Whisky review: a taste of Australia’s new blended malts

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On tasting: Lark Symphony No. 1, Tasmanian Independent Bottlers ‘The Craft’, Tasmanian Independent Bottlers Vatted Malt #3, The Tasmanian Collection Blended Whisky (2020), and Country to Coast Black Gate/Fleurieu Malt Whisky Blend

How good are blends! Yes, I’m a massive blended whisky fan, and I’ve been looking forward to tasting these new blended malts for months now. For me, this little movement, which we explored recently, is one of the most exciting developments in the Australian scene.

Practically, it’s the only way our distillers can go. Hardly anyone’s laying down large amounts of column-distilled grain whisky in Australia (Starward and Ostra Distillers aside, although there might be others…), so if you want to create new and interesting blends, blended malts are it.

All of the early leaders in the space will tell you it’s not the easiest exercise. It takes time, patience, vision and a lot of skill to create balanced, flavourful blended whiskies. And as both Angela Andrews (Fleurieu) and Tim Duckett (Heartwood/TIB) told us recently, if we don’t get Australian distillers trying, then no-one develops the expertise to do the job well. Lark’s longtime head distiller and blender Chris Thomson, for example, has been working on creating blended malts – like the Symphony No. 1 reviewed below – for about six years!

Whether or not the style really takes off here is anyone’s guess, but transparency is key to getting people on board. For the drinker, it’s much more fun and interesting when clear information is provided on the component whiskies.

There’s an opportunity for the Australian industry to get one up on the Scots here, too. By law, the Scots can’t divulge the age, source or proportions of component whiskies in any blend. Here in Australia, distillers can tell us everything!

And unless you’re making a Johnnie Walker Green Label, why be coy about where the whisky’s from? The first thing everyone asks is: what are you hiding? And then, more importantly, why?

I know it’s not that simple. Some Australian distilleries will only sell stock to independents and blenders if the source remains anonymous. The other reality is that some distilleries here sell casks of spirit in their start-up phase for cash flow and might not be happy with what bottlers or blenders do with them down the track.

But in an age where trust in institutions of every type and kind is at an all-time low, consumers want truth from their ‘craft’ producers. (Ultimately, it saves you having to answer pages of pesky social media comments down the track as well.)

So whatever side of the whisky fence you’re on, get blending Australia! Highballs, old fashioneds and boulevardiers here we come.

 

  • Lark Symphony No. 1
    The Stats
    • ABV: 40.2%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended malt whisky
    • Production Story: A marriage of malt whiskies from Lark Distilling Co.'s inventory (Lark and Nant, and reportedly Overeem). The average age of the components is said to be around six years old.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    A little closed at first, but opens up nicely into kiwi fruit, melons and a hint of that Lark raspberry/tawny note. It gets floral with time, and the tropical fruits emerge - gummy bears and orange and passion fruit cake.
    Palate
    Flat initially, but really comes together on the mid-to-back palate. Again the fruits, creamy and waxy, and you get custard and white flowers from the ex-Bourbon cask components.
    Finish
    Cracking finish for the ABV, lifted fruits and American oak.
    Comments
    This is really well put together. Super fresh and quaffable. Sort of un-Tasmanian in a way, in that it's fruity and spirit-forward and the customary heavy oak influence has been blended away. An approachable, easy drinking Tasmanian malt - I almost can't believe it! But the price for a 500ml bottle brings you straight back down to earth. The full symphony is also a bit hard to hear at 40.2% (must be stunning at a higher ABV), but I understand the economics behind that. In reality, none of the component whiskies here were ever designed to be sub-$100, but boy it'd be awesome to see this, or something like it, in that bracket from Tasmania. Makes a brilliant highball, too.
  • Tasmanian Independent Bottlers 'The Craft'
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48.1%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended malt whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of two malt whisky casks sourced from mainland distilleries (my guess would be Rosebery and Goolwa): 90% TIB 0020 Bourbon cask, and TIB 0011 apera cask. Bottled February 2019.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 80
    Nose
    Quite spirity initially. Malt biscuits and fresh cut grass, and then pears, Fads sticks and a whiff of earthy smoke.
    Palate
    Better integrated on the palate. Jack fruit, green apples and oatcakes - that slightly savoury, grassy character again. Still a bit youthful and prickly overall.
    Finish
    Meandering.
    Comments
    Pleasant enough, but just a bit directionless and plain. I feel like the Bourbon-matured component could have done with more time in barrel as well.
  • Tasmanian Independent Bottlers Vatted Malt #3
    The Stats
    • ABV: 49.4%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended malt whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of three malt whisky casks sourced from three different distilleries: TIB 0015, TIB 0016 and TIB AD080 (the latter is Adams Distillery), all ex-apera casks. Bottled March 2020. 233 bottles in total.
    • Location: Australia
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Fruitcake, allspice and plenty of apera. Definitely get that hint of peat smoke. Around that - mince pie, bananas, dark chocolate and roasted malts.
    Palate
    Really comes to life on the palate. Thick with apera and cloves. Blackcurrants, glazed cherries, cinnamon and a whiff of fireplace.
    Finish
    Sherry and sweet spice lingering.
    Comments
    This is on point (maybe Duckett's on more stable ground when fortified casks are involved 😄). The subtle peat rounds this off into a seriously tasty number.
  • The Tasmanian Collection Blended Whisky (Tas Whisky Week 2020)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 52.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Production Story: A blend of malt whisky components from fourteen Tasmanian distilleries: Sullivans Cove, Lark, Overeem, McHenry, Old Kempton, Corra Linn, Nant, Spring Bay, Adams, Hobart Whisky, Hellyers Road, Iron House, Killara and Launceston Distillery. This is the third bottling in the annual series released by the Tasmanian Whisky and Spirits Association.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    Pepper, prickle and spice. Hint of tawny and a floral pear note. Then anise, eucalyptus, cranberries and confectionery. It's fun, but a bit all over the place. Straightens out with time in glass.
    Palate
    This is where it's at. Chocolate bullets, peanut brittle, macadamia and then citrus, fruit, burnt wood and spice rack.
    Finish
    Malted milkshake, and that tart, oaky fruit character lingers.
    Comments
    When you first nose this, you wonder if the cacophony of flavours will come together. But eventually, they do meld, and when you get this spicy malt train on the palate, you could rattle off notes for days. I really enjoyed this. Best not to get too cerebral trying to pick out the components, though, can detract from what is a good drinking blended malt.
  • Country to Coast Collab Black Gate and Fleurieu Malt Whisky Blend
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Blended malt whisky
    • Production Story: A blend of two malt whisky casks: a peated apera cask from Black Gate Distillery, and a peated tawny cask from Fleurieu Distillery. Bottled May 2020. 300 bottles in total.
    • Location: Goolwa, SA / Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    Nutty up front, and then hints of chocolate, the Black Gate toffee, cocoa and ashy smoke. Then it turns meaty and savoury: Maggie noodles, beef cubes, celery and sea spray (that's Fleurieu alright).
    Palate
    Super rich and thick initially. Much peatier on the palate - the Black Gate dropping in. Heavy fortified presence, and while some nice fruit emerges, I just find it a bit dry and spiky.
    Finish
    Big, again the heat and prickle. Warming.
    Comments
    Such a fantastic collaboration this. I speak for a lot of people when I say - more please! The whisky itself probably wasn't quite together for me - can't imagine how difficult it would be to balance these two big base whiskies - but it still makes for solid drinking. Great fun picking out the DNA of each.
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.