Unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you’ll likely be aware that the world has gone completely nuts for the best Australian whisky brands in the last few years, and with good reason – it’s some of the best liquid gold out there.
And liquid gold, Australian made whisky (or whiskey) has literally become, for some. When Sullivan’s Cove took out top honours at the World Whiskies Awards in 2014, where their French Oak was crowned the best single malt whisky in the world, the world’s gaze turned to Tasmania, an unassuming island that had, for the last two decades, slowly been crawling back as an Australian whisky-producing region of repute and renown. Though the Apple Isle’s spirits industry was outlawed in the 19th century, a one-man mission to bring back the art of craft spirits in 1992 saw the inception of Lark Distillery, a poky shed stuck in next to a winery, not far from Hobart airport.
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.
Owner & founder Bill Lark re-invigorated an industry lost to over-regulation and zeal over a century before and, before too long, others followed. The tight-knit community of distillers that populate the island state includes some big names, and seriously expensive drops, as demand has sky-rocketed in the past few years.
Tasmania now produces some of the best whiskey in Australia. This zeitgeist of top-quality whisky production is not restricted to Tassie, however. Other distilleries that have made their mark both over the years and recently can be found all over the country – though the climate and soft waters of Tasmania are generally considered to be perfect for the revered malt liquor to age properly. Hence, why many of the top Australian whiskey brands are located in Tasmania. With other examples from Victoria and Western Australia taking particular pride of place on the selection below, this is our collection of the best whiskies coming out of Australia, that you should definitely add to your bucket list (or liquor cabinet) while they’re still available.
Sullivan’s Cove French Oak
Arguably the drop that triggered the recent influx of international interest in Australian whisky, this beautiful single malt was named the best in the world three years ago, and has been almost impossible to get a hold of ever since. While bottles from the original cask that won were sadly all gone by the time the award was bestowed to the distillery (though a few are probably still floating out there, valued in the thousands), you can get a single bottle of the current release for $450, if you’re lucky.
While the label bears no age statement, the liquid inside is 12 to 14 years old and boats a big, fat, chewy single malt full of rich toffee and molasses, not dissimilar to a Demerara rum.
Every Wednesday, the distillery releases a small handful of bottles to the public (literally less than 10), which can be purchased by being one of the first to click on a link provided in an email that gets sent to their subscribers. You can subscribe online below – best of luck! Is it the best whiskey Australia has to offer? It’s certainly up there.
Nose: Full rich dark chocolate with cinnamon, orange peel, hazelnut, and licorice mint.
Palate: Rich and sweet front palate with flavours of chocolate, pepper, toffee and fruit cake.
Finish: Long lingering finish of dried dark fruit and dark chocolate.
Starward Wine Cask
Hailing from Victoria’s New World Whisky Distillery, Starward whiskies have been favoured by many for their innovative approach to modern whisky production, eschewing the traditions that bind so many other distillers and producing consistently interesting whisky. Their products are all made from Australian barley, aged in Australian barrels and reflect the terroir with subtlety. This is their Wine Cask release, finished in Australian red wine casks, which lends itself to a unique, tannic quality. It was awarded best Australian single malt at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards and has earned its place on this best Australian whisky list.
Nose: Balanced aromas of raisins, bananas and a touch of balsamic lead to clove, toffee and nougat.
Palate: The palate welcomes the arrival of red berries, hints of cinnamon and a variety of savoury and spice driven secondary notes.
Finish: A long, dry and tannic finish guides a strong linear reach through the palate, balancing a generous roundness and oiliness of the spirit.
Lark 9yo Bourbon Cask
Lark can unofficially be credited as the place where it all began for modern Tasmanian whisky. It was, after all, when founder Bill Lark was trout fishing with his father-in-law Max in the Tassie highlands that the two scratched their heads and said: “I wonder why there isn’t anyone making malt whisky in Tasmania”. The climate, access to barley, natural peat bogs and pure, soft water were all in abundance, but nobody had connected the dots for over a hundred years due to archaic licensing laws.
Since then, Bill has worked tirelessly to promote the Southern island as one of the world’s best whisky producing regions, all the while expanding his eponymous distillery from a small apparatus in his kitchen to a huge copper still which gets put through its paces to keep up with demand. The operation is still a family affair.
This is their highly sought-after 9yo Bourbon Cask release. At $450, it’s an undeniably luxury product, but it’s the price some of these distilleries have to charge to keep stock on shelves to some extent. A little richer than their other products, it’s a very complex liquid, layered with many different, almost conflicting flavours, which are all tied together with a subtle sweetness and a beautiful mouthfeel. Whiskey in Australia doesn’t get much better. Expensive? Sure. But worth every cent.
Nose: Inviting aromas of rose and freshly cut grass weave with lemon, orange and grapefruit. The citrus gives way to nutmeg, liquorice, oak and wood smoke. A delicate nose with layers of complexity and lots to find.
Palate: Lavender and roses wash into vanilla and butterscotch ending with grapefruit, liquorice and a nutmeg custard aftertaste.
Finish: Long, lingering, complex with oak and toffee. A remarkable dram for a special occasion.
Bakery Hill Cask Strength
About a half hour drive from Melbourne’s CBD to Balwyn North will find you at Bakery Hill’s distillery, which has been in production since 2000, with whisky first made available to the public in 2003. The selection on offer includes single cask malt offerings in peated and non-peated versions, which are both available at cask strength if preferred. We like the non-peated cask strength as the perfect example of this highly celebrated distillery’s capabilities. It’s a big whisky, a little hot on the palate initially, but that’s only complemented by the sweet notes that develop throughout. If it’s too much to handle, add an ice cube or a few drops of water and you’ll be good to go.
For many, Bakery Hill is the essential representation of Australian whisky.
Nose: An intensely sweet satin smooth malt with overtones of vanilla, almond meal and jaffa.
Palate: The palate is reminiscent of spiced orange Turkish Delight, with a fresh mouth cleansing zestiness all intermingled with malty cereal and cocoa.
Finish: The finish is deep and enveloping with lingering malt richness.
Hellyer’s Road Slightly Peated 10yo
Started by a group of dairy farmers, The Australian whiskey brand, Hellyer’s Road Distillery sits at the top of Tasmania, in the town of Burnie. Northern Tassie is famously home to the cleanest air in the world, and some of the best produce money can buy – this whisky is no exception. A highly celebrated drop in both the Japanese and European market, Hellyer’s Road is one of Australia’s best booze-based exports, and can be found in over 20 countries. Their four main expressions also include a Pinot Cask Finish, Original Single Malt, and a hard-to-get 12yo Original Single Malt, but here we’re featuring the 10yo Slightly Peated whisky, which is one of the most interesting you’ll taste. Hellyer’s Road is a well-oiled operation with an output higher than some of the other minor distilleries in the region, so won’t break the bank either.
Nose: The omnipresent citrus tones remain with an alluring hint of burnt Australian bush presenting on the nose.
Palate: A vanilla sweetness complicates the palate.
Finish: A creamy aftertaste is pleasantly confused by a gentle waft of smoke.
Limeburners Director’s Cut
Their $700-a-pop, 122-proof Heavy Peated Whisky took out the top accolade, Australia’s Champion Whisky Trophy, at the 2016 Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, putting the Great Southern Distillery on the map in terms of Australian whisky excellence, but here we’ve decided to feature something else from their catalogue. This is the Director’s Cut, a cask-strength single-barrel whisky that’ll only set you back $550. The current offering won gold at the 2017 awards, and still has some availability through their website if you get in quickly.
Nose: Exhibiting honey and fruit aromas when neat, a splash of water unleashes malted barley, aromas of muscat and vanilla with hints of pineapple and buttery caramel.
Palate: Intense and complex flavours, a full taste and a rich mouthfeel.
Finish: Smooth and lengthy.
Overeem Port Cask Matured
Overeem isn’t the kind of distillery to experimentally stray too far from the staples that gave them their stronghold as one of the country’s best, with only four products in their portfolio (including one XO brandy). Each of their three signature whisky expressions (Sherry Cask Matured, Port Cask Matured & Bourbon Matured) are also available in cask strength versions if you like the unrestrained intensity of a 60% spirit, but here we’re looking at the 43% Port Matured, one of the best examples of Aussie whisky’s ability to take traditional methods and still pioneer new flavours. This is a big Australian whiskey, with a rich palate and mouthfeel and a spicy finish. Perfect for a nightcap, possibly with a cigar.
Nose: Intense aromatics, fruit chocolates, caramel, butterscotch, turkish delight, crème brulee, plum pudding rum soaked raisins, hint of cider.
Palate: Creamy texture, sweet and delicately spicy, fruitcake, caramel, liquorice & sweet malt.
Finish: Long. Vanilla bean laced with spiced raisins.
Timboon Christie’s Cut
Timboon Railway Shed Distillery is pretty much exactly what it says on the label. Located in the tiny town of Timboon, in Western Victoria, the distillery is set up in an old railway shed and produces an array of spirits and liqueurs, including this single malt whisky. Named after Detective Inspector Christie, the ex-boxer / bodyguard to Prince Alfred / master of disguise who was hired by the government to stamp out the illegal distilling practices of bootlegger Tom Delaney, who was renowned for his high-quality whisky, which was made in Timboon.
The whiskey itself is a beautiful example of an unrestrained single malt Australian scotch whiskey, displaying a balance of flavours with a pleasant viscosity and very smooth, clean finish.
Nose: Fruit, vanilla, butterscotch & smoke.
Palate: Big and rich, chewy, mild spice.
Finish: Lengthy and smooth, trails off with sweet spice.
We don’t have any tasting notes for Trapper’s Hut as nobody we know is able to get their hands on a bottle and their website hasn’t been updated in over two years, which only adds to the elusiveness of this extremely rare whisky. Trapper’s Hut is not a distillery per se, but the label given to the single cask releases from Tasmania Distillery, made between 1999 – 2000, which were bought and aged privately. Each barrel is bottled and released separately, one at a time, and they’re getting very sparse. The short version here is: if you ever see a bottle, buy it, no matter what the cost. It’s only going to increase in value, and given its pedigree, can only assume it’s as delicious as Australian whiskey gets.
McHenry Single Malt
As Australia’s Southernmost distillery, McHenry has the cleanest air and water in the world at their fingertips, and the influence shows in their products. The distillery sits on the side of Mount Arthur, overlooking Port Arthur, and directly facing the South Pole, which lies some 5000 kms away. The Single Malt Whisky they produce isn’t like any other, with a pleasant, rich sweetness dominating the flavours and opening the door to delicate flavours, which play off each other very nicely. As one of the less common products on this list, it should be a priority for any adventurous whisky lover. A superb single malt whisky Australia can be proud of.
Nose: Sweet, woody aromas and flavours of tropical fruits, toffee, vanilla custard, caramelised apples and dusty straw, tea with a chewy, vibrant, and fruity full body. Peppery spices, and oak spice finish.
Palate: Sweet initially, with notes of citrus fruits, clean wood and youthful maltiness. The stickiness from the wood finish then begins to unfold, chocolate coated almonds and burnt sugar before coming to a soft floral note.
Finish: Toffee notes on the finish.
Nant Bourbon Cask 63%
It’d be criminal to not include something from the infamous Nant distillery here on this list. Beleaguered though they may currently be, their recent legal issues should only be more reason to snap up some of their delicious single malts while their future remains somewhat uncertain. This is their Bourbon Wood Single Cask, which scored a huge 95.5 in Jim Murray’s 2015 whisky bible. At $325 for a 500mL bottle, it’s far from the most expensive whisky ever, but would still be considered a special treat by most. It’s a 63% spirit, so expect a big bite on the front palate followed by sweet woody notes and a seriously lengthy finish. One of the best modern Australian whiskies money can buy.
Nose: Several layers of honey and a Sauternes cask style fruitiness.
Taste: Rich barley enormity. Juicy, thick and with a hint of feint. Renowned for its profound richness.
Finish: Ridiculously long. Soft muscovado sugars with the lightest touch of honey, liquorice and maple syrup. The vanillas build and then give way to tasty butterscotch.
Cradle Mountain 17yo
Cradle Mountain have been around since the early 90s, but have flown relatively under the radar as one of Australia’s better stills. Most of their range is out of stock until 2019, due to the ageing processes involved, and keen consumers are pretty quick to snap up each release as it becomes available. Distilled in the North-West of Tasmania, this 17yo expression is their only available drop at the moment, and is still almost impossible to get a hold of. The most striking element is the clarity in the mid-palate of this fine whisky, which in no doubt is thanks to the water used in the production.
Nose: Fresh leather, waxed fruit, perhaps lemon-grass, and hay.
Palate: Very soft body, clean-tasting (no doubt deriving in part from the local water). Fruit-skins, citrus and lemon-grass.
Finish: Fruity acidity, then a surge of mustard and pepper.
This article is part of our Brews & Bottles Series.