A Japanese man came into the whisky bar I was working at a couple years back. It was always exciting to serve Japanese customers. The level of appreciation for whisky in Japan is completely obsessive, the fanaticism of bar operators and their patrons, totally frightening. This man was no exception.
After running through a few half measures of our most obscure Scottish drams, he then asked for a flight of Australian malt whiskies. He’d never tried an Australian whisky before, but he had a penchant for sherry and port casks, so I poured him four Australian malts matured in fortified wine casks.
On inspecting the bottles, the first thing he asked was, ‘What is… tawny?’ holding up the only bottle that displayed the term. I told him it was Australian fortified wine, similar in style to port. He then looked back at the other Aussie malts in front of him and asked if I knew which bodegas in Portugal and Spain Australian distilleries sourced their casks from (obsessive, right).
I told him that none were from Portugal or Spain, all the whiskies were aged in Australian fortified wine casks. He was confused. To move things on, I gave him a little taste of Seppelstfield Para Grand Tawny and watched as he connected the dots between the two. He loved the Seppelstfield, and later bought a bottle of the tawny-matured Australian malt (the one that had it on the label).
Australian whisky distillers have been divided on this for years. Should apera and tawny appear on whisky labels where the spirit’s been matured in Australian fortified wine casks?
Australian winemakers have no say in the matter. The decision was forced upon them in 2008/9 following protracted negotiations with the EU. The Spanish and Portuguese were understandably miffed that Australian wineries could trade off their denomination of origin. Hungary also got their way with tokaji/tokay – ‘topaque’ officially replaces those terms for Australian fortifieds made from muscadelle in June this year.
‘Portuguese’ port pipes at Taylors Port Cellars, Oporto – Oz Whisky Review
I’ll admit, ‘sticky’ wines are a guilty pleasure. I’ve been lucky to visit bodegas and wineries in Jerez and Oporto to trace the links between sherry, port and whisky. I’ve also visited many of Australia’s top fortified wine producers, from the Barossa to Rutherglen, Swan Valley to the Hunter.
When you talk to Australian wine industry folk about the use of apera, tawny and topaque, their responses are mixed. Some deride the terms as stupid and useless (they were, after all, created by a marketing team). For others, they’re a great way to promote Australian fortified wines as unique.
Russell Cody was one winemaker who talked to me about his frustration with the terms. A highly-experienced winemaker at McWilliams (who are going through a rough trot at the moment), Cody showed me through the fortified wine program at Hanwood Estate in the Riverina back in 2014. I was there researching the origins of Sullivans Cove’s big win with the HH0525, the world-beating whisky that was matured in a McWilliams tawny barrel (a fact no-one talks about, except Sullivans themselves, who are leaders in promoting Aussie fortifieds). Cody took me right through their aperas and tawnys, dry to sweet, young to the very old.
The barrel rooms were astounding. Casks that once matured whisky in Scotland in the 1930s had gone on to mature Australian tawny for over 60 years (I’ve seen more than a few of these now maturing Australian whisky). He even gave me a taste of an ethereal 40 year old tawny straight from the barrel – we didn’t spit that one.
Pre-World War II White Horse Scotch whisky barrel at McWilliams, Hanwood Estate – Oz Whisky Review
‘It’s annoying,’ Cody told me at the time. ‘Often, people don’t understand what our wines are anymore.’
A number of Australian whisky producers have told me the same thing. Tawny, apera, consumers don’t understand the terms. They find them confusing, they lack identity.
But when I see these terms on Australian wine and whisky labels, I don’t see confusion or a lack of identity or a marketing gimmick, I see an opportunity.
The opportunity’s there to promote Australian whisky as something distinctive and different. To say to consumers, we rarely use port or sherry casks to mature whisky – we use Australian wine casks. To tell consumers here and around the world about our incredible fortifieds: the Seppelstfields, the McWilliams, the Bullers and Campbells and Pennyweights.
And for those distilleries that do have whisky maturing in actual port and sherry casks alongside their mainstay tawny and apera barrels, how do you communicate that to the consumer? ‘Matured in a REAL Port Cask.’ Huh?
Andrew Young charring a tawny barrel for whisky maturation, Seppeltsfield – Oz Whisky Review
And yes, I get it, it’s pedantic, it’s annoying and there are bigger things to worry about. But single malt whisky enthusiasts are some of the most pedantic consumers in the world of booze. Put a term on a label they don’t understand, and before you know it, they’ll be lecturing their friends on the entire bloody history of that word. And for general punters coming across Aussie whisky for the first time, I’m sure they’d be intrigued to see a reference to Australian winemaking, even if they have to Google what it means.
If it’s the consumer we’re concerned about, then let’s make it easier for them, and be clear about why Australian whisky tastes the way it does. Let’s give them something to talk and argue about, so when they taste Australian whisky matured in real port and sherry casks, they can understand the differences between the styles.
And let’s get one up on the Scots, whose shady ‘sherry’ casks are these days mostly seasoned with a grape juice that bears no resemblance to the genuine article. They have nothing like the winemaking heritage we have here on our doorstep. So let’s support that heritage, and proudly represent the industry that’s helped Australian whisky get to where it is now.