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Sullivans Cove distillery manager Heather Tillott | Image:

How a Leap of Faith Transformed One Winemaker into Australia’s Premier Whisky Producer

In an industry that thrives on scarcity, Heather Tillott is a rare breed. Here, the mastermind behind award-winning distillery Sullivans Cove talks art, science and the ‘revelation’ that help her find her spirit.

Some artists are born with an irrefutable sense of purpose. They emerge from the womb seemingly fully formed, steadfast in the belief that nothing will derail them on their creative journey. For Heather Tillott, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The Sullivans Cove distillery manager may well be responsible for Australia’s greatest whisky, but it was never her intention to wind up in the spirits business. As she revealed to me when I caught up with her in Hobart recently, her path to whisky’s highest peak is paved with good fortune.

“It was by complete chance that it happened with Sullivans Cove,” she tells me. “I moved to Tassie with every intention of doing vintage work but I kept hearing people talk about whisky. In my hometown, whisky was cheap bourbon with Coke, playing pool at the pub on Friday night. I had no interest in spirits, but moved here and thought ‘Why not?’”

Two ‘World’s Best’ awards under her direction and a string of personal accolades later, it’s fair to say the gamble has paid off, but Heather is no stranger to a leap of faith. In fact, long before ever stepping foot inside a bond store, she was on a very different path.

A Site for Sore Eyes

It’s a typically dreary Hobart morning when I arrive at Sullivans Cove. Not a glimmer of sunshine to be seen, the sky caked with thick grey cloud and the mud sticky and wet underfoot, but you can’t wipe the smile off Heather Tillott’s face. The Sullivans Cove distillery manager stands proudly in an active construction site, hard hat fixed, high-vis draped across her shoulders, beaming at what will soon be a completely revamped whisky floor, just in time for the distillery’s 30th-anniversary celebrations.

A project six months in the making, the new site upgrade promises to increase production capabilities, improve efficiencies and enhance the already-stellar customer experience. Most importantly, however, it will allow Heather and the Sullivans Cove team to do what they’ve always wanted to do; ensure the longevity of the Australian whisky industry.


“The planning for the site upgrades over the past four years has been a really defining moment,” Heather tells me. “More and more the luxury space, particularly in Australia, is moving towards that epicurean experience that is hard to find and is genuine. That’s so obvious when you are standing there with the people who made the product, you’re in the distillery, in the bond store with the liquid; there is magic there.”

She’s not one to mince her words. The 2024 World Whiskies Awards Distillery Manager of the Year has spent the better part of a decade refining the Sullivans Cove spirit, focusing on the unique elements that separate the Cambridge icon from the swathe of boutique producers. As she explains, the goal was never to change the essence of the brand, but rather bring out the best in the people and product that had captured the attention of whisky fans the world over.

“I came into the business after 2014, well after a notorious spirits style had been carved out. It’s not my job to rock the boat. You could walk into the job and play around, but that leads to chaos, and you can undo all the work that has come before you,” she says.

“For me, it’s not about the ego. It’s about the big picture.”

“There was already this pathway that was set and very clear; my role has been to look at the records, the spirit bond store, the samples and the recipes and figure out what it is that makes us us. What are the defining characteristics of our spirit that speak to who we are? It’s almost like a psychometric test; if you think about a person’s personality as a graph – there are big peaks and troughs, but it’s those extremities that make us who we are.”

Fruits of Labour

Listening to her speak, it’s clear that Heather’s creative process is born from experience. In a way, you get a very real sense that she’s grown up in the industry; such is the connection to the land, the spirit and the brand that it feels almost unfathomable to believe that whisky-making isn’t in her blood. In reality, the very notion of working in a distillery was never even on her radar. Her first true love was the vineyard.

As a wide-eyed 20-something living in the city, she snagged a role as a winemaker back in her hometown. With no experience in the industry, Heather’s initial foray into the industry would prove to be eye-opening in more ways than one. For once, she was the master of her domain, able to put her undeniable work ethic to good use and finally enjoy the fruits of her own labour.


“It was all new, but I’ve learned that I don’t mind physical hard work; I love it. So jumping into vintage work after no experience was daunting but really awesome. Picking grapes, crushing them, the whole thing was extreme work but I loved it,” she explains. “It was a tiny boutique winery so I ended up having exposure across the whole production and business. You don’t realise how much you’ve actually taken in until you move on to other ventures. It’s a pretty rapid learning curve.”

Winemaker to Whisky Pioneer

For most of us, the story would simply end there; the prodigal daughter returned and the Hallmark happy ending all but summarised, but in Heather’s case, there were more revelations to come. In fact, you can trace almost all of her achievements back to two pivotal moments; the first being her unexpected entry into the wine industry, while the second was a profound experience with the liquid she would soon come to champion. As she explains, from the very first moment Sullivans Cove touched her lips, the vision became clear.

“I actually visited Sullivans Cove for a tasting, and from the moment I tried the liquid, I knew it was something different. It was a massive brain explosion, almost like a revelation. It was a whole new thing that wasn’t anything like what I had experienced.

Immediately dropping the winemaking, Heather dove headfirst into the burgeoning Tasmanian whisky industry alongside former Sullivans Cove head distiller Pat Maguire. It was a funny connection – the whisky icon and the budding winemaker, but together, the pair made beautiful music.

“What winemakers bring to the industry in Australia is a unique understanding of what happens inside the barrel and the sensory feel,” Heather explains. “A lot of those day-to-day functional skills are completely transferrable; there are pumps, hoses, tanks, and there is a liquid that you need to move here and there, but more importantly, you need to learn to be guided by your palate.”

“You can feel what the tannins are doing, sense the notes from the spirit and what it needs; you learn to make decisions with your palate. It’s not just about tasting and thinking ‘Oh, that’s good enough’ – it’s fusing the art with the science.”

Art vs Science

The delicate tightrope walk between worlds is a common artist’s troupe. On one hand, the creative spark can light the way, but if you lean in too close, you are bound to get burned. As the person tasked with leading Sullivans Cove whisky product, which has three times been named the ‘World’s Best’, Heather’s creative process is less of a meticulous approach and more like a balancing act.

“You can have a vision in your mind and idea of what is going to happen when you pop this liquid into this cask, but you can’t tell the future. You have to let it do its thing. I don’t like doing things for the sake of doing things.”

“Whisky is such an interesting medium from a creative perspective because I like walking that line between art and science. That’s something that people often think they’re completely opposite ends of the spectrum, and you can view it that way, but the best results always come from walking that line. Understanding the technical aspects gives you the tools to be creative. If we just use science, we end up with something that has no soul.”

Finding the Soul

Now eight years into her Sullivans Cove journey, Heather is building a legacy deserving of worldwide recognition, and she’s bringing a lifetime of stories along with her. To mark the distillery’s 30th-anniversary celebrations, the whisky expert is unveiling a string of special releases that each speak to the remarkable story of Sullivans Cove and its people. That notion kicked off just a few short weeks ago with the release of Australia’s oldest-ever whisky, a stunning 24-Year-Old American Oak Second-Fill Barrel (HH0004) that paid homage to the Hobart producer’s humble beginnings.

“In 2014, Sullivans Cove won Best Single Malt on a French Oak ex-Tawny cask, so when most people think of us, they think of ex-Tawny with the blue label. It’s just what comes to mind,” she says. “But for the first few years of the distillery, they were doing predominantly American oak, and in the early days, it was 300-litre American Oak hogsheads that had only been toasted. This cask is a second-fill, so it was used and then decanted and sold before being refilled. Twenty-four years later, we’ve decanted it.”

“With whisky, people tend to think the older the better, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s not a per-year improvement the longer it’s in the barrel. This cask was a journey, but that’s part of who we are. We aren’t rushed, it’s very much driven by the people and the team.”

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With a refined luxury distillery experience now open to the public and a stellar back catalogue of releases underway, it’s no stretch to say Tillott has a hand in some of the industry’s most exciting new developments. In fact, she’s perhaps the best-placed whisky maker in the country to speak on the new era of Australian luxury. To her, it’s something she describes as “the earthy sublime”, a notion of great connection to spirit, character and land.

And to think, it could have all ended very differently. Call it art, science, or divine intervention, but the global whisky industry is better for having people like Heather Tillott lead the charge. Perhaps a leap of faith is all that separates the dreamers from the doers.