Whisky review: Black Gate single malt – the big whisky from a tiny town

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On tasting: seven Black Gate single malt whiskies

It’s no secret that Black Gate is one of Australia’s most beloved small-scale distilleries. Anyone who’s visited Brian and Genise Hollingworth in Mendooran, five hours north west of Sydney, knows that the generosity and humbleness of the place represents the best of the whisky business.

When I first visited in 2015, there was something else that struck me. Underneath Brian and Genise’s laconic, laid-back approach, lies an enormous amount of research and critical thinking about what they produce.

They also know what they’re about (living in Mendooran will teach you that). There’s no stuffing around or worrying about what some nagging hipster or influencer might think of their whisky. They make what they like to drink, and importantly, they know exactly what they like.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who, upon entering the whisky production game, don’t really know what kind of whisky they like to drink. And I mean really know – the sort of deep knowledge that takes years of tasting and analysis.

Sure, you can find your way as you go. But you need conviction to make great whisky, and that’s what makes Black Gate so rewarding to drink. You can taste Brian’s thoughts and ideas about whisky in what he produces. Delicate, fruity, floral Speysider – yeah nah, that’s not Brian. Black Gate is big, complex, oily and hugely textural. The new make always has a strong cereal and burnt caramel note, the latter likely caused by his small, direct-fired pot stills.

 

Black Gate direct-fired pot still – Oz Whisky Review

 

Maturing spirit in Mendooran’s predominately dry climate, also means everything happens bloody quickly. The spirit rips a massive amount of flavour from those 100 and 200 litre casks (mostly apera, a great choice) in only a few years. And with evaporative loss regularly above 10% per annum, little wonder Brian’s whiskies are so big and rich.

What they’re not, is overly woody and tannic. Sure, some Black Gate single casks have strayed too far that way, but it’s been rare. And in fact, there’s always a richness and sweetness to Black Gate whisky that tempers and balances the wood.

When Brian and Genise catch me crapping on about their whisky and rum like this, they normally smile, change the subject, mention another Aussie distiller doing great things. They’d never let on that they consistently produce some of the best drinking whisky and rum in the country. Genise’s rum, in particular, has to be one of Australia’s best dark spirits. For sheer flavour, complexity and value for money, it’s hard to beat.

Are they the most technically complete spirits you’re likely to taste? Possibly not. Occasionally, they have peccadilloes. Brian will, hilariously, tell you all about them if you ask. Because he knows them backwards. He thinks deeply about the whisky he makes, even though he’d probably laugh at me for saying silly shit like that.

Most of all, I feel lucky. We’re blessed to have down to earth people making whisky for us like this. You don’t have to take out a small mortgage to buy a few bottles, either, and when you do crack them, they’re so enjoyable to drink. No pretensions, no ‘brand’ bollocks. As a respected Irish bartender once said of Black Gate, ‘just great drinkin’ booze’.

 

Brian and Genise Hollingworth.  Photo – Whisky & Alement

 

  • Black Gate Single Malt Cask BG020
    The Stats
    • ABV: 50%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in June 2014. Spirit filled into an apera cask that previously matured Black Gate rum. Bottled April 2018. 200 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Creme caramel, coconut, maple syrup and licorice. Slightly herbal and dusty, with wafers, honey, pancakes and underripe strawberries.
    Palate
    Rich and warming. Pineapple, banoffe pie, slightest hint of youth, but still well-integrated.
    Finish
    Flor de Caña meets Edradour.
    Comments
    There's not many rum cask matured Australian malt whiskies around (Lark, Hobart Whisky, any others?), but this is the best of them. I hope we see more of this from Black Gate - awesome combination of flavours and really well-integrated. Definitely think more Aussie distillers could give this style a crack, too.
  • Black Gate Single Malt Cask BG007
    The Stats
    • ABV: 50%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in April 2013. Matured in a single 100 litre apera cask for three years and bottled April 2016. 215 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 82
    Nose
    Again, straight-up toffee and caramel. But then changes tune with a slightly astringent, spicy, almost fennel note. Then an undercurrent of earthy smoke before the toffee and fruitcake starts playing again.
    Palate
    Still some youth here, but big, oily and buttery, with a sort of banana split thing going on. Texture for days.
    Finish
    Oily and spicy, with a late hit of tannin and astringency.
    Comments
    Great fun to taste these early apera casks now. So flavourful, but this is just a little disjointed and youthful. It still works because the sweet toffee in the spirit plays brillianty with the spice and richness from the apera. And the branding is fecking hilarious - I'm glad Hollywood lawyers aren't drinking Australian single malt, yet.
  • Black Gate Single Malt Cask BG008
    The Stats
    • ABV: 50%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in June 2013. Matured in a 100 litre apera cask and bottled August 2016. 211 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    Much richer and sweeter than the 007. Brown sugar, stewed fruits, brandied cherries, sweet vermouth - again, the slightly herbal character.
    Palate
    More apera extraction here. Really dense and syrupy, much fruitier and spicier, with figs and waffles, slight aniseed and dark fruitcake.
    Finish
    Luscious and thick, plenty of spice and lots of apera.
    Comments
    In the same vein as the 007, but a much more rounded, balanced experience.
  • Black Gate Single Malt Cask BG011 Cask Strength
    The Stats
    • ABV: 65.8%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in September 2013. Matured in a 100 litre apera cask and bottled May 2016. 169 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 89
    Nose
    A little hot and woody upfront. With time, milk chocolate, fudge, dates and a whiff of smoky bacon.
    Palate
    Smokier and meatier here - salami and charred wood. Then a rich, nutty, oloroso note - ridiculously oily this - with jamon, dried apricots and big apera.
    Finish
    Lift off.
    Comments
    Now we're talking. This is the Black Gate we love. It's certainly sucked a whole lotta juice out of the cask, but again, it hasn't become too tannic and dry (where a lot of others fall down). The kind of whisky that puts a smile on your face (partly because your face is on fire).
  • Black Gate Single Malt 520s
    The Stats
    • ABV: 67%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in March 2016. Matured in six 20 litre apera casks which were then married together and bottled in May 2018. 169 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendorran
    • Score: 92
    Nose
    Massive and prickly. With time, burnt toffee, brown sugar, big oak - sort of an old Bourbon note - and then golden syrup and port.
    Palate
    Fat, oily, a little hot, and juicy fruits. Roll it around, and underneath all the oak there's great structure from the smoked malt. Around that, it's just syrupy and creamy.
    Finish
    Huge. Milk chocolate and raspberry jus.
    Comments
    One of the my favourite Australian malt whiskies of the last decade. It's bonkers. It shouldn't work, but it does. On a purely technical level, the heat and that hint of youth would mark it down, but that's heavily outweighed by just how moreish and enjoyable it is. Like many, I've been critical of 20 litre casks. But if you watch them carefully and think creatively about how to use them, evening out the intensity of flavour, then they have their applications. But this was always a cut above - alchemy at its finest.
  • Black Gate Single Malt 620s Cask Strength
    The Stats
    • ABV: 71.1%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery in March 2016. Matured in six 20 litre apera casks which were then married together and bottled in May 2018. 184 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendorran, NSW
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    On fire! Needs a lot of time to settle. Once that happens, big vanilla and charred sherry casks. Sticky date pudding, marmalade and stone fruits.
    Palate
    Rich and super creamy and oily. Sweet, firecracker smoke - the peat is much more prominent on the palate. With water, it gets more buttery and round, and you get some feeling back in your face.
    Finish
    When will it end?
    Comments
    Total insanity. Lots of fun, but this doesn't quite achieve the same level of integration and balance as the 520s. Still brilliantly flavourful, though. It's no exaggeration to say you could sit on a glass of this for hours.
  • Black Gate Single Malt Peated BG055
    The Stats
    • ABV: 63.6%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Black Gate Distillery July 2016 from a mash of heavily peated Scottish malt from Bairds. Matured in a 100 litre apera cask and bottled August 2018 - the first of Black Gate's heavily peated whiskies. 177 bottles in total.
    • Location: Mendooran, NSW
    • Score: 90
    Nose
    So grungy and rich. Smoked beef, BBQ ribs, charcoal and that dirty earthy note. Apera marries up brilliantly with the malt - toffee, orange rind, burnt butter, smoked paprika and a hint of licorice.
    Palate
    Still some youth here, so the tar and burnt grass from the spirit is really on show. Cask counters that with vanilla, raspberry jam and mince pie. But overall, rich, earthy and mouth-coating.
    Finish
    This is where the Baird's malt really drives it home. Smoking.
    Comments
    This was our first look at Black Gate's new direction, using heavily peated Scottish malt to create bigger, bolder peat flavours. It's a shame we don't have a malster in Australia that can inject this depth of peat into our malt (anyone out there trying?). It's pretty clear that post-malt smoking can't achieve this level of grunge, and that's primarily why Brian made the switch. Either way, his peated malts are now right up there. Exceptional marriage of peat and richness.
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.