieter cooler environment were the principal drivers for relocation. Conservation works to the structural improvements commenced in 2007 and the couple looked at ways and means to off-set the enormous cost of this work by conducting activities on site to generate income. This was achieved initially from functions and events held at Shene.
However, the primary goal was to identify a long-term adaptive reuse for the heritage buildings, a use that ideally suited the magnificent and stately buildings on the estate. Initially this proved to be a difficult task, however in 2009 the couple met and became friends with a town planner who had an interest in distilling and who had a 300 litre still in a shed at his property in Hobart. The Hobart entity was registered as Mackey Distillery. The resultant friendship introduced the couple to the concept of developing a distillery at Shene and, in 2014, a partnership was formed and Shene Distillery created. The Mackey Distillery plant and equipment was acquired and the journey of Shene Distillery commenced.
Malt: How large is the Shene distillery crew, and tell us about some of the names and their roles?
Shene: The distillery team comprises 4 individuals. Until recent times David Kernke was in charge of all distillery operations from 2018. David has now delegated the day to day running to the current team who include Alex Rowles, an experienced distiller and brewer with strong industry knowledge assisted by Dylan Keleher, Trent Wilton and Adam Blackwell. The team operate daily following established guidelines and produce 38,500 litres of wash and around 3,850 litres of cask strength new make spirit per week. Every aspect of distillery operation is shared with the team, so life is never dull. Operations include milling the barley, fermenting, distilling, barrelling, racking, waste removal, wastewater treatment and the never-ending task of cleaning. A well-oiled and knowledgeable team producing proven good quality spirit.
Malt: Triple distillation isn’t something you see often in Australia. Some of us would associate it closest with Ireland. However, not all of Shene’s releases are triple distilled. Can you talk about which releases are double or triple distilled, and why?
Shene: Our focus at Shene Distillery is triple distillation. However, in 2017 we decided to undertake some double distillation to give Shene another offering. In 2018 we had the double distilled new make spirit judged at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards and were happy to achieve a Gold Medal.
Enigma and Trinity are both exclusively triple distilled releases whilst Solera, Elixir of Life, and Cognac incorporate a blend of both Double and Triple distilled spirit. Some serious thought and tasting has been invested in this decision and the results achieved in the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition vindicate our decision to do this. Each new expression, except Cognac release, received a Double Gold Medal. The Cognac release achieved a Gold Medal.
Malt: You seem to have struck a balance of releasing your whisky products at 49% ABV. How was that decision reached?
Shene: The decision to cut at 49% ABV is taste and texture based and reflects the predominant triple distilled nature of the Shene single malt. Even after blending double and triple distilled spirit, our expert tasting panel decided that 49% ABV was the appropriate and optimum cut for Shene Single Malt.
Malt: Tell Malt about the evolution of your product range from launch until now. Shene’s prices seems to have fallen, was that in response to expanded and consistent core offerings?
Shene: Until recently Shene Distillery – like all other distilleries in Tasmania – had a very limited volume of Single Malt available for sale. Pricing reflected the “cottage industry” nature of the industry and rarity of the product. Times have changed and we now have greater volumes of spirit available. Importantly we have been able to operate more efficiently and achieve greater economies of scale. It has always been our goal to provide our loyal customers with the very best Tasmanian Spirits – Tasmanian Single Malt Whisky and Poltergeist Gin – at the most competitive price. We are proud that we are now able to achieve this goal.
Malt: Shene has an onsite cooperage and produces its own wash. Tell Malt about the importance of having this all done on site.
Shene: Barrels are incredibly important in the overall process of whisky making. They provide 100% of the colour and around 70% of the flavour. Simply put, if you produce good quality new make spirit and if you have good barrels, then all things being equal you should achieve good Single Malt. At Shene, we believe it is very important to control and manage the supply of barrels. The cooperage at Shene, Tasmanian Tiger Cooperage, allows us to control our own destiny.
In the early days of our operations, we were blessed with having the opportunity of purchasing around 1,000 large barrels of ex Australian fortified wine barrels: French Oak casks from Grant Burge (Australian Port – Tawny) and casks from McWilliams (Australian Sherry – Apera). Our first releases have all been aged in these superb barrels.
Subsequent to this, business partner John travelled to both Spain and Portugal and established strong relationships with two family-owned cooperages in Spain and one in Portugal. In conjunction with our own Cooperage at Shene – Tasmanian Tiger Cooperage – we are also able to acquire ex-fortified wine barrels from Australian fortified wine producers, as well as being able to acquire the very best Sherry and Port barrels from Spain and Portugal. We believe this gives Shene a distinct advantage over most other Australian Distilleries.
We view wash making as an enormously important aspect of whisky production. The analogy here is to compare wash making to the footings and foundations of a building. If you properly prepare and construct the footings and foundations of a building, then you are virtually assured that the structure to be built upon these footings and foundations will be good. Whisky making is no different and we insist on controlling all aspects of production right from its foundations – the production of wash, to the very end.
At Shene Distillery we use ale yeast instead of distilling yeast as we know this produces a better flavour profile: a lesser volume of alcohol when compared to that produced by using distilling yeast, but more flavoursome. We also temperature control the entire fermenting process to achieve the best flavour profile of our wash, which translates to our flavoursome signature new make spirit. Our many industry awards bear testimony to our methods and approach to distilling. We are very proud of our operations and the quality of our Single Malt Whisky.
Malt: Finally, where do you see Shene fitting into Tasmanian whisky, and Australian whisky, now and into the future?
Shene: At Shene Distillery we strive to produce the very best Single Malt Whisky that we can possibly make. We do this to the best of our ability using methods that have a proven track record.
Tasmania, due to its natural attributes and climatic conditions, produces arguably some of the best Single Malt Whisky in the world. We are proud that Shene can be part of the Tasmanian Whisky journey and help the industry achieve the accolades it deserves.
Thank you to the team at Shene and Miranda at M Digital for her assistance.
The evolution of a new distillery from releasing small batches, or single casks, to being able to build up a core range of ongoing releases at settled prices interests me, and it appears Shene is at the endpoint of that journey. Letting the kids run around while being able to explore the Shene Estate and Distillery sounds like it would be a wonderful day out.. if and when Victoria is ever out of lockdown, but that’s a story for another day.
The Shene whisky range is available for $189 from their website, which also includes gin. The release reviewed today is the Shene Elixir of Life, which as detailed above is a blend of double and triple distilled spirit. Bottled at 49% ABV, it is principally matured in 20 litre Australian Apera casks and then finished in Pedro Ximenez casks.
Shene Elixir of Life – Review
Colour: A new Australian 2 cent coin.
On the nose: This one is seductive, with boiled oranges, burning matches, wattle and red liquorice. Some scents of oiled leather – a new cricket ball perhaps and pine wood. Also interacting is metallic scents like iron shavings and ball bearings. Finally, some fruits, in the form of ripe bananas, lemon juice, barley sugar and ground spearmint.
In the mouth: A powerful arrival in the mouth, some rawness of younger alcohol certainly and a chewy, dense mouthfeel with caramel. Dessert wines on the palate, rum and raisin chocolate and Kahlua. I think the finish in the PX cask is just right here. There’s fruit cake and stewed apples, fruit leather and dark chocolate, cocoa powder. The finish lingers and tends to a sweet final balance.
$189 for whisky at 49% ABV, in 700ml bottles seems about spot on given the scale of the Shene operation, so no issue with the price. It is, however, priced at a level which invites scrutiny. Nevertheless, I am impressed and feel the quality of this dram justifies the price. I can’t speak to the exact benefits or flavour profile achieved with the blending of triple and double distilled spirit – but it has worked for me, in my glass, at least.
There is so much going on in the Tasmanian whisky scene it is easy to overlook one distillery or another, but they all deserve our time. However, time is short, resources are limited competition is fierce. As I write this, Tasmania has just wrapped up its annual Whisky Week, and again, I am stranded in Melbourne, able to do nought but look on wistfully. Drams like this speak to better days ahead.
All prices in Australian dollars. Sample provided by Shene Distillery, which does not affect our scores as per Malt policy. Lead photo from Mark; other photos courtesy of Shene.