Whisky review: The new world of red wine cask Australian whisky

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On tasting: Starward Nova, Hellyers Road Single Malt Pinot Noir Finish, Nonesuch Single Malt Pinot Noir, The Corowa Characters, Dark Valley ‘Guard’s Whistle’ Pinot Noir

 

Red wine cask matured whisky is on the march, and Australia’s leading the charge. We’re not just talking Australian whisky, either. Scottish (Springbank), Irish (Teeling) and even Japanese (Mars Shinshu) producers have finished whisky in casks that previously held Aussie red wine.

In fact, one of the earliest red wine cask matured whiskies I encountered was Scottish: the famed Longrow Australian shiraz bottling released around 2013. What an example it set, and it just shows how Springbank and Cadenheads have so often been ahead of the game – consider the chance they took in also casking Tasmanian Cradle Mountain whisky in cabernet sauvignon barrels back in the mid-90s. But since then, Australian whisky producers have recognised how flavourful and practical red wine casks can be, particularly when compared to expensive sherry and port casks from Spain or Portugal.

Here, we’re looking at distillers who are both pursuing and dabbling in this style, but this is just a snippet. Belgrove, Old Kempton, Overeem, Yack Creek and Adams distilleries have all released whiskies matured in shiraz, pinot noir and cab sav casks, and independent bottler Spirit Thief in Tasmania are developing a sophisticated maturation program using casks that previously housed quality tempranillo and shiraz.

In terms of value, there’s great drinking to be had here (not often you say that about Australian whisky), and it just makes so much sense. Australian tawny and apera barrels are becoming difficult to source (and expensive when you do), and kudos has to go to Starward, who are pushing this train to a whole new level in Australia and abroad.

And the taste? The richness, the boldness and the tannin these casks leach into the spirit isn’t for everyone, and at times our distillers could be more careful in balancing the influence of the wine. But as we begin to master this style and develop more nuanced interactions between cask and spirit, we might see a distinctly Australian whisky emerge.

  • Starward Nova Single Malt Whisky
    The Stats
    • ABV: 41%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at New World Whisky Distillery in Port Melbourne and exclusively matured in ex-red wine casks, predominately shiraz, cabernets and pinot noirs.
    • Location: Port Melbourne, VIC
    • Score: 86
    Nose
    Caramel, fresh orange juice, lemon, sea spray, aloe vera, ripe cherry juice and strawberry jam.
    Palate
    Cherry galette, rainbow Paddlepops and fairy floss. But overall, quite light on the palate with a hint of spirit and a lick of stainless steel.
    Finish
    Bready, lolly-like sweetness, with white sugar, orange brioche, golden rum and gooey caramel.
    Comments
    It's subtle, light-bodied, but still complex – add this straight away to your list of daily drinkers. This is my comfort seat.
  • Hellyers Road Single Malt Pinot Noir Finish
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46.2%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Initially aged in ex-Bourbon casks before being finished in French oak ex-pinot noir casks.
    • Location: Burnie, TAS
    • Score: 72
    Nose
    Linseed oil… lots of linseed oil, horse hair, damp stables, tin, brussell sprouts, a hint of acetone and a bag of old stale walnuts. Returning to it again, a fun twang of pink Fizzers!
    Palate
    The linseed character quickly disappears and barley sugars flood the palate alongside caramalised oranges, strawberries and orange oil.
    Finish
    Orange sherbert.
    Comments
    I’m glad I've persevered with this whisky. Ordinarily, I wouldn't return to a whisky with such funky pungency, but I know better with Hellyers Road. So many of their releases, like the 15 year old, are of such high quality that I'm a bit puzzled as to how this pinot noir finish fits into their range.
  • Nonesuch Single Malt Pinot Noir Cask No. 8
    The Stats
    • ABV: 48%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Nonesuch Distillery and fully matured in a 20 litre pinot noir cask.
    • Location: Forcett, TAS
    • Score: 83
    Nose
    Initially, a little hot. I immediately add water and it begins to open up into berry coulis, lemon myrtle, strawberry vinegar, cider, anise and cassia bark.
    Palate
    Woah… a rush of residual pinot noir! Is this a cocktail? The barley follows with caramalised sugars, dusted orange lollies from a German sweetie tin, red skins and a hint of youth before the sugars return as hot homemade strawberry jam.
    Finish
    Orange oil, jam drop biscuits, ginger and marmalade.
    Comments
    This has the potential to be an excellent whisky. If the team can find more balance between cask and malt, and eradicate that slight hint of youth and prickle, I’ve no doubt this could draw worldwide attention, and I’ll be putting my hand up for a bottle (or three).
  • The Corowa Characters
    The Stats
    • ABV: 46%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Corowa Distilling Co. and matured in shiraz casks from Rutherglen and the Barossa.
    • Location: Corowa, NSW
    • Score: 85
    Nose
    Quite earthy upfront then old pot-pourri, tomato stem, strawberry balsamic, rusted tin shed and water thrown on a campfire.
    Palate
    Palate follows the nose. The earthiness again, petrichor, with rich berry fruits and cream sponge cake.
    Finish
    Sweet pumpkin pie.
    Comments
    The whisky releases from Corowa Distilling Co. are constantly improving. The Characters is my favourite so far: a fantastic Australian everyday drinker at a competitive price point.
  • Dark Valley ‘Guard’s Whistle’ Tasmanian pinot noir cask
    The Stats
    • Price: 66.4%
    • Price Band: $ $ $ $ $
    • Style: Single malt whisky
    • Production Story: Distilled at Adams Distillery and matured in a 20 litre pinot noir cask for Dark Valley Whisky. 26 bottles in total, set to be released in March 2020.
    • Location: Perth, TAS
    • Score: 89
    Nose
    Is this Edradour? Sriracha, tacos, paprika, hot pot, kimchi, red wine thrown onto a hot pan, beef drippings and Chinese five spice.
    Palate
    Dank wood.. ooo, but there’s the malt! Candy, honey-glazed five spice ham, orange sherbet, jaffa cakes, and mixed lolly bags from the corner shop.
    Finish
    Raspberry jubes and orange rye bread.
    Comments
    The only whisky in this line-up that doesn't display overt wine character on the nose. The savoury dry spice had me dreaming of a hot day next to a Texas BBQ. Dark Valley have managed to turn a young and bold Australian spirit into something playful, fun and delicious without compromising the malt character. A whisky for those who like them big, ballsy and high in ABV. I even judged this without adding water.
Brooke Hayman
Brooke Hayman is the co-owner and business director of Melbourne’s Whisky & Alement. She’s also a judge at the Royal Australian Spirits Awards, the Tasting Australia Spirits Awards, and is currently the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Champion after winning the 2018 competition.