Sullivans Cove hails from the land down under, nestled away in a balmy waterfront town in Hobart, Tasmania. Not exactly the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of whisky, but – in this day and age – that same shorthanded heuristic could fall short for a growing number of distilleries.
It certainly is a distillery worth knowing despite its lack of flashy promos or duty free pop-ups. You definitely won’t find too much in the way of gimmicks and theatrics here. Yet, belying that quietness, the distillery has done pretty well for itself, having bagged several high profile awards.
But awards are just that… awards. Every year, some distillery out there has to be the winner. Another year, another winner. Yet, I suppose it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to postulate that each winner has (or should have), at the core, some sort of a secret formula. So what’s the secret for this little distillery from Hobart?
For starters, they’ve got the climate on their side. Tasmania is home to one of the world’s best climates. Now, you might wonder, “how would one qualify that?” The location has some of the world’s most pristine air. Fun fact: The World Meteorological Organisation has three Baseline Air Pollution stations that form the basis of what is considered the benchmark for air purity. One of these three stations is on Tasmania; this means that the air there is literally some of the world’s cleanest. While air doesn’t really play much into whisky-making, it does affect the purity of rainwater.
Tasmania also 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 has 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. Whiskey can be aged in full-sized barrels without getting too oaky, even after 20 years of aging.
Now, what does the distillery do that makes it so special? For one, they have a preference for using local wine casks such as Tawny or Apera. If you’ve got it in your backyard, why not make full use of it? Then, of course, there are the stills. Sullivans Cove is pretty unique in using a still that is not actually made for whisky-making, but rather was designed for Brandy. Who would have thought that the way to success in whisky-making was to not make whisky the way it was supposed to be made? This gives Sullivans Cove the ability to produce whiskies that are richer, more floral and fruity and velvety in texture.
Now that we’ve taken a little Sullivans Cove 101, let’s take a look at our bottle.
Today’s bottle is a 14-year-old Sullivans Cove that was exclusively bottled for the 10th anniversary of Australian spirits retailer Casa de Vinos. Aged in a refill ex-whisky American oak cask, it is bottled at a nice 56.5% ABV.
Sullivans Cove 14 Years Old Casa de Vinos 10th Anniversary Edition – Review
Distilled in 2006. American Oak Ex Whisky Cask. 56.5% ABV. Casa De Vinos Exclusive. Retailed on Casa De Vinos’ website for about US$500.
Color: A deep, dark burnt amber, with a distinctive, shiny cherry red sheen.
On the nose: Very punchy start with sharp, intense notes of dark cherries is what strikes me at first. The sharpness is punctuated with deep notes of espresso and fresh pencil shavings.
Swirling it some more allows some of the hotness to give way to more mellow base notes. Richer scents of honey and oats start to rise up, alongside malty flaked cereals. It brings to mind oat biscuits and chocolatey Milo, a popular chocolate-flavoured malt drink in Australia and many parts of Asia. Readers who grew up in the region will probably remember green Milo vans that are a staple of school sports meets.
On closer inspection, there are also gentle notes of dried fruit, of apricots, apple slices and candied ginger, as well as lighter scents of white ixora and plumeria petals.
In the mouth: The strength on the nose carries through to the palate. The relatively high proof is quite apparent but – compared with the nosing scents – it is much more fortified here, with much more depth. The texture is immediately noticeable, very creamy and velvety but never cloying. It retains a nice little bite that cuts through the oiliness.
The notes reveal themselves in a gradual bloom. At first it is sweet like caramel sauce, with dollops of whipping cream, reminding me of an ice cream sundae. There are little bits of fruit here as well, but instead of orchard harvests, here I find more stone fruits, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries, the difference being a distinctive tartness.
There are light dustings of baking spices of cinnamon and nutmeg that coats the palate, giving it a slight zesty brightness, that contrasts against the otherwise repressed deeper woody notes, reminiscent of an old cupboard.
The finish is incredibly long yet somewhat singular in dimension, with a long drawn out woodiness and something of chai latte.
Sullivans Cove has generally brought a lot of oomph into their whiskies, scoring well in terms of the intensity of flavours, balance, and richness. What takes the cake for me has always been the sheer depth of flavour. This bottling is no different. With it, I felt I was led down a rabbit hole in what felt somewhat like a bottomless abyss of heavier honey, malt and fruit sugar flavours. It just seems to never end!
To me, that’s what makes Sullivans Cove great. I should caveat that the flavours aren’t complex; they are fairly straightforward, very tea-time/dessert-ish. But what has always caught me off guard is just how long each sip feels. Temporally each dram seems to carry on for more than a mile, which I believe comes down to the purity of the water giving it very clean, crisp flavours, and the unique maritime temperate climate which helps seal in lots of these richer flavours by sucking moisture out of the casks, leaving effectively a whisky concentrate. Of course that’s not a thing, but you get the idea. The bottling feels almost like a tightly wound spring that uncoils as you allow it to open up, unveiling well-bound flavours.
There’s also a great mouthfeel to it, great viscosity and an almost chewy texture that reminds one of wine gums. I enjoyed this. Which gets me thinking, there are many attributes that could make a whisky “great:” complexity, balance, unique profiles… the list goes on. With this bottling, what elevates it to that level is the depth of each flavonoid. Or, to put it more simply: simple things done well.
Simple, straightforward tea-time flavours, but done superbly well. The depth and intensity simply takes the cake and elevates it to what makes the Tasmanian distillery special. I would have rated this a 7/10 if not for the slightly steeper price tag.
While Sullivans Cove has certainly made a name for itself, this winning card seems to have become more broadly a trait of whiskies from Down Under. Sipping on various (and some newer) Aussie whiskies, I’d postulate that Sullivans Cove has become a victim of its own success, as more distilleries begin to demonstrate the same finesse as the early-mover. Yet I’d hardly bet against the Tassie distillery to continue evolving and finding new heights. It’s certainly going to be an interesting decade ahead for Australian whiskies; you’d be remiss to blink and miss it altogether.