Sometimes it feels like the Wild West down here in Australia.
Our whisky industry is young and vibrant, seemingly unfettered by tradition and regulation; willing to experiment with form and technique. Over in Western Australia, you have the Whipper Snapper distillery releasing quinoa whisky from a mashbill containing 65% quinoa. In South Australia, 78 Degrees are experimenting with distilling from native grains including Wattleseed, Kangaroo Grass, Weeping Grass, Spinifex and Salt Bush Seed. Down in Tasmania, the Derwent distillery finished a whisky in a Stringybark cask dating back to the 1920’s.
Nothing really surprises me anymore, but occasionally I do raise an eyebrow. One such moment was when I saw local Melbourne brewery Hawkers Beer – a favourite of mine – had released a whisky. Some reading was required to determine exactly what this product was. My guess was that Hawkers had sourced distilled spirit from a local distillery and aged it in ex-beer barrels. However, the truth was a little more interesting.
Hawkers Feedback Loop Imperial Stout Whisky – the key is in the name. This whisky was distilled from one-year old Hawkers Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout by Alchemy Distillers, based outside of Melbourne in Healesville. The new make spirit was transferred back into the same casks that originally aged the stout for an additional two and a half years. Hence, the loop was complete.
I reached out to Mazen Hajjar, Founder and CEO of Hawkers Beer, for more details.
Malt: Can you tell Malt about the Hawkers brewery? Is it 100% independent, where are you based, and how long have you been around for?
Mazen: Hawkers Beer is an independent craft brewery in Melbourne’s northern suburbs that released its first beer to market in February of 2015. Since then, we’ve grown substantially, but the way we think about beer has never changed: brew the beer that you want to drink. In more recent years we’ve ramped up our limited release program which takes a more adventurous lead with styles and current market trends, and this really helps drive momentum and generate ongoing interest in the Hawkers brand in the downtime between our annual vintage releases.
Malt: Making the leap from beer to spirits would have to be done with forethought and planning. What was the inspiration behind this project?
Mazen: You might be surprised at how quickly things can come together when you have an idea and few contacts around the industry. We had a surplus of bourbon barrel aged stout that needed to find a home, but there’s only so much Barrel Aged Imperial Stout in a single year that you can package and introduce to the market without over-saturating it for yourself, and it can be a fine line. We had an idea to distil the stout and put it back in its own barrels, and obviously without our own still, we had to look beyond our own facility to get it done. The bonus was that we didn’t need to source more barrels to put the new make in.
Malt: What can you tell us about Alchemy Distillers in Healesville?
Mazen: We’ve got a great friendship with Jannick and Evan. Jannick is a face regularly seen at the brewery, and he was naturally the first person we reached out to in the initial steps to execute the idea. They’ve been operating since 2016, and they’ve got a very cool space up a Healesville laneway with their own whiskies still resting away in barrel along with a range of excellent gin and vodka. They’re a very small producer, and that’s just one of the things that draws us to them for projects like this.
Malt: Was there ever any thought that this just might not work in terms of the flavours in the finished product? What can we expect from a sip of Feedback Loop?
Mazen: This is a concern with pretty much everything you put in a barrel, including (if not especially) beer. Sometimes, things just don’t wake up on the far end of a barrel-nap in a state you’re happy with. Distilling beer is something that we’d never tried before, so the certainty around how it would turn out was inevitably lower than you’d like it to be, but then, you’ll never know until you try it.
Really, the biggest concern we had with distilling the beer was with the hops, because adding enough heat will begin isomerise the alpha acids in the beer, thus potentially adding unwanted astringency to the equation. The dark, moody chocolatey-espresso character of the malts was what we were hoping would come through, and in the end, it did. The whisky has a distinctly roasty presence, hitting hardest with a dark chocolate presence that gives way to molasses undercurrents with plum and cherry.
Malt: Was the decision to release at 43% ABV driven by flavour or pricing or some combination?
Mazen: 43% just seems to be in the pocket. Feedback Loop really opened up at this mark, and it assumes a nicely approachable personality after taking some of the fire out of its former cask strength self. As far as the cost goes, excise on spirits in Australia is indeed a formidable beast, but it wasn’t the driving factor behind the bottling strength. It’s quite a unique product, and we wanted it to be the best possible version of itself.
Malt: What are your ongoing plans regarding further spirits releases in the future?
Mazen: At this stage, we’re not making any drastic moves in that direction, which isn’t to say we never will. Quite recently, though, we released a very small run of gin infused with Nelson Sauvin hops, (again, distilled at Alchemy) which has switched on the metaphorical idea bulb for potential series of single hopped gins with local artisanal producers. Nothing is off the table, but nothing in the pipeline just yet.
Sincere thanks to Mazen for his time.
This whisky still seems to be widely available from Australian retailers for $120 for a 500ml bottle, or directly from Hawkers’ website. For a boutique release at 43% ABV, this pricing is certainly fair; it’s priced at an inclusive point to encourage everyday consumers to try something new.
I don’t mind a stout, especially on a chilly Melbourne night. The Australian craft beer scene is full of them. Though I approach this tasting with some trepidation as to how it will all work; whisky distilled from Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and then aged in the same barrels? Time to dive in and see what we have here.
Hawkers Feedback Loop Imperial Stout Whisky – Review
On the nose: A bit of a sour pungent hit at first, I decide to give this one room to breathe to see what I might extract later. The interaction with oxygen and time reveals chocolate milkshake and/or cappuccino, stewing rhubarb, aniseed, Vegemite, then campfire ashes. But under these stronger notes there is inarguably some vanilla, condensed milk, dark chocolate drops for cooking. I was expecting a bit of a riot on the nose, and this delivered. I feel light-headed and haven’t had a sip yet.
In the mouth: I hold this in the mouth for a little while and the first sensations are that of fruits, such as oranges and mandarins, some lighter floral notes and it has a smooth mouthfeel overall. Fried plantains and molasses winding its way to cold drip coffee. This has almost as many notes of a liqueur than what I think of as classical whisky, particularly coffee liqueurs. Then at the end even some rum funk and caramelised sugar.
The Hawkers website includes a blog post discussing the technicalities of distilling whisky from beer due to the presence of hops, and I would encourage you to have a read. Ultimately, I am here to judge what is in my glass, not the by-laws and technicalities of its existence.
An A+ for Hawkers for innovation and originality, if not a 10/10 for the finished product. For those inclined I have no reason to think Feedback Loop wouldn’t make an excellent building block to a cocktail. This one warmed on me over a couple of sessions, so that I went from a 5/10, to thinking is this a 7/10, before ultimately landing on…