Review: Australian malt whisky tour – east to west, north to south

featured image
On tasting: Watkins Whisky Co Single Malt Whisky, Corra Linn Single Malt Whisky (barrel 61), Killara Single Malt Whisky (KD05), Newcastle Distilling Co Victor Hingston Single Malt Whisky, Bellwether Single Malt Whisky 10th Anniversary Release

We often forget how vast this country is. For instance, to visit most of the whisky distilleries scattered across the continent, you’d have to chalk up a ridiculous amount of km’s (trust me, I’ve tried).

That distance has worked wonders for isolating the pandemic. But it’s long been working wonders to create different styles of Australian malt whisky, too.

Head up to Mt Uncle Distillery in far north Queensland, where Watkins Whisky hails from, and the place has created some brilliantly tropical whiskies and rums that are developing serious complexity.

We’re familiar with Tasmania’s malt whisky scene. But even on that ‘small’ island (about the size of Scotland), there are new concepts emerging, and the likes of Kristy Booth-Lark and Killara (reviewed below) will play an influential role in the evolution of the industry. The north of the state is now home to a number of up-and-coming distillers as well, and Corra Linn’s malt whiskies are at the forefront (see one of their first releases below).

And for movement, look no further than Newcastle Distilling Co. The Victor Hingston malt reviewed here started its life in Cooma, spent some time maturing in the ACT, and then finally ended up in its present home in Newcastle before being launched into the world.

Bellwether single malt has also been on the move. While the 10th anniversary bottling we’ve tasted hails from Myalup, just over an hour south of Perth, Steve Ryan, the owner and distiller, has recently shifted to a new shared site in Fremantle (Union Brewery & Distillery) to bring his beers and single malts closer to the action.

I can’t tell you how cathartic it was reviewing these whiskies over the last few days, stuck in cold, locked-down Melbourne. Who knows what the next few weeks will hold. But the flavours, the ideas, the people, the places… while we’re cut off down here, there are still ways to travel.

 

  • Watkins Whisky Co Single Malt Whisky
    The Stats
    • ABV: 43%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in 2011 at Mt Uncle Distillery (Arnold Holstein pot still) from Queensland barley and matured for seven years in purpose-built hybrid casks: the staves are from French oak ex-red wine casks and the heads are taken from ex-Bourbon casks. Bottled 2018.
    • Location: Walkamin, OLD
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Toffee and caramel, dusty and leathery, with spicy oak, bananas and wild honey. Ripe fruit, earthy spice, lavender and toasted marshmallow.
    Palate
    Dense and rich. Plenty of spicy perfume from those French oak staves. Toffee and banana again, and the wine cask makes its presence felt but never becomes cloying.
    Finish
    Not the longest here, but lingering fruit and oak.
    Comments
    A patient, well-constructed whisky (not a lot of seven year old Australian whisky on the market). Great balance between cask and spirit, and the wine influence has been intelligently managed.
  • Corra Linn Single Malt Whisky (barrel 61)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 53%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Corra Linn Distillery from a mash of Tasmanian barley (both Macquarie and Westminster are used) in a Chinese-built hybrid still: a 2000 litre pot with two fractionating columns. The spirit is distilled with a single run through this set-up, effectively, a one pass triple distillation. Barrel 61 was a 100 litre ex-tawny cask coopered by Tas Cask Co.
    • Location: TAS
    • Score: 76
    Nose
    A strange, slightly metallic opening. A hint of new make, then ginger, cardamon and curry leaf. With time, fruitcake, banana lollies, and hints of rum and raisin from the cask.
    Palate
    Confectionery sweetness upfront and a little hot. Vanilla extract, peppermint, raspberry, teeth lollies and black tea. Palate weight is light and a little thin.
    Finish
    Vanilla and peppermint lingering.
    Comments
    Credit goes to Corra Linn for producing what is a unique whisky in the Tasmanian setting. And while there's some pleasant flavours here, I find this a bit unbalanced. For me, there's not enough structure, malt and weight in the spirit to counter some of the overtly gingery, herbal notes.
  • Killara Single Malt Whisky Sherry Cask KD05
    The Stats
    • ABV: 50%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled by Kristy Booth-Lark in the old 80 litre still and matured over two years in a 20 litre ex-apera cask. Bottled 2019.
    • Location: TAS
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Spicy and sweet. Duck fat, raspberries, burnt caramel and an earthy, Chinese five spice note.
    Palate
    Thick and warming. Orange rind and gooey caramel. Quite dense, with lavender, Russian caravan tea and Christmas cake.
    Finish
    Old school Tassie vibes.
    Comments
    This has the feel of those early Lark single casks. Great flavours, lovely malty earthiness, and the small cask influence has been perfectly managed.
  • Newcastle Distilling Co Victor Hingston Single Malt Whisky (The Nomad Barrel #1)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 62%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled 21/12/2016 at Newcastle Distilling Co's former site in Cooma from a blend of Voyager malt and peat smoked malt. Matured in a 100 litre tawny barrel and bottled 12/07/2019.
    • Location: Newcastle, NSW
    • Score: 75
    Nose
    Some heat and prickle. Dark rye bread and wood shavings, hickory smoke, creme de mure, figs and tart berries.
    Palate
    Again, very cask dominant, and quite hot (not just the abv). Maple syrup, hints of apricots and mulberries, peat smoke, espresso and a herbal, bitter note.
    Finish
    Dry and woody.
    Comments
    I've tasted some great spirits from Newcastle Distilling Co. But for me, the cask has taken over here and added a lot of tannin and bitterness making it difficult to get at the spirit underneath. Improves a little with water, revealing some nice fruit and spice characters.
  • Bellwether Single Malt Whisky 10th Anniversary Release (350ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46.8%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Geographe Distillery (now Union Brewery & Distillery in Fremantle) in 2014 from Scottish medium peated barley (Bairds). Initially matured in a 64 litre French oak tawny cask, and then finished in an ex-Bourbon cask. Bottled November 2018. 219 bottles in total.
    • Location: Myalup, WA
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    Raisins, fruitcake and mince pie. Nice hit of earthy, grassy smoke. Dates, slight anise and juicy pudding.
    Palate
    Smoke over the tawny sweetness. Currants, stone fruits, ash, and the Bourbon cask leaves traces of coconut and dill.
    Finish
    Sweet peat.
    Comments
    These Bellwether bottlings are bloody hard to get your hands on, but they're worth the effort. They sit somewhere between Limeburners peated malts, with their smoky, salty edge, and many of the classic cask forward Tassie malts. The decision to further mellow this in ex-Bourbon was on point, too. Can't wait to check out the new digs in Fremantle.
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.