Review: the golden age – rum and brandy from Australia’s top whisky makers

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On tasting: Overeem XO Brandy, Sullivans Cove XO Brandy Single Cask, Lark Rivière du Nord XO Brandy, Black Gate Dark Rum, Archie Rose Virgin Cane Rhum, Requiem Rum SS Ferret

Australian distilleries have never followed the Old World rule book. Unlike many of the classic whisky, brandy and rum distilleries overseas, Australian producers have almost always distilled multiple styles of spirit.

I’m not just talking about recent distilleries, either. Nearly all of the significant early Australian whisky producers, like Warrenheip, Federal, Corio and others, produced either gin, brandy or rum alongside their flagship whiskies.

Joshua Brothers are perhaps the best exemplars. While the Federal Distillery they founded in Port Melbourne in 1884 became better known for its whisky production into the 1900s, most of their early success was with brandy and rum. Their Boomerang Brandy, in particular, caused a stir in the 1890s when it was favourably, and frequently, compared to the top Cognacs of the day by European critics. Against fierce competition, the Melbourne brandy even won a gold medal at the Antwerp International Exhibition of 1894, with ‘high encomiums’ on the quality of the spirit.

 

 

In Australia, our big advantage is that we successfully grow pretty much every base ingredient for the production of dark spirits (grapes from the Yarra Valley and Geelong were used for Boomerang Brandy).

Joshua Brothers also founded the Yarraville Sugar Works in Melbourne in 1873 to refine Queensland sugar cane (it’s still in operation today). It was taken over by CSR a few years later, but that didn’t stop Federal Distillery using molasses produced at the plant to create Joshua Brothers Victorian rum, which was first released in the late 1880s.

 

Melbourne’s Yarraville Sugar Works, 1872-3. Photo – Charles Nettleton, State Library Victoria

 

When whisky distillers like Lark, Sullivans Cove, Great Southern and Southern Coast Distilling started producing brandies and rums in the early 2000s, they were actually continuing a long tradition stretching back over 130 years.

Today, it’s standard practice for Australian whisky makers to produce other spirits (it’s almost odd if an Aussie whisky distiller doesn’t make a gin, right?).

For some distilleries like Archie Rose, Black Gate, Twenty Third Street and Mt Uncle, their whiskies, gins, brandies and rums are basically promoted in equal measure, which is handy if one style is on the wane (sorry brandy, but your day will come again!).

Of course, whisky is our focus here at Oz Whisky Review. But in reality, multi-spirit distilleries have always been the norm Down Under, and the story of the Australian whisky industry can’t be fully explored without paying homage to those spirits.

Besides, we can’t resist a detour now and then, particularly when our whisky distillers make so many amazing brandies and rums. In fact, one of the distinct strengths of the Australian whisky industry is just how good these side projects are.

  • Overeem XO Brandy
    The Stats
    • ABV: 40%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Brandy
    • Production Story: Distilled at Old Hobart Distillery from a base of Tasmanian wine and matured for seven years in ex-tawny and apera barrels. 682 bottles in total.
    • Location: Hobart, TAS
    • Score: 80
    Nose
    Soft and fruity - toffee, vanilla and blackcurrants. There's some grassy stem notes from the base wine, with white flowers and a hint of apricot jam.
    Palate
    More character on the palate. Pudding and syrup from the cask, subtle tannin and grip. Good integration between cask and spirit.
    Finish
    Clean, with a lick of oak and toffee.
    Comments
    Very solid stuff from the house of Overeem. I'd like to see the abv just a little higher, it loses flavour there. And this was always a bit pricey - you could buy two decades-old, stunning Armagnacs for the price of one Overeem XO.
  • Sullivans Cove XO Brandy Single Cask (TDB0029)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 47.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Brandy
    • Production Story: Distilled at Tasmania Distillery from a base of Tasmanian pinot noir from the Huon Valley on 23/10/2007. Matured for just shy of ten years in a 200 litre French oak ex-tawny cask and bottled 17/08/2017. 190 bottles in total.
    • Location: Cambridge, TAS
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    There's a whiff of sulfur and funk straight out of the glass, then old apera, cherries, mushrooms and caramel tart. Sea air, some nice florals, fruitcake and orange rind.
    Palate
    Palate's a world away from the nose. Thick and dense here, and very cask forward. Dates, forest floor and a slight rancio: interesting balance between fruit and the tart oak influence - decanted just in time.
    Finish
    Great length, persistent fruit and oak.
    Comments
    I've revisited a lot of Sullivans Cove brandies over the journey and I often have varied experiences with them. For one, they're a world away from other brandies. If you're looking for the finesse and fragrance of top South Aussie brandies or Armagnacs, better go elsewhere. The Sullivans brandies are rich and full of grunt. But extensive, careful maturation has meant that some of the odd notes, like that sulfur funk, have mellowed into something tasty and pretty intriguing. Great for malt fanatics looking for a detour. Their Double Cask brandies are especially worth a look - so well put together.
  • Lark Rivière du Nord XO Brandy (Cask B2)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 43%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Brandy
    • Production Story: Distilled from Tasmanian wine (riesling?) at Lark Distillery and matured in small ex-fortified wine casks for six years. Bottled 2011.
    • Location: Cambridge, TAS
    • Score: 81
    Nose
    A little hot, but then vanilla from the oak and a bright perfume character comes out. Fresh citrus, cut grass, dried fruits and a slightly bitter astringency.
    Palate
    Thick and custardy here. Really nutty, with big oak influence and a lot of infill and extraction from the cask. Burnt raisins, cocoa and caramel fudge.
    Finish
    A little short, but persistent enough.
    Comments
    I came across this old gem recently, and geez it's good fun. Again, a whisky maker's brandy. The heavy oak presence and the thick texture is on point with the Lark style. I tasted the current Lark XO Brandy last year, and I remember that being even more rounded and balanced - worth a look.
  • Black Gate Dark Rum BG024/25
    The Stats
    • ABV: 47.4%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Dark rum
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery from a molasses base. Matured for 4.5 years in an ex-tawny cask that also matured Black Gate single malt (#24), and an ex-apera barrel that previously matured Black Gate rum (#25). These two were married together and bottled in August 2019. 334 bottles total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 91
    Nose
    The hallmark Black Gate fudge, treacle and melted butter. Hints of the whisky cask coming through, sort of a malt extract note, and then aniseed, licorice and blackberries.
    Palate
    Big and rich. Toffee, roasted fennel, stewed berries and funk from the molasses. Not as much cask influence here as previous releases, so you really get the burnt caramel from the spirit.
    Finish
    Happy place.
    Comments
    This has long been one of the Australian spirits industry's best kept secrets. So much richness and sweetness without becoming cloying, and the bold, earthy funk in the spirit really shines - the cask never dominates, particularly with this bottling. Brilliantly executed.
  • Archie Rose Virgin Cane Rhum
    The Stats
    • ABV: 56.8%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Cane juice rum (rhum agricole)
    • Production Story: Distilled at Archie Rose Distillery in 2016 using freshly cut and pressed sugar cane juice from Condong, northern NSW. Matured in two 100 litre ex-Bourbon casks for just over two years. 182 bottles in total.
    • Location: Sydney, NSW
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Fragrant and floral. Green apples, strawberries and slightly herbal and grassy. Cask influence is refined, but brings on vanilla and caramel biscuits.
    Palate
    Surprisingly soft for the abv. Again that grassy, vegetal note - comes on like hay. Gentle tannin, grapefruit, marmalade. Silky stuff.
    Finish
    Solid. Slight grip and oak from the cask, but not particularly long.
    Comments
    It's beautiful stuff, and very clean, perhaps a bit too clean. Just when you think the funk from the cane juice is going to burst forward, it backs off, restrains itself, and you're left wanting more personality from the cane and the spirit. Either way, a great achievement. Well done to the team.
  • Requiem Rum SS Ferret
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Dark rum
    • Production Story: Distilled from a base of molasses at Tin Shed Distilling Co. Matured in ex-tawny casks for six years and bottled in June 2020.
    • Location: Adelaide, SA
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Salted caramel, figs, banana, and a hint of ginger candy. Big hit of oak and tawny next to allspice and Christmas cake.
    Palate
    Leather, demerara, dark chocolate and then lots of oak. Burnt sugar, tar and a slight hint of BBQ smoke. Luscious.
    Finish
    Long. Tawny and oak lingering.
    Comments
    I've always been a huge fan of the old Southern Coast Distilling rums. Very similar in structure and character here, but the cask influence is a bit more pronounced in this new Tin Shed bottling. Tasty stuff, already looking forward to next year's.
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.