Whisky review: rise of the independents – Highwayman, Dark Valley and Craft Works

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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.

  • Highwayman Single Malt Whisky Batch 6 (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 55.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Spirit sourced from an undisclosed Australian distillery and matured by Dan Woolley in 2 x 20 litre French oak ex-apera casks for over three years in the Byron Bay region. 66 bottles in total.
    • Score: 88
    Nose
    Maple syrup, red lollies and brown sugar. Slightest hint of spirit heat, then caramel, marmalade and figs. Lovely estery, old brandy note, too.
    Palate
    Dessert in a glass. Dark chocolate, orange rind, cinnamon and Chinese five spice. Gets drier as it moves along, but the tannins are well-balanced by the richness from the wine and the wood.
    Finish
    Luscious and oaky - poached pears in chocolate sauce.
    Comments
    Pancake topping! Brilliantly thick and rich. Interesting oxidative effect at work here, too: tropical, estery notes that you'd have to put down to the maturation environment. Amazing to achieve that so quickly and from 20 litre casks. The distillate doesn't get a word in, but hey, it's delicious.
  • Highwayman Single Malt Whisky Batch 7 (500ml)
    The Stats
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Spirit sourced from an undisclosed Australian distillery and matured by Dan Woolley in 3 x 50-litre American oak ex-tawny casks for over three years in the Byron Bay region. 220 bottles in total.
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    Immediately more jammy and juicy. Peaches, new leather, funky fruit, bananas and a molasses rum note.
    Palate
    Rich and unctuous. Just a hint of wood smoke (tawny casks being charred at Seppeltsfield). Again the rum vibe, more agricole here, and it gets slightly herbal, as the sugary jammy fruits turn tart. A bit hot as it progresses, and water didn't help there.
    Finish
    Nice follow through, but tapers off at the back.
    Comments
    Takes you in a couple of different directions this. The tawny influence leans to bitterness in parts, and that slightly smoky, tropical, rum agricole note is super intriguing. Tried adding some water, but it fell apart and became bitter and flabby. Drink as is, although I reckon this would make a next level old-fashioned! Who's game?
  • Highwayman Single Malt Whisky Batch 8 (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 55.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Spirit sourced from an undisclosed Australian distillery and matured by Dan Woolley in 2 x 50-litre re-coopered ex-Maker's Mark Bourbon casks for over three years in the Byron Bay region. 150 bottles in total.
    • Score: 83
    Nose
    A little closed, but dusty American oak and vanilla custard tart comes out eventually. The malt pokes through with more time, followed by green apples, coconut and Japanese temples. But even with water, it doesn't want to come out and play.
    Palate
    A prickle of heat, but more expressive here. Buttery oak, spearmint, cherries, cloves and short crust pastry. Water brings out lemon and orange blossoms.
    Finish
    Solid, slow build, lingering vanilla.
    Comments
    Nicely balanced, and the cask influence has been really well managed. But just a bit flat, and the distillate doesn't have much to say. Liked this better with a drop of water, brought out more of the fruity florals.
  • Craft Works Distillery ‘Tokay Okay’ Single Malt Whisky (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 54%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at an undisclosed NSW distillery in May 2017 and matured by Craft Works in a French oak tokay cask for 2 years and 11 months. Bottled April 2020. 230 bottles in total.
    • Location: Capertee, NSW
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Honey on toast and Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes. Spice from the French oak brings out an earthy, wet oak note, and the wine gives you semillon, tropical punch and grape must.
    Palate
    Raisins, grip and some heat. That sweet grape must continues, then it gets slightly nutty and spicy. A drop of water evens out the heat and tannin.
    Finish
    Long and big, with a sweet tail.
    Comments
    Pretty fascinating stuff. Never becomes too sweet, and holds an interesting tension between the musty wine influence and those booming French oak tannins. Again, water really opened this up, softened the tannin and evened out the flavours.
  • Craft Works Distillery – Blak Soul Beast Single Malt Whisky (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 61%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at an undisclosed Sydney distillery in October 2016 and matured by Craft Works in a re-coopered 100 litre American oak ex-tawny cask for two years. Bottled October 2018.
    • Location: Capertee, NSW
    • Score: 77
    Nose
    Christ, looks like the red goo from a lava lamp! Ribenna, roasted coffee beans, apricots, raspberry lollies, Old Gold chocolate... I could go on and on. Surprisingly not as tannic as you expect, more charred wood and funky fruit.
    Palate
    Woah, quickly turns thick and very winey - a lot of wine extracted from the cask. Burnt custard, carrot cake and a sort of meaty, charcoal note. Huge amount of flavour, and while it's not necessarily overdone, there's just not a lot of structure from the malt and the spirit underneath.
    Finish
    Grape juice on steroids, sort of chalky, with a spirity kick at the back end.
    Comments
    I can see why people love this, but it throws up all sorts of questions. Some would judge the level of oakiness and wine extracted from the cask as a fault. And on a purely technical level, it's too winey and raw for me (hence the score), but that belies its playful wackiness. There's a huge array of flavours here - it'd actually make a great component in a blend. Again, I think it drinks better with a drop of water, but I don't know if I'd recommend adding any. A real campfire whisky, just sit down and enjoy the ride - the Australian tawny whisky style taken to its logical end.
  • Dark Valley Baker's Dozen Single Malt Whisky (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 64.2%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Killara Distillery on the 17th of February 2017, and matured by Dark Valley in a 20 litre ex-Bourbon cask for two years. 29 bottles in total.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 89
    Nose
    Honey, peaches and a slightly earthy, wood shavings note. Then it gets creamy and fruity: malt extract and Anzac biscuits, orange oil and vanilla bean.
    Palate
    Big, oily and buttery. Wonderful malt drive. Plenty of sweetness from the cask, which has added all the right stuff. It's huge, but add water, and the heat mostly subsides into fruit salad over vanilla ice cream.
    Finish
    Fire and finesse.
    Comments
    Creamy, fruity, floral - delicious. Definitely recommend adding water here, and without that hint of lingering heat and youth, this would be bang on.
  • Dark Valley Solicitor's Robe Single Malt Whisky (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 65.8%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Adams Distillery on the 28th of June 2016 and matured by Dark Valley in a 20 litre ex-Bourbon cask for just over two years. 26 bottles in total.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 80
    Nose
    Woody and vanillin. Cloves, coconuts, earthy tannin and musty oak. With water, guava and pear, confectionery and charred oak.
    Palate
    Flavours from the nose carry on, but it's quite dry, pencil shavings and big dusty tannins. Water rescues it somewhat, revealing more fruit and subtlety
    Finish
    Long and persistent, tropical fruits and lots of oak.
    Comments
    You can feel the spirit and the earthy, cereal drive underneath, but the cask has started to grab a hold of this.
  • Dark Valley Barrister's Wig Single Malt Whisky (500ml)
    The Stats
    • ABV: 64.1%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Adams Distillery on the 28th of December 2016 and matured by Dark Valley in a 20 litre ex-tawny cask for just over two years. 36 bottles in total.
    • Location: Tasmania
    • Score: 81
    Nose
    Some prickle and youth here, but time and water reveals red berries, plums, toffee and nutmeg. Slightly herbal, dank tawny note, but quite floral, too - rose petals and frangipani.
    Palate
    More settled on the palate. Again the berries and raspberry jam, and the Adams malt profile develops a sort of rocky road, char siu with the tawny. Quite a lot of grip and oak here, but water helps calm that down.
    Finish
    More tart oak and jammy fruits.
    Comments
    Really great flavours, especially how the fruity, rosy florals come together with the Adams malt profile. A bit too much wood and grip for me, though.
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.