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Sullivans Cove Double Cask Whisky and XO Brandy

In terms of reviewing whisky from well-known producing regions, Australia, Canada and India have been my three blank spots.

Aside from Lot 40, nothing else from Canada has yet to pique my interest. Even at the height of my Jim Murray fanboying, which was around 2014 and 2015, I wasn’t blinkered enough to love the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye.

I do know there are Indian single malt brands like Amrut, Paul John and Rampur. A few bottles of Amrut are in my stash, but they’re not good enough to compel a revisit right now. Another option is Paul John, which just entered the local market, but my budget is entirely tied to rum at the moment. Rampur, being the newest Indian whisky on the block, is not in my market yet, and the previous Malt reviews on them haven’t really encouraged me to order a bottle online, either.

Like many people, my main gripe about Australian whisky is the price. Their alcohol tax is, in my view, crazy. Japanese and American whisky have priced me out of their respective markets, yet without so much as dipping my big toe into its waters, Australian whisky has already walled me out of it… which is why I haven’t really been motivated to look into them. I might lose my hair when I see the bottle prices added to the shipping cost when I shop online.

Luckily, a local importer brought in a small amount of Sullivans Cove single malt and brandy. I bought a bottle of their Double Cask XO brandy last year; I’ve only good things about it. While looking for that bottle, I found a “forgotten” bottle of the Double Cask single malt I bought during my early days of exploring Japan.

K&L Wines has had a fortuitous approach to surviving COVID. They’ve taken the time to post informative videos about their products. Around this time last year, they shared a distillery tour video they took with Sullivans Cove. K&L’s David O.G. and Sullivans Cove head distillery Heather Tillot made for an informative video. This made researching the distillery and products a lot easier.

From my perspective, Australian whisky only started making noise in 2014 or 2015. One of their French Oak single casks won best single malt in the World Whisky Awards. I think hearing about Japanese and Taiwanese whisky winning awards made more people curious about a whisky not named Scotch. Because I had never heard of them, I thought they were new, like Kavalan, but it turns out they’re older than the Taiwanese company. In fact, Sullivan’s was established in 1994. In 1999, they acquired new ownership, and the distillery moved to its current location (Cambridge) in 2004. Along with a new location came a new head distiller.

Heather mentioned that the Tasmanian whisky industry started late due to prohibition from 1838 to 1990. It was the godfather of Tasmanian whisky, Bill Lark, who got the government to overturn the decision in 1990. He then started Lark Distillery two years later.

According to Heather, there are a few dozen other distilleries in Tasmania. With those are at least 50 licensed stills, mostly just small-scale operations. As a result, Sullivan’s is considered large on the Tasmanian whisky scene, but small on the global scale.

Fermentation runs for 120 hours, but they contract their fermentation to a brewer down the road. Tasmania is a prime barley growing area, so Heather said that they’re basically just piggybacking off of the local beer industry. The barley strains aren’t just all starch, which yields a high alcoholic volume. The barley strains the Tasmanian beer industry uses yield more texture and flavor.

The distillery currently only has around 2000 barrels in store. They get to fill 350 to 400 casks a year. There’s a charente alembic still named Myrtle with a 2500 L capacity. From my understanding, charente stills always mean brandy pot stills with worm tubs. It’s heated via electricity and operates seven days a week. Both wash and spirits are distilled by Myrtle, meaning they only have one still.

Tasmania is said to have a cooler climate when compared to mainland Australia. The distillery uses a dunnage warehouse for practical purposes, yet the climate is also said to be dry, hence more similar to Kentucky. That means that they lose their water while their spirits are maturing, which in turn increases the proof as it ages. “Angel’s share” equals 8% a year. They let their casks alone for nine or ten years before they start to check on the quality of the cask.

Their Double Cask single malt is aged in a combination of French oak and American oak (ex-bourbon). There was mention of Australian Tawny casks being used. Distilling brandy started about 13 or 14 years ago. Local wines are used and are also aged in French oak (ex-Australian Tawny casks) and American oak (ex-bourbon). The video shows them placing aged whisky and brandy in IBC containers. They said that’s where they slowly dilute the spirits to their preferred bottling strength.

Sullivans Cove Double Cask Single Malt Whisky – Review

40% ABV. AUD $250 on the Sullivans Cove website. I bought it in Japan for around USD $160 in 2015. Double Cask #DC072. Youngest barrel date: 01/02/01. Bottling date: 08/04/14. Blend of barrel #s HH0599, HH0075, HH0079, HH046.

Color: Ginger ale.

On the nose: There’s an immediate prick of ethanol. It’s quickly followed by light aromas of apples, pears, dried apricots, orange peel, banana-flavored candy, honey, and melons. At the back is a pronounced and persistent… funk. I’m not sure what to call it. The smell reminds me of clay, but it has a bit of a sulfuric bite.

In the mouth: The clay-like taste immediately envelopes everything. It persists all the way but weakens as the dram goes on. As the funk lightens up, I get subtle tastes of banana-flavored candy, apple juice, honey, melons, and dried apricots. At the end is an even more subtle taste of toffee.

Conclusions:

Weird and quick. What you get on the nose is also what you get in the mouth, in slightly different order. Since it’s just 40% ABV, the flavors don’t last long. The most memorable aspect of this whisky is the clay-like funk I get from it.

I’ve never tasted this in other spirits. It’s not horrible, but it’s also very unusual.

Could this be a result of the worm tub? Or the barley strain, plus the long fermentation? Or both? I’ve tried a few of their single casks at bars. The clay-like flavor was also present. I’m positive it’s part of their distillery DNA rather than a cask influence.

If this had an age statement, it would be 13 years old. How does this compare to single malt Scotch of similar age and proof? The clay-like flavor is certainly unique compared to any category of whisky, but I think the longer fermentation and usage of barley strains not aimed at efficiency give this more depth, flavor and less ethanol heat compared to the Scotch single malts found in supermarkets. Using a pot still with worm tubs also lends it more flavor. The grocery single malts are more likely to use shell and tube condensers.

A few expressions from Hellyers Road are the only other Tasmanian single malts I’ve tried. They didn’t have this clay-like flavor. It makes me more confident that this characteristic is unique to Sullivans Cove.

Before Heather, they had a head distiller who came in 2004. He would have most likely blended this one, but likely not distilled it. I’m curious as to how different their single malts distilled and blended by Heather are now. I suppose this is motivation for me to try more expressions from them.

Score: 4/10

Sullivans Cove Double Cask XO Brandy – Review

47.7% ABV. AUD $190 on the Sullivans Cove website. USD $180 locally. DCB01. Youngest barrel filled on 07/05/09, Decanted on 12/09/17. Barrel #s TDB0001, 2, 3, 43, 46, 30, 21, 39, 28 & 17.

Color: Caramel.

On the nose: Absolutely pleasant. I get medium intensity and balanced aromas of toffee, chocolate, Thompson grapes, pines, Snickers, vanilla, honey, cinnamon syrup, oak wood BBQ and mint.

In the mouth: The nose got somewhat flipped here. For me, the intensity and balance are still the same, but instead of getting confectionery notes, upfront grape skins, basil, and mint wrapped in toffee and chocolate take over. There are the flavors of cinnamon, vanilla, honey, Snickers, and nougat. At the end is a sensation of sulfur and clay.

Conclusions:

Astonishingly pleasant for the proof. I’ve had 40% single malt Scotch far hotter than this.

The nose is like riding in the backseat of a really comfortable car going at a consistently slow speed with the windows open in a street full of bakeries. Meanwhile, I’d liken the experience in the mouth to eating the side of a chocolate and toffee rich dessert heavy with the garnish. It’s consistent, solid and unwavering all the way.

If this had an age statement, it would be 8 years old. Being a pot-distilled and grape-based brandy, many would compare it to cognac, but despite both being grape-based and distilled in charente stills, it’s not a fair comparison. Cognac uses primarily Ugni Blanc grapes, which is acidic and doesn’t make great table wine. Sullivans brandy uses grapes that were used to make wine, so it’s sweeter. The sweetness reflects on the tasting notes.

The casks used are different, too. Cognac uses French oak from the Limousin forests. The casks used by cognac brands are most likely to have only held cognac, while Sullivans use ex-bourbon and French oak casks that have held Australian Tawny.

I’d give this an 8 if it weren’t for the price. If age is the focus of my purchase, I can get Cognac and Armagnac older and cheaper for this price. If it’s quality I’m after, I could also go for the same French brandies with more depth.

I’m not saying this to knock the Sullivans Cove’s brandy. I like it a lot. I’m just trying to paint a better picture since the brandy isn’t as well-known yet.

Score: 7/10

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