Mediocrity be damned: the rise of Tasmanian Heartwood Malt Whisky

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May Lawrence Photography for The Oak Barrel Sydney

 

In 1992, Tim Duckett, an environmental consultant and obsessive single malt collector, met two people who would radically alter his relationship with whisky: Bill and Lyn Lark. Duckett was appointed to a government committee that was investigating the management of Tasmania’s Ben Lomond ski field. Lyn Lark was on the same committee – she and her husband Bill had an interest in the pub at the top of the mountain. But as Duckett recalls, it was the Lark’s upcoming whisky venture that most interested him. ‘Lyn and Bill said they were going to start making whisky. I said I was going to drink it.’

By 1999, the Larks had been distilling for seven years, bottling small amounts of single malt whisky and gin, and quietly pioneering Australia’s small-scale distilling movement. Duckett had, as promised, studiously got to work drinking their whiskies, but being a long-time member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and a devoted collector of Scottish single cask bottlings, he felt there was more to be done.

‘When the Lark’s first barrel became commercially available in 1999, I bought it. I had no real idea of what I wanted to do, but I could see a future in the whisky industry because we have the right conditions here in Tasmania.’

Tall, broad shouldered, and often half concealing a wry grin, Duckett fondly recalls accumulating barrels without any overarching plan (aside from drinking the whisky inside them). He also bought barrels from the then fledgling Tasmania Distillery, producers of Sullivans Cove, and a decade later, he’d built up a small but growing inventory of Tasmanian single malt whisky casks. Unlike the distilleries, though, who were anxious to bottle and sell whisky to keep their businesses afloat, Duckett was happy to let his barrels slumber until he felt they’d reached their optimal point.

Then in 2012, the time had come. ‘The whisky in the barrels I’d collected were starting to show signs of being quite different and quite special and that’s when the idea of becoming an independent bottler – I suppose it was always in the back of my mind – came into the picture. But it was the maturation of the whisky that forced my hand.’

 

But what did we have to lose? Tasmania had a whisky industry 150 years ago, and there was no impediment to us producing good quality whisky here. That was the epiphany that Bill Lark had – ‘Why can’t we?’ – and I was of a similar philosophy.

 

At that stage, bottlings of Lark, Sullivans Cove and Melbourne’s Bakery Hill had received numerous accolades from international whisky writers and spirits competitions. But as Duckett points out, ‘Even ten years ago we didn’t know it was going to take off the way it has. But what did we have to lose? Tasmania had a whisky industry 150 years ago, and there was no impediment to us producing good quality whisky here. That was the epiphany that Bill Lark had – ‘Why can’t we?’ – and I was of a similar philosophy.’

Tasmanian Heartwood Malt Whisky, Duckett’s own independent bottling label, was born out of that idea. His first release, Mt Wellington, came out in 2012. The name references the mountain that rises like a cathedral organ above Hobart, and the whisky itself was about as prodigious. It was distilled at Tasmania Distillery (Sullivans Cove) and spent 12 years maturing in an ex-Jim Beam barrel before being bottled at cask strength – a whopping 62.4%. Big, bold, and a bit rough at the edges, this first bottling set a template that Duckett would build on and refine with future Heartwood releases.

 

 

Release the Beast, Convict Unchained, Vat out of Hell, The Velvet Hammer – the names of Heartwood bottlings, often a comment on the life or genesis of the barrels, started to get more obscure. The whiskies, more intriguing, more layered. Instead of just bottling his finest single casks, Duckett started blending components and even whole casks together. An early example was the Vat out of Hell, a behemoth of a dram bottled at 67.4% abv. It was a marriage of a 10 year old Lark apera cask and a 13 year old Sullivans Cove ex-Bourbon cask. Other whiskies that weren’t making the grade were often re-racked into different barrel types or even fresh casks – a highly unique, and costly, approach.

‘With Heartwood, we try to make the best possible whisky we can from every barrel,’ says Duckett. ‘And if that means moving whisky from one barrel to another first fill, or even another, and so on, to polish it, to clean it up, then we’ll do it.’

While Duckett was continuing to experiment, interest in the Australian whisky industry was burgeoning, mainly among enthusiasts. The sky-high prices Australian whiskies were fetching put them well beyond the reach of the average punter. Flagship Tasmanian whiskies were flying off the shelves at $150 and beyond, Heartwood whiskies for $220 and sometimes upwards of $270 – for a 500ml bottle. But even at those prices, demand was far outstripping supply. The blueprint established, Duckett started delivering more outlandish and complex Heartwoods, developing such a cult following that some of his releases began completely selling out three or four bottlings in advance.

‘With Heartwood’, Duckett surmises, ‘I’ve sometimes heard that you either love it or hate it. But you’ll never forget it. The high strength of the whiskies isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve had your palate smashed from pillar to post, like mine, and you’re always looking for a bigger drug, then Heartwood’s for you.’

 

 

Heartwood fanatics are hooked. Some dedicated collectors are even aiming to own a bottle of every Heartwood release, currently over 60. As a result, a lucrative secondary market for these bottlings has emerged – Release the Beast, the second Heartwood bottling, recently sold for $1600 at the Rare Whisky Auction during Tasmanian Whisky Week. But despite the success, some of Duckett’s friends and fellow whisky drinkers started to baulk at the price, strength and unavailability of Heartwood whiskies. In response, Duckett created Tasmanian Independent Bottlers (TIB) in 2015, a separate label that would bottle more affordable, more ‘sessionable’ whiskies (Duckett’s term) to entice a wider spectrum of palates.

With the help of private investors, TIB has now sourced whisky from 11 Australian distilleries, including one from New Zealand. Currently, 20 different styles of new make and 16 different barrel types rest in Duckett’s warehouse. The plan is to release everything from peated to unpeated malts, apple brandy, rye and even oat whisky. Barrels that once held Australian fortified wines, Pedro Ximenez, Muscat, rum, beer and even botrytis riesling will also help to create some of Australia’s most experimental whiskies.

As these TIB bottlings are released over the next few years, they’ll be joined by a further 60 Australian whiskies from distilleries inhabiting every corner and climate of the country. So what does Duckett, now an old hand of the game, make of the budding Australian whisky industry? Is such exponential growth sustainable? And how does the Aussie stuff measure up to whisky from more established nations?

 

 

‘I think we’re in for a correction,’ the normally jovial Duckett switches gears, thinking seriously on the questions. ‘Yes, our whiskies look good outside Australia. We produce a different style of whisky based on the different environmental conditions that exist here, and it becomes more obvious when they’re shown abroad.

‘But we’ve got 35 distilleries in Tasmania now, probably another 15 on the drawing board. They’re all going to start pumping out whiskies that are quite young, and I think there’s a tendency to release whiskies into the commercial marketplace that aren’t ready and shouldn’t be released. I think we’re seeing that there’s an inconsistency in quality in the whiskies being produced in Australia right now. That inconsistency can be seen across the industry, but also within individual distilleries. You can only maintain a reputation if you maintain quality, and I fear that we’re not doing that.’

The serious chat done with, Duckett returns to talk of his upcoming releases, how they’re progressing, the barrels causing him grief, the latest vat of whisky that ‘needs a belting’ to blow off the volatiles. ‘It’s got to be 8/10. If it doesn’t reach 8/10, it will never come out with a Heartwood label.’

Duckett will continue to treat both his Heartwood and TIB barrels with the same affectionate disdain, all the while accruing invaluable knowledge on whisky maturation in the Australian climate. At least half a dozen new Australian independent bottlers are even looking to follow Duckett’s lead. Soon, the current Australian whisky landscape will hardly be recognisable, which doesn’t faze Duckett in the slightest.

‘Everything has just evolved, and we’re still learning. There are far more questions than there are answers at the moment. Fortunately for Tasmania, we’re quite isolated, and with isolation comes innovation.’

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.