Whisky review: Heartwood – Release the Beast is Back

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On tasting: Heartwood Release the Beast, Heartwood The Beast is Back

I first tasted Heartwood Release the Beast on a Tasmanian staff trip with Brooke, Jules and Ev Liong in 2012, just as Tim Duckett was deciding whether or not to bottle it. Since then, ‘the Beast’ has enthralled, confused, haunted, won awards and become a watershed bottling for the Australian whisky industry. Heartwood’s recent The Beast is Back, a continuation on the theme, brought to mind some encounters I’ve had with the original bottling over the years. Reviews of both whiskies below.

Monday July 16, 2012. Morning. Hobart hotel.

Fetal position. Head on the cold window pane. That’ll be the mezcal shots. Goddamn sailors.

Ev effortlessly cooks us breakfast: pork sausages, purple potato hash, Berkshire bacon. I can’t do the kale, but more bacon please. Thank you Farm Gate. A hurry up from Brooke – always hurrying. There’s too much to see in Tassie.  

We ferry up the Derwent and it ferries away the haze. Then MONA, which breaks my brain a little, makes it new. What’s happening to this city?

I have a pilsner on the ferry back and the ship’s steadying. Nap in the hotel. Walk to Lark cellar door, inhaling the sea and the salt from the cove. The clouds clear and we finally see Mt Wellington.

Game on! It’s the TWAS blind tasting and trivia night. The four of us get split up across tables. Brooke and Ev in Lyn Lark’s group, Jules with some oddballs, and I get the distillers table. We’re a decade younger than anyone else here.

Pat Maguire’s to my right, Bill McHenry to my left, and Peter Bignell’s across from us.

The first blind whisky round – it’s Ardbeg 10, I tell Pat under my breath. A loud, older gent at the end of our table declares it’s Lagavulin Triple Wood. Ah, what? We go with… Lagavulin Triple Wood (it was Ardbeg 10).

Lyn’s table wins, comfortably. We chat to Bill Lark and meet the Duckett, says he’ll pick us up tomorrow. He’s got a whisky causing him grief and wants to know what we make of it. No mezcal tonight.

Tuesday July 17, 2012. Morning. Lark Cellar Door and Distillery. 

Exhausted. Coffee with Bill Lark, waiting for Duckett, then we drive to the distillery. Chris Thomson shows us the Lark shed, the malt smoker (hilarious), everything’s easy, simple. Humble.

The Lark new make’s brilliant, and the single casks – wow – that ancient Seppeltsfield tawny. 

‘Right, let’s have a look at this,’ says Duckett. 

The Beast rolls across the concrete. Duckett spins the cask, plays with it like it’s a game he’s just invented. Hammers the bung, vapour rushes out, see it in the sunlight. A dark syrup drips into our glasses.

‘Think it’s ready?’

Christ! Spine’s tingling, palate’s numb, but somehow there’s balance, structure. What is this alien liquid? Bottle it.

 

Release the Beast in the wild – Oz Whisky Review

 

June, 2016. Whisky & Alement.

David Hayman, the Scottish actor, sits at the bar. He’s on his way to Tassie, filming Scotch: The Story of Whisky.

‘Show me Australian whisky in four glasses,’ he orders.

I pour him Sullivans French oak, a Lark, Belgrove rye and Starward wine cask. He likes the Sullivans. ‘Now show me something totally out there.’

I pour him some Beast. We’ve just cracked a new bottle. I could’ve bought it, Brooke and Jules could’ve sold it, but they want people to try it, experience it.

The actor’s face contorts, horrified. ‘65.4%! Is that even legal? That’s not whisky.’

It’s offended him. He doesn’t finish it. I pour a rejected Beast into the hot sink the smell as it mixes with the soap and the beer.

Rare Whisky Auction, Tasmanian Whisky Week, August, 2019.

Mark Nicholson, auction emcee, orator of Tasmanian whisky, introduces the Beast. It starts at $1600. A hand rises, gets it rolling. ‘Anyone else?’

The most expensive thing I own is a Gibson ES-125, a 1958 . I bought it in London for a bit more than this one bottle of Beast. Think about the hands that made that guitar in Kalamazoo. All the hands that have played it. The smell of the rosewood fret (I find it in some Tassie whiskies). The hours, days I’ve spent with it. The hours to come. Worth every dollar.

It’s dumb. Why own a Beast? What would I even do with it? Raise your hand then, raise your credit.

September, 2020. Melbourne. Lockdown.

The Beast is Back. I get a text from Jules, he’s just tasted it: ‘I feel like the old Beast set the style for independently bottled Aussie whisky, became the aim for a lot of Aussie micro-distillers… What do you think of the new one?’

  • Tasmanian Heartwood Malt Whisky Release the Beast
    The Stats
    • ABV: 65.4%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Lark Distillery by Kristy Booth-Lark and initially matured for three years in two 100 litre tawny casks - LD124 and LD214 (the latter contained Lark's first run of 50% peated spirit). These two casks were then subsequently married into cask LD549, a 200 litre apera cask, and then matured for a further four years (sometimes outside in the sun) before being bottled in 2012. 259 bottles in total.
    • Location: Cambridge, TAS
    Nose
    Attacks you from the glass. But after several passes, it gradually lets you in. Stewed raspberries, raisins, marsala, hint of varnish, a prominent nuttiness - ground wattleseed - and then some earthy Australian bush notes, camphor and eucalypts dipped in Barossa tawny.
    Palate
    I once tried a 45 year old Australian apera fresh out of the barrel. It was 10:30am and 35 degrees outside. This has a bit of that. The oak and the unctuousness takes you somewhere dark and rich, but there's still juicy fruits here, too, and the wine mingles nicely with the malt, doesn't overpower it. Tasmanian leatherwood honey, toffee and boozy fruitcake. Some alcohol spikes as it hammers down the palate, but it's moving in a straight line. Be careful if you add water, can become flabby.
    Finish
    Some tannin and funky cask grunge on the backend, and the drive of the whole just tapers off a bit.
    Comments
    I've revisited Release the Beast a number of times over the years. It's actually become less of an assault on the senses as other Australian and international malt whiskies of a similar ilk have been released. But when this first came out, it was a complete original, and captured some uniquely Australian flavours and ideas that have since become synonyms with Australian malt whisky. Duckett's management of wood and tannin was also significant: a number of Australian whisky makers have struggled to control those influences in the same way. My notes here are a compilation of the various times I've been lucky to taste this, most recently in 2019, so I haven't attached a score. Don't much want too, either.
  • Tasmanian Heartwood Malt Whisky The Beast is Back
    The Stats
    • ABV: 59.6%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at an unknown Australian distillery and initially matured in a 100 litre apera cask before being re-racked into another 100 litre apera cask. Bottled July 2020. 140 bottles in total.
    • Location: ?
    • Score: 89
    Nose
    Some heat at first, almost pencil shavings. Sawn timber and lacquer. Really needs time, and when it opens up, toffee, demerara and butterscotch sauce arrives. Dates, raisins and thick apera here, towards an old oloroso. A burnt cereal note underneath, then all the dark berries.
    Palate
    Plenty of grip and juice upfront. Super luscious, big wine influence, almost turns funky and fuzzy, but just holds. Don't think this needs water, but I added some, and it turned winey and slightly astringent, so wouldn't recommend that.
    Finish
    Cloves, burnt caramel and a lick of tannin and timber.
    Comments
    I didn't find this quite as wild as the original Beast, but it's got the same DNA. I've always thought 'the Beast' is ultimately about refining unruly casks that aren't quite there, removing the off notes. And when you taste these whiskies, you get hints: too much tannin or bitterness, dull points, not enough length in parts. Then you get to taste where Duckett's ironed them out, tamed them. They're not flawless whiskies, and this was a bit too winey and astringent for me. But that's not the point. They're meant to be fun, challenging, a bit odd. Sort of, well, beastly. The reason they work is down to the patience, creativity and the quality of the casks Duckett throws at them. They're also really moreish, for all their intensity and weirdness, if, the style's to your liking.
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.