Whisky review: Australia’s oldest whiskies under the microscope

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On tasting: Sullivans Cove 21 Year Old, Smith’s Angaston 18 year old and Smith’s Angaston 20 year old.

To the many Australian distillers restless to get whisky out of cask and into people’s glasses, extensively matured whiskies, like the ones reviewed here, must seem like a distant dream. But it’s a sign of the growing maturity of the Australian whisky landscape, that we now have 15, 18 and 20+ year old whisky available for those willing to dive deep into their pockets. And to those who’ve stayed in the game long enough and had the foresight, patience, and, in some cases, luck, to let their whisky slumber, it’s time to raise a glass.

In the case of the Sullivans, a fortuitous find led to this 21 year old. Four forgotten casks, originally distilled in 1997 (an infamous year for what was then Tasmania Distillery, which saw its founder Robert Hosken in court over misleading labelling) were found, bought back by the distillery, and blended together to create this whisky. This Sullivans proves that, yes, we can create extensively matured Australian whisky that isn’t dominated by oak if the cask and climate are right – second or third fill, larger format, and housed in a fairly stable environment.

For the Smith’s Angaston bottlings, two similarly aged spirits have produced two very different mature whiskies.

All three open a fascinating window into what Australian whisky could look like in another decade or two. On the other hand, there’s also a chance that these bottlings might become outliers, indicative of a time when Australian whisky looked more akin to a rumour, a curious idea, a fun experiment even. With demand constantly increasing, will distillers have the patience, or even the desire, to leave spirit in cask when the results are in on quality being achievable much earlier? Certainly makes these even more of a treat.

  • Sullivans Cove 21 Year Old
    The Stats
    • ABV: 49.6%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: A marriage of four 200 litre ex-Bourbon casks, originally distilled in 1997, and purchased back by the distillery.
    • Location: Cambridge, TAS
    • Score: 90
    Nose
    Rose petals, vanilla, guava, orange blossoms, slightly dusty, old oak, coconut, raspberry – iced vovos!  
    Palate
    There's a subtle, pleasant varnish note, and then some tannin and heat on the mid-palate, but that's immediately surrounded by a creamy, marshmallow texture. Just when you think the oak might take over, it rounds out into that classic citrusy, berry character that some of the most exceptional ex-Bourbon cask Sullivans bottlings display. 
    Finish
    Great length, the spice – cinnamon and clove – follows right through. 
    Comments
    Not the most complete Sullivans I've been lucky to try, but this is such a moreish whisky – you just want to sit on a big glass of the stuff. Yes, the price is excessive, but consider the significance of the release, what similar cult international gear would fetch, and the fact these sold so quickly. I really hope people actually drink these – a great whisky for sharing. 
  • Smith's Angaston 18 Year Old
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46.0%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in 2000 in Yalumba's old brandy pot still. According to the producers, this particular cask also had small quantities of 97' and 98' vintage Smith's single malt added over time. Bottled 22 May 2019. 142 bottles in total.
    • Location: Angaston, SA
    • Score: 83
    Nose
    Big spice and tannin upfront. Raspberry, cherry cola, red wine funk, leather, resin and raisons, burnt sugar and molasses.
    Palate
    Thick and rich, but also very dry. Overt tannin is tempered by strawberries, cherries and dark chocolate. A lot of wine from the cask in this, which brings on a rancio funk that turns towards a slightly bitter espresso character.
    Comments
    For fans of the big, cask-forward Aussie style, this would be right up your alley. Don't get me wrong, it's a lotta fun, but for me, it sways too far to the winey, woody side of the equation at the expense of the spirit.
  • Smith's Angaston 20 Year Old
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Originally distilled in 1997. The team at Yalumba sampled this whisky in 2012 (Cask No. 970331) and it was then put aside for an additional seven years to create this 20 year old.
    • Location: Angaston, SA
    • Score: 89
    Nose
    Dense oak upfront, herbal and spicy, with cherries, fruit & nut chocolate, custard creams and cappuchino.  
    Palate
    Reminds of some luscious South Aussie brandies: marmalade, orange rind, ginger snaps, and a rich, syrupy texture that still offers up a little perfume and finesse. The spirit's still intact here.
    Finish
    Just enough weight and carry, with spice and citrus lingering.
    Comments
    Wonderfully balanced. This cask exhibited some special characters and was set aside – a great decision. Oak never becomes dominant here and the spirit's been allowed to reveal some sophisticated estery characters that aren't that common in many Australian whiskies at the moment.
Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. A freelance writer and author, Luke's the chief judge of the Perth Royal Distilled Spirits Awards, a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, and his book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.