Whisky review: from wine to whisky – South Australia’s finest malts

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On tasting: 23rd Street Distillery Single Malt Whisky, Smith’s Angaston 15 Year Old, Iniquity Batch 14 and Gold Batch No. 1, and Fleurieu ‘Whisky Kisses’ and ‘Atlantic Crossing’

South Australia is no stranger to the whisky game. But as one of the heartlands of Australian wine, the whisky side of the equation has, understandably, remained in the shadows. But there’s serious heritage here. Thebarton Distillery in Adelaide was distilling grain in pots and columns as far back as the 1890s. Later, it produced huge amounts of malt whisky under the stewardship of Milne and Co. and then W&A Gilbeys.

One of the world’s greatest wine regions has never been short of stills. It’s little wonder, then, that winemakers are responsible for South Australia’s cult whisky, Smith’s Angaston. Smith & Son’s Yalumba winery has been firing up its pot still since the 1930s. In between making brandy, they even released Smith’s whisky or ‘Imperial Vat’ from the 50s through to the early 1970s.

But in 1997, the Smith’s Angaston whisky story began, when Yalumba ran charges of wash from Coopers Brewery through the old pot. The spirit was then filled into red wine, white wine, apera and tawny casks. Consider how significant wine cask matured Australian whisky might become in future, and it’s baffling Yalumba hasn’t pushed the experiment further. Sporadic malt distillations have been carried out by Smith & Sons over the past two decades, but through the intervals, a thriving South Australian whisky scene has emerged.

Ian Schmidt and Victor Orlow were the first brave newcomers, with Southern Coast Distillers and now Iniquity single malt whisky. Gareth and Angela Andrews then turned Steam Exchange Brewery into Fleurieu Distillery, and the single malts they’ve created in Goolwa are some of the best you’ll try anywhere. After them, McLaren Vale/Rochfort Distillery joined the gang with their complex whiskies and even more complicated antics (I do hope we see more whisky on that front in future).

The inimitable Sacha La Forgia’s been dabbling in whisky up in the hills, basically throwing out the rule book to create his own Australian ‘whisky’ using native seeds and cereals. Then there’s Renmark north of Adelaide, where the 23rd Street Distillery have offered up their own South Aussie whisky, a fresh and vibrant single malt matured in, shock horror, ex-Bourbon casks. And up the road, St Agnes, Australian’s finest brandy producer, are quietly letting their malt whisky slumber until it’s absolutely perfect (and that’s a team that knows a thing or two about perfection).

If you were placing bets, it’d be hard not to back in South Australia as a future leader in Australian whisky production. It’s got all the ingredients (all those wine casks…), all the skills, and plenty of people who know how to create, market and sell great booze. And best of all, they seem fairly incapable of making bad whisky, as you’ll find out below.

 

  • 23rd Street Distillery Single Malt Whisky
    The Stats
    • ABV: 43%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in 23rd Street Distillery's big old pot stills in Renmark from barley sourced from around Toowoomba, QLD. Matured in ex-Bourbon barrels.
    • Location: Renmark, SA
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Fruity and floral straight-up. Honey, melons, lemon and barley sugars with fairy floss, oak and a slightly herbal spice.
    Palate
    The fruit carries nicely onto the palate. Quite silky and clean, tropical fruits against that herbal (allspice?) note. Brilliant balance between spirit and cask.
    Finish
    Slightly dry with a lick of American oak at the tail.
    Comments
    An impressive start, and completely different to every other South Australian whisky or brandy. It's not often you see a first release Australian malt display this level of balance. And hats off to the experienced team at 23rd Street for letting the spirit shine in ex-Bourbon casks. A refreshing and super quaffable malt.
  • Smith's Angaston 15 Year Old
    The Stats
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled in 2000 in Yalumba's old brandy pot still from a Coopers Brewery wash. Matured for 12 years in French oak white wine casks, and then further matured in three American oak octaves that previously contained 50 year old tawny for a further three and a half years. 428 bottles in total.
    • Location: Angaston, SA
    • Score: 93
    Nose
    Maraschino cherries, toffee and an old Australian brandy note (proper old). Super estery with a touch of rancio. Keeps going with old leather, dark chocolate, coffee, glazed ham and oloroso sherry.
    Palate
    Quite oaky and funky upfront. Thick tawny and fruit on the mid-palate. Shows a fascinating tension between the dry spice from the casks, and the rich wine that’s leached into the spirit. Seriously complex juice.
    Finish
    Long. Dry oakiness with almonds and espresso.
    Comments
    Now a rare and sought-after bottling (the price on this has increased significantly in recent years). But it deserves the hype. Dense and complex and incredibly rewarding. When are the next ones due?!
  • Iniquity Single Malt Whisky Batch 14
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Tin Shed Distilling Co. 30% of batch 14 was matured in American oak apera casks, while the rest is a combination of dregs from previous casks that were married together in a French oak red wine cask.
    • Location: Adelaide, SA
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Quite meaty with a hint of smoke and wine. Fruitcake, pine, toasted nuts, macadamia, nutmeg and a little salty beach note.
    Palate
    A nice heat initially. Lovely savory edge - oatcakes, camphor, beef brisket and vanilla from the American oak. Next to that, dried apricots, sultanas, rum and raison and amontillado.
    Finish
    Medium-bodied and quite drying.
    Comments
    A more savoury, meaty Iniquity than some of the other batches. Fascinating how this was put together. The American oak apera really makes its presence felt but then the wine adds plenty of fruit and intrigue.
  • Iniquity Single Malt Whisky Cask Strength Gold Batch No. 1
    The Stats
    • ABV: 60%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Tin Shed Distilling Co. and matured for 2 years in an American oak tawny cask.
    • Location: Adelaide, SA
    • Score: 91
    Nose
    Honey and vanilla, red berries and malt around a big whack of booze. But the abv doesn't overpower, and behind it you get this camphor/eucalyptus tang next to rich cocoa and port.
    Palate
    Syrupy and oaky, some jammy fruits, toast and caramel, flat white and mint chocolate. Big and round but everything's in check.
    Finish
    Just keeps on going, fruit and nut chocolate, leather and a final kick of spirit.
    Comments
    Pretty damn fun this. At cask strength, it's free to run, and it's got a helluva kick.
  • Fleurieu Distillery Single Malt 'Whisky Kisses'
    The Stats
    • ABV: 55%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Fleurieu Distillery, portions of the spirit distilled from peated malt, and matured in tawny casks.
    • Location: Goolwa, SA
    • Score: 88
    Nose
    Sea salt, biscuits and figs. A little closed, but with water, you get red currants and berries from the tawny and just a hint of prosciutto.
    Palate
    Really takes off on the palate. Luscious, with a lovely heat and prickle. The tawny adds stewed strawberries and then that classic flinty, bacon character of the Fleurieu spirit brings plenty of structure (Caol Ila eat your heart out).
    Finish
    Big right through till the end, with heat, tawny and a gentle smokiness.
    Comments
    Nose is a little wayward on this, but boy it comes good on the palate. Lots of layers, as different waves of tawny and that meaty, smoky Fleurieu character develop. Serious whisky. Very adult.
  • Fleurieu Distillery Single Malt 'Atlantic Crossing'
    The Stats
    • ABV: 52%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Fleurieu Distilley. This is a marriage of six 100 litre tawny barrels.
    • Location: Goolwa, SA
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Coriander, curry leaves, BBQ sauce and dark fruit cake. Slightest hint of wood smoke and pencil shavings.
    Palate
    Very thick and textural, but there's a slight texta note here as well. The tawny influence is refined - not as syrupy as other Fleurieu expressions. Also a sea air, almost hot sand note underneath cherries and toasted spices.
    Finish
    Great length, quite viscous, with dark berries and spice carrying through.
    Comments
    There's a faintly astringent, texta note here, not sure where it's from. It only slightly distracts from what is, otherwise, just straight-up classic Fleurieu. Distinctive and complex.
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.