Sullivans Cove Makes The Self-Professed World’s Best Single-Malt Whisky, But Does It Measure Up?
by Ken Gargett
Imagine a whisky distillery with a track record like this:
- The head distiller has been inducted into the global Whisky Hall of Fame.
- Winning the “World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt” prize at the World Whiskies Awards in 2019 (for the French Oak Single Cask Whisky, for the record).
- This followed winning the same award in 2018 (for the American Oak Single Cask Whisky).
- That meant becoming the only distillery in history to win that award twice.
- In 2014, the French Oak Single Cask Whisky was also named “World’s Best Single Malt” at the World Whiskies Awards, making Sullivans Cove the only distillery from its home country to ever win that award.
- Over recent years, Sullivans Cove’s various malts have won more medals, awards, trophies, and golds than Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt at their peaks.
- It is not just the critics who are enamored: a bottle of the American Oak Single Cask Single Malt sold for a national record at Christie’s, going for £6,600. Proceeds went to charity.
- Throw in a heap of accolades for its whiskies from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, including a Liquid Gold ranking and a Best Malt award.
- And finally, a number of international awards for the brandies – not a bad sideline.
Accomplishments like that must surely fall to one of the truly famous Scottish distilleries? One with a long and distinguished history with a series of much-loved whiskeys enjoyed by malt lovers the world over. A distillery with endless barrels of ancient nectar, a household name.
The distillery in question is only celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, and not even it would dispute that the early years were somewhat uninspiring. How it has turned things around! And quickly.
Sullivans Cove: what is it?
Sullivans Cove in Tasmania could hardly be further from Scotland, but in double-quick time it has established a record that most distilleries around the globe would envy.
The original Sullivans Cove (if there was ever a possessive apostrophe, it would seem lost in the mists of time) was established back in 1804 as a town on the Derwent River. Today, that town is known as Hobart, the capital of the Island State.
For a convict settlement at that time, it is no surprise that alcohol played a serious role in community life. By 1824, there were 16 licensed distilleries operating throughout the region, and undoubtedly many more that may have been a little less legal – the typical backyard stills.
It all came to a grinding halt when a devoted campaigner against alcohol, John Franklin, became governor. He immediately put a stop to all distillation, a ban that lasted until 1990.
That ban was finally overturned thanks to the efforts of another pioneer of the Tasmanian whisky industry, Bill Lark of the Lark Distillery (which opened its doors in 1992). Sullivans Cove followed in 1994.
As mentioned, the early days of Sullivans Cove may have been less than exemplary but under new ownership in 1999 things turned around.
This would all be a little academic if these whiskies never crossed Bass Strait to the mainland or, more importantly, ventured further afield to various export markets. At the moment, there are around a dozen and a half markets, mostly European, and the distillery also ships to private customers.
Sullivans Cove: production
Whisky is the main focus, but Sullivans Cove also produces exceptional brandies as well as gins and vodka.
Most of the whiskies tend to be very small production, sometimes a single cask or perhaps two casks. Prices vary throughout the range but expect to pay between AUD$200 and $450 depending on the product.
There are a series of different oaks used and these, in turn, have had varied past lives. An example is the current release, aged twelve years as a Single Cask, made in French oak previously used for local white wines. Being a single cask release, there are only 327 bottles in total for the world.
Sullivans Cove has recently released its oldest product, an 18-year-old whisky. It is not an easy task to find one, but these spirits are definitely worth chasing.
The brandy project started around a decade ago when Sullivans Cove distilled around 40 casks of Huon Valley wine (chardonnay and pinot noir as well as some sauvignon blanc and gewürztraminer) in French oak casks. While the quality of its whiskies must be raising eyebrows in traditional regions, these brandies should certainly be giving some famous old names nightmares.
The bad news regarding the brandies – a Single Cask (135 bottles at AUD$280) and a Double Cask (1,287 bottles) – is that they were barreled around a decade ago, but the distillery has not made brandy since.
Once these are gone, it will be a very long time before you see any others. In other words, if you see a bottle, grab it. The XO Single Cask Tasmanian Brandy might just be my favorite release of all from Sullivans Cove.
The processes at Sullivans Cove include avoiding chill filtration, believing that by doing this, a method that leaves all the “oils and fats” in the whisky, the texture and depth benefit. Rather, they give the whiskies an extended period of settling at ambient temperature, so that “the heaviest particulate can fall out of solution and be removed with a simple paper filter.”
This process is called flocking. And Sullivans Cove goes a step further with some whiskies, avoiding this entirely so the whisky sees no filtration and is completely natural.
Sullivans Cove: tasting notes
The Single Cask Brandy XO can’t escape a small note of oakiness, but it does not intrude. Key to this spirit is the gloriously enticing texture, amazing length, and great complexity. There are notes of cinnamon, nectarines, glacé orange, and vanilla with a hint of honey.
Finally, one of the recent whiskies, the Double Cask Single Malt Whisky (AUD$220), which won the Best Australian Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2018 and gold at the World Whisky Awards, is double distilled. The barley is local, and the oak is a mix of French and American. It is wonderfully complex with great length. Has some sweet stone fruit and malted notes, honeycomb, caramel toffee, and lemon butter on toast.
If the concept of Australian whisky sounds like an oxymoron or a punchline, track down some of the Sullivans Cove releases. They will open up an entirely new world to you.