On tasting: Highwayman Batch #6, #7, #8, Craft Works Tokay Okay and Blak Soul Beast, and three Dark Valley single cask whiskies
The number of Australian independent bottlers has grown rapidly in recent years. Tim Duckett’s Heartwood was once the sole occupant in the field, but the latest count suggests there’s close to 20 independent bottlers of whisky in Australia now.
A qualification to those numbers. Quite a few established and emerging businesses and distilleries have been bottling sourced whisky, mostly single cask, to either generate cash flow or promote their brand while whisky matures. These aren’t independent bottlers in the classic UK, European and Asian mold, where established merchants, organisations and bars have been selecting and bottling whisky for their customers for decades, some for a couple hundred years.
Heartwood and Tasmanian Independent Bottlers are our truest exemplars of that model, and Dark Valley have followed the tradition. Things get a little more complicated when we look at Craft Works and Highwayman, though. Both source and mature whisky to be bottled under their own brand, but Craig Field (Craft Works) and Dan Woolley (Highwayman) also have their own distilling ventures, too, and will eventually release whisky they’ve wholly made themselves. (Another example of why transparency in labelling is a hot issue, although I think most Australian independents have done a solid job on that front.)
Of course, Gordon & MacPhail, Wm Cadenhead’s, Signatory and Berry Bros. & Rudd, some of the UK’s top firms, now own, or have owned, whisky distilleries as well. But that’s not likely to become a reality for other European and Asian bottlers, who’ll continue to select and bottle high quality whisky from afar. Even in the United States, ‘barrel picks’ are starting to gain momentum.
It’s a fascinating business, but geez it confuses the whisky newbie (spent weeks of my life explaining the practice to punters: ‘Oh, sort of like cleanskin wine?’).
Seasoned enthusiasts, on the other hand, love the exclusivity and uniqueness of whiskies released by independents. That’s certainly been the case in Australia. Heartwood set the blue print – limited, cask strength, idiosyncratic and expensive (well, I guess everything’s pretty expensive coming out of Tassie). Others have followed and quickly garnered devoted followings.
Personally, I think the success of Australian independent bottling has, so far, been mixed. Rarely is individual distillery character on show, something The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who have a huge presence in Australia, do so well, offering a different perspective on a distillery’s profile.
You could argue that’s just been the case for Australian whisky generally, and independent bottling is simply an extension of that. Fair play. But if we’re frequently getting heavily-oaked, wood-driven whiskies that could, in reality, come from anywhere, then I sometimes struggle to see the point of the exercise, particularly if you’re being charged a premium for whiskies that are very similar to what Australian distilleries are already bottling. If you bring your own shtick to it, great. But you’ve got to have a reason for being, which is what the top overseas bottlers get right.
The three reviewed here have done a great job navigating the complexities of the trade. How other, controversial entrants fair, time will tell.