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.