Whisky review: Backwoods first releases, The Gospel single cask and Smith’s latest 8 year old

featured image
On tasting: Smith’s Angaston 8 year old (2011 vintage), Backwoods Distilling Co. first whisky releases – Single Malt (SM01) and Rye (RW01) – and The Gospel Single Cask #35 Rye Whiskey

Are we ready to call it – will 2020 go down as the year Australian rye whisky arrived? Sure, 2020 will chiefly be remembered for all the obvious awful stuff. But on the whisky front, Aussie rye makers have swaggered in and dropped confident, sharply priced whiskies that ask interesting questions of the Australian scene.

These new rye whiskies are big on flavour, big on complexity, and bring their own unique spin to the style. Last week, Bree and Leigh Attwood spoke to us about the inspiration behind Backwoods Distilling Co. It was notable that Peter Bignell, Tasmania’s master of rye, was marked out as one of their key influences – we’re now seeing new Australian producers emerge who are principally inspired by local rather than overseas whisky distillers.

The other rye on pour here is a single cask stunner from The Gospel Distillers. Again, that unique rye signature, this time with grain from the Murray Malley in South Australia, is proud and prominent, but The Gospel’s self-built still and their approach to maturation has created something that’s utterly their own.

Throw in Archie Rose’s world-beating rye malt whisky, the Tiger Snake ryes from Western Australia, and Peter Bignell’s aforementioned wizardry, and you see a movement where place and process have created properly distinctive whiskies.

Now, just in case the malt fiends were feeling left out, we’ve also included Backwood’s first single malt and Smith’s latest eight year old here. Of course, it’s not one style versus the other in Australia – all of our rye whisky makers, bar The Gospel, produce malt whiskies, too. What a time we’re living in.

  • Smith's Angaston 8 Year Old (Vintage 2011)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 43%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in 2011 in Yalumba's old brandy pot still from a Coopers Brewery wash (the first release from that year's distillations). Initially matured in '12 to 15 year old oak casks' (no idea what that means) and then finished in octaves that previously contained 50-60 year old Australian fortifieds. 837 bottles in total.
    • Location: Angaston, SA
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    Delightful - burnt caramel, golden syrup and figs. Coffee scrolls and malt biscuits (is that the Coopers malt poking through?) and then dates and dried apricots.
    Palate
    Fruits on the nose translate nicely to the palate, but it's much drier and oakier here: dark cocoa, roasted malts, biscotti and dense earthy spice. The fortified casks have lathered on some rich wine flavours but it's mostly quite dry.
    Finish
    Tart, oaky, lifted fruits and 80% dark chocolate.
    Comments
    Another solid number from the mysterious Smith's whisky collection. Being much younger than recent releases, I was hoping to get a closer look at the spirit here, but those fortified casks have quickly latched on to this. Looking forward to a side-by-side with the older 8 year old vintages.
  • Backwoods Distilling Co. Single Malt Whisky (French Oak Tawny SMO1)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Starts with a mash of three malt varieties: 50% Atlas pale malt, 40% Veloria schooner malt, and 10% Voodoo schooner malt. Distilled through Backwoods' pot still, built by Burns Welding and Fabrication, and matured in four French oak tawny casks that were married together for this first release. 250 bottles available to the public (Backwoods Founder's members got first dibs on the rest).
    • Location: Yackandandah, VIC
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    A savoury, biscuity note up front, rolled oats and a green herbal edge. Big spice as the malt profile interacts with the tawny: garam masala, cherries, treacle and tawny, and the slightest hint of youth and prickle.
    Palate
    The malt profile is much more obvious on the palate, tiramisu and butter cake. The tawny adds cloves and Punt e Mes and a rich, earthy tannin.
    Finish
    Malty boulevardier.
    Comments
    There's a lot going on here between the influence of the specialty malts and the sweeter, herbal elements from the French oak tawny casks. Like to see less of those casks and more of that intriguing malt profile, but this really opens up with time in glass, too. Complex juice.
  • Backwoods Distilling Co. Rye Whisky (French Oak Shiraz Casks RW01)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Rye whisky
    • Production Story: Fascinating mash bill: 60% heritage rye, 25% pale malt, 10% wheat and 5% chocolate malt, all supplied by Voyager Craft Malt. Distilled through Backwoods' pot still and matured in two French oak ex-shiraz casks from the Barossa. 150 bottles to the public (Founders members got the rest).
    • Location: Yackandandah, VIC
    • Score: 87
    Nose
    Dill pickle, rye bread, white pepper and caraway. Clear hint of that chocolate malt, and the cask brings on vanilla and creme de cassis.
    Palate
    Drives down the palate like an anvil loaded with pepper and tonka beans - American oak's a great call here. The shiraz influence is nicely restrained, just a background safety net holding this spicy high-wire act together.
    Finish
    The dill returns, partners with the spice and wine, and keeps driving.
    Comments
    Goddamn, this is an experience. Great flavours from the heritage rye, and the mash bill gets your brain working as it riffs around the shiraz casks, maturation in which has been carefully managed. They'll hate me for saying this, but I wonder how new American oak would take to this - just to calm the farm a bit, bring some sweetness to all that dark, herbal spice. But this is a lot of fun, and rewards quiet contemplation.
  • The Gospel Single Cask #35 Rye Whiskey
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Rye whisky
    • Production Story: Made from a mash of 100% rye sourced from a single farm in the Murray Mallee and distilled through The Gospel's self-built pot-column. #35 was a single new American oak cask yielding 328 bottles in total.
    • Location: Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 92
    Nose
    Rich, sweet oak marries up with that spicy Mallee rye: black tea, pepper, cloves and cinnamon. Then it shifts to varnish, Cherry Heering, raspberry and a breath of menthol.
    Palate
    Zesty, spicy and plenty rich. Shortbread, Starburst Party Mix, mint and lime, and then that sticky brisket note that's becoming a trademark.
    Finish
    Yum.
    Comments
    What a cask - a delicious little gift from the whisky gods. Crazy how fruity this is next to the standard Gospel straight rye. The cask has just melted away the edges and revealed a gem.
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.