Whisky review: Rochfort single malt whisky – it’s complicated

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On tasting: Five Rochfort Distillery single malt whiskies.

I first met John Rochfort at McLaren Vale Distillery in 2015. If you have an interest in whisky, your first meeting with Rochfort will normally be a memorable one. His thoughts on whisky production, particularly maturation, wood policy and tasting, are vast – his research and intelligence on the subject, exhaustive. You struggle to get a word in as your brain expands and overloads with assertions and findings (ramblings at points) on everything from wine, wood, chemistry and food.

Rochfort initially trained as a chef. He then managed Nant Distillery, became CEO of Lark Distillery, then returned to South Australia to open McLaren Vale Distillery in 2014 with his father Chris, brother Lachlan, and Jock Harvey, owner of Chalk Hill Wines. John then left McLaren Vale Distillery in contested circumstances and established Rochfort Distillery in late 2018.

The whiskies are equally dense, complex, and, at times, perplexing. At their best, the whiskies that Rochfort creates are exceptional, displaying a profound interaction between spirit and cask – casks that tell remarkable stories about South Australian wine heritage. At their worst, they’re inconsistent, unbalanced, hot, dominated by oak, and bottled too young.

When trying these whiskies, and other Aussie malts that rely heavily on wine casks, I often find myself wondering: do casks that’ve produced great wines automatically produce great whiskies? What about the spirit? What about those few million Scottish malts that have done alright in average sherry and ex-Bourbon casks?

And then the elephant in the room, the price of the whiskies (justified by the provenance of the casks), which, frankly, can seem a bit ridiculous. I reviewed these whiskies at a Whisky & Alement tasting. Not my preferred way of going about it, but Rochfort whiskies are so expensive (average price between $430 and $500, some going for $1200-1800!) and available in such limited quantities, that I didn’t see myself getting another chance to try what some consider to be up there with Australia’s best single malts.

The hype’s there for a reason, and, apparently, the whiskies are quickly snapped up, particularly in Asia. But it would also be nice to know where and how Rochfort single malts are made. How else can consumers build up a complete picture of the whiskies, particularly for the price being asked? In saying that, we also understand the matter is under legal dispute, and until settled, confidentiality agreements are in place, preventing parties from disclosing or discussing such information.

As you can see, there’s nothing simple here. The whiskies are complex, the story’s complex. I wish them well, but now I think I need a drink.

  • Rochfort Distillery 26th Release Maxwell Port Cask
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Matured in a French oak cask that previously held tawny from Maxwell Wines in McLaren Vale.
    • Location: Hindmarsh Valley, SA
    • Score: 76
    Nose
    Allspice, nutmeg, brioche, confectionery and very prickly – pronounced new make character. With water, black pepper, raspberries, white sugar and a chocolate menthol note. Not quite together.
    Palate
    Raw upfront. A savoury, meaty, hot sauce character fights against a big malt drive that hasn't quite come together with the cask. There's richness – caramel and tawny – but a lot of tannin, grip and a lingering cereal character.
    Finish
    New make, thick tawny and szechuan hot pot.
    Comments
    A bit muddled, youthful and hot. The addition of water brought out more fruit, but still quite dry and tannic.
  • Rochfort Distillery 25th Release Coriole White Port Cask
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Matured in a cask that previously held a desert wine from Coriole in McLaren Vale. Use of the term 'White Port' to describe a wine from McLaren Vale is confusing.
    • Location: Hindmarsh Valley, SA
    • Score: 91
    Nose
    Fresh, luscious and bright. Starts like muscadelle, and then pudding, raisins, white flowers, strawberries, Lillet Blanc and Werthers. The floral, perfumed notes on this are rare for an Australian whisky.
    Palate
    Sauternes! Rich and oily, then marmalade, orange peel, juicy fruit and peaches and cream with a drizzle of molasses on top. Bloody delicious.
    Finish
    Elegant. Great length, warming, with the slightest prickle of youth.
    Comments
    Pretty stunning stuff. Brilliant integration with the spirit, but I still think this could even improve with more time in barrel. Either way, this is right up there. Impressive.
  • Rochfort Distillery Hardy's Muscat Cask
    The Stats
    • ABV: 47%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Matured in barrels that first came to Australia in the mid-19th century carrying French brandy. In 1915 they were filled with the first vintage of Hardy’s Muscat, and when finished doing their job there, decanted. Some of those same casks were then procured by John Rochfort and filled with spirit. Matured for an unspecified duration.
    • Location: Hindmarsh Valley, SA
    • Score: 80
    Nose
    Stewed fruit, tawny left in a glass, spearmint, and a prominent cereal note. A hint of play-do on the second approach, then dark fruit cake, espresso, choc orange biscuits and black forest cake. Cigar box and fresh leather.
    Palate
    Heat and prickle on the front palate, and then thick, syrupy richness from the cask. Caramel, carob whirls, and butter when it's just starting to burn on a hot pan. Earthy spice, cinnamon and cloves, but spirit and cask seem slightly at loggerheads.
    Finish
    Pulls up a little short on the back palate, and while there's plenty of rich oakiness here, it's quite tart as well: boiling raspberries on the stove.
    Comments
    There are some incredible flavours here, but the spirit seems to be walking in one direction, the cask in another.
  • Rochfort Distillery 18th Release Yangarra Vintage Port
    The Stats
    • ABV: 55.6%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Matured in a French oak cask that previously held tawny for over thirty years before being used to finish a Yangarra shiraz vintage. The cask was then used to matured this single malt whisky for an unknown duration.
    • Location: Hindmarsh Valley, SA
    • Score: 83
    Nose
    Caramel slice, old wood, and a real spicy dry rub bouquet. With water, again, the spice bomb: tamarind, cloves and tobacco. With time, some berries and fudge emerges, but very tannic and woody.
    Palate
    A fun nougat and burnt toffee note initially, and then fruit – mandarin and cherries. Then the oak train arrives and offloads leather, spice rack and a freshly opened travel trunk.
    Finish
    Really chewy, warming and long, but a little hot, even with water.
    Comments
    This opens up into something quite tasty and sophisticated. Lovely interplay between spice and fruit, but still a little dry and youthful.
  • Rochfort Distillery 21st Release Yangarra Shiraz Cask
    The Stats
    • ABV: 64.5%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Matured in a cask that previously held Yangarra Estate red wines for over 15 years.
    • Location: Hindmarsh Valley, SA
    • Score: 84
    Nose
    Ooff... it's big. Barley sugar, porridge and very juicy – blackcurrants, figs and forest floor. Herbal, grassy and a tomato puree thing pokes its head through the heat. With water, more berries and red grape skins.
    Palate
    Winey, tangy and pretty funky. Dry and puckering on the mid-palate, but balanced by some booming fruit flavours, butterscotch and citrus.
    Finish
    Long, textural, drying, and a lot of grip.
    Comments
    This is fun. It's a big, spicy ball of wine and malt and it somehow holds together.
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.