It feels a little like a Peter Kay “Garlic Bread” moment (1).
I’m at the Whisky Lounge 2013 Liverpool WhiskyFest and am helping Toby and Jonah present Overeem Single Malt to the U.K. public for the very first time. These very affable young gents are responsible for importing and distributing this Tasmanian Single Malt into the U.K. It’s so new that it literally landed on these shores a fortnight ago and there are four expressions that are on pour today: a sherry matured cask bottled at 43% and 60% and a port matured cask also at 43% and 60%.
“Whisky. From Tasmanian?”
Truth is, is that wherever there is grain and water there will be someone, somewhere in the world distilling it into whisky. And Tasmania is no exception.
Overeem comes from the Old Holbart Distillery in Blackman’s Bay, Tasmania. Founded in 2005 by Casey Overeem it’s a tiny distillery by Scottish standards. Production capacity is just 8000 bottles, equating to around 5,600 litres a year. Compare this to one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries Edradour which can produce up to 90,000 litres a year (2) and you realise the scale of this operation. The first release from the distillery was in 2011 so just a couple of years later it is both amazing and testament to the business bravery of these two gents that Overeem is now over ‘ere (3).
“Tasmania whisky, well that’s new!”
Well in away yes, and in a way no.
Geographically Tasmania lies about 150 miles south of the Australian mainland but politically is very much part of it having joined the commonwealth of Australia in 1901. A little bit smaller than Ireland (3a) and with a current population around the half million mark, it derives it’s name from Abel Tasman, a Dutch sailor who first sighted it on 24th Novemeber 1642 (4).
Distilling can be traced back as far as 1822 when Thomas Haigh Midwood set up the first legal distillery (one assumes that there were plenty of illegal ones before then) and by 1824, just two years later, there were 16 legally operating distilleries on the island. It was not to last; Governor John Franklin (5) prohibited distilling in 1838. Presumably 16 distilleries providing whisky for around 50,000 people (6), half of which were, or had been, convicts wasn’t working out for them.
It stayed this way until the early 1990s when an enterprising man by the name of Bill Lark, whilst on a trout fishing trip, realised that Tasmania offered some of the purest water in the world, rather fertile barley and local home-grown peat and that together they should make some jolly good whisky. The big part was overturning the 1901 Distillation Act which included a stipulation stating that the minimum still size should be 2,700 litres: in comparison Scotland’s minimum still size is 1,800 litres (7).
Lark was granted a license in 1992 and became the first legal distillery to open on the island in 153 years. Small Concern (apparently now closed) opened soon after in Ulverstone and was actually the first Tasmanian distillery to release whisky named Cradle Mountain. Others soon followed; with the help of Bill Lark who, acting as a consultant, has had an influencing hand in most of the distilleries. In much the same way as the craft beer movement swept through America and the recent explosion of real ale breweries across the U.K., Tasmania is now experiencing it’s own distilling revolution with small-scale, craft distilleries opening at a rapid pace. With such development and such distance from our shores it’s kind of hard to keep up with exactly the state of play but by our reckoning there is something like 12 or so distilleries operating across Australia and Tasmania with another 5 that are about to start production (8). That’s more distilleries than countries like Canada, Ireland and Japan – the traditional big players in the whisky community. It means that the attention of the whisky world is looking at this emerging scene with interest.
Casey and Jane (daughter and distiller) looking like they’ve been trapped by some whisky casks. Who will save them?
So back to Overeem. It’s a family run business with Casey Overeem at the head. He got interested in distilling in the early 80s from playing around with Norwegian friends stills in their basement (apparently they all have mini-stills kicking around in their basements). After researching his craft further, visiting around 15 other distilleries and learning production techniques, he got a license to distil in 2005. With help from Bill Lark production started around 2007 and the first releases were in December 2011.
The actual mash and fermentation happens at Lark where Casey has his own washbacks and uses his own specific yeast. The wash is then transported to Old Holbart where it is double distilled, first on a 1,800 litre wash pot still and then in a 600 litre spirit pot still, both stills made by Knapp-Lewer who are based in Hobart. Jonah tells me that 50% of the malt is peated with local Tasmanian peat.
When you say peat in relation to whisky most people instantly have a pre-conceived idea of the Islay malts – tastes of iodine, hospitals, rubber, sea salt, TCP. If there is one thing that the growth of world whisky has done it is to re-focus our ideas of what a “peated” whisky should taste like. Peat doesn’t necessarily equate to those flavours – Mackmyra in Sweden have gone a long way in breaking down those assumptions. The peat of Tasmania is nothing like that of Islay or the Scottish Highlands. The flora and fauna are unique to its location. Gum-trees and eucalyptus are broken down over thousands of years to create the peat which imparts herbal, twiggy, moss and sharp juniper like notes when used in the creation of Tasmanian whisky.
Another factor that instils a uniqueness about Antipodean whisky is the use of brewing yeast and barley. In Scotland both barley and yeast are selected to give maximum yields. The common view is held that barley type and yeast type contribute such a small percentage to the overall flavour that maximum and efficient returns are preferential. This has not stopped people experimenting with these variables. Famously both Macallan and Glengoyne held on to using Golden Promise barley for as long as possible, despite consistent lower yields, as they believed it imparted a different flavour to their whisky. Bruichladdich and Springbank have also used bere barley to create whisky (9)
In Tasmania they use local Franklin (5) Brewing Barley. It is bred to suit the Tasmania environmental conditions and adds body and oiliness to the spirit. Great Southern are know to use beer malt too. At Lark the yeast used is a combination of a Nottingham Ale Yeast and a distillers yeast.
Port casks (usually 600 litres) and Sherry Butts (usually 500 litres) are broken down and remade in a local cooperage to smaller 100 litre casks. New-make is also filled into 200 litre American Bourbon barrels although these have yet to be released, expected in 2016 or perhaps sooner Jonah informs.
The combined effect of ageing in these small casks and the, compared to Scotland, warmer climate (10) mean that the maturation process occurs a lot quicker. It takes a shorter time for the whisky to extract flavour and colour out of those casks than it would do if it were in Scotland. Meaning that within 5 to 7 years the whisky is deemed to be fully matured, the perfect balance between spirit and cask.
As production capacity is so small Old Hobart bottles all of its whisky as single cask releases, meaning that there are subtle differences between each bottle. The 43% release yields around 180 bottles and the cask strength 60% around 125-135 bottles. Obviously these numbers change according to the cask. Neither are chill-filtered or have any colouring added. There are no age statements on the bottles, although the whisky ranges from between 5 to 7 years. Each bottle carries the cask number, is individually numbered and shows how many bottles came from that cask. Throughout the day I got to sample a couple of different single cask bottles and can report that there is a consistency throughout each one although each has its own particular nuance, sometimes the peat being a little more defined, the fruit being a little more upfront or the difference in the delivery of all the aspects.
The first thing that people noticed was just how different from Scottish single malt it was. Both kicked off sweetish, with the port showing red fruits, caramel and a kind of turkish delight note; the sherry a little more traditional with classic Christmas cake, rum and raisin and chocolate notes. Spice notes like clove and cinnamon took over, hand in hand with the occasionally almost juniper-like herbal edge provided from the peat, and the influence of the casks which gave it a touch of woodiness and fresh pine.
Of the two the port version was my particular favourite but throughout the day it was a close 50/50 between which people preferred. The delivery from the port cask was a little gentler than the sherry and it finished longer, whilst the delivery from the sherry cask was more intense, coming on as a huge tidal wave of fruit and spice.
The most impressive characteristic is how well all the elements are integrated so that they play off each other and arrive at different times on the palate giving it a beautiful complexity. The whisky displays a maturity that belies its age.
With there being such a small production run and each bottle coming from a single cask costs are high and availability is low. Put it this way these bottles are not cheap. In Tasmania the 43% retails from Overeem themselves at over £75 and the cask strength at over £100. They are available in the U.K. from on-line retailers including Master of Malt (11) and Whisky Exchange (12). Expect to pay between £140 -£170 for the 43% and £190 – £230 for the 60%. (13).
(1) Garlic bread!?!
(2) Malt Yearbook. Abhainn Dearg on the Outer Hebries is officially Scotland’s smallest at 20,000 litres but I use Edradour as it’s one that some people may have visited or drunk and it likes to claim it’s Scotland’s smallest distillery.
(3) Sorry too good an opportunity to not get that little bit of wordplay in.
(3a) Ireland = 70,273 km squared. Tasmania = 62,409 km squared.
(4) Abel originally named it Van Dieman’s Land after the Governor of the Dutch East Indies Company but obviously that’s not that snappy a title so they renamed it in 1856 after the British turned up. http://www.mcot.org.au/museum.htm
(5) Pay attention that name will “crop” up later.
(6) 1847 Census Population = 70,000 – 50% were or had been convicts. http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/E743FE07252B0081CA256C3200241879
(7) There’s some really interesting stuff on the law regarding minimum still size. Have a read on Dominic Roskrow’s blog here -> http://thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk/Blogs/domblog/2012/07/24/distillery-rules/
and this is worth a look at too -> http://www.lochewedistillery.co.uk/distillery.htm
(8) Ok here’s our list. To be honest it took longer to compile this list than it did to write the original article. We should have made this a blog piece in itself, so don’t be surprised if we just cut and paste it put at a later date! There are probably a couple of mistakes so if you can correct or add please do:
Distillery name. Year founded. Location. Name of Whisky. Web Address.
Essendon Fields (previously Victoria Valley) -2004 or 2008? – Victoria, Australia – STARWARD WHISKY – http://newworldwhisky.com.au/#/home
Bakery Hill – 1998 – Melbourne, Australia – BAKERY HILL – http://www.bakeryhilldistillery.com.au/
Great Southern – 2004 – Albany, SW Australia – LIMEBURNERS – http://www.limeburners.com.au/
The Australian – ? – Illawarra – STOCKMANS WHISKEY (triple distilled) / GUN ALLEY SOUR MASH – http://theaustdistillery.com.au/
Hoochery – ? – Kununurra, Kimberly, Australia – RAYMOND B. WHISKEY (Corn mash, charcoal filtered) – http://www.hoochery.com.au/
Wild Swan – 2002 – Swan Valley, Western Australia – http://wildswandistillery.com.au/
Triptych – ? – Yarra Valley, Australia – http://www.triptychdistillery.com.au/
Black Gate – 2012 – Mendooran, New South Wales, Australia – http://www.blackgatedistillery.com.au/
Bluestill – 1995 – Young, New South Wales – JAMES BENTLEY WHISKY / BLACK WIDOW BOURBON – http://www.bluestill.com.au/
Dobson – ? – Kentucky, New South Wales, Australia – DOBSON’S – http://www.eastviewestate.com/page17/page17.html
Castle Glen – 2009 – Queensland, Australia – CASTLE GLEN (so far only aged for 2 years so not recognised as a whisky by EU law ) – http://www.castleglenaustralia.com/
Corowa – 2009 – Corowa, New South Wales, Australia – chocolate makers that are PLANNING to distil – http://www.corowawhisky.com/
Yalumba Winery – 1930s? – Angaston, South Australia – SMITHS (no longer distills?)
Corio (closed) – http://www.nicks.com.au/index.aspx?link_id=76.1611
Booie Range (closed)
Tasman – ? – ? – GREAT OUTBACK? – from Jim Murray book. Here’s a brief write up > http://www.nicks.com.au/index.aspx?link_id=76.1620
Lark – 1992 – Hobart, Tasmania. LARK – http://www.larkdistillery.com.au/
Hellyers Road – 1999 – Burne, Tasmania. HELLYERS ROAD – http://www.hellyersroaddistillery.com.au/
Nant – 2007 – Bothwell, Tasmania. NANT – http://nant.com.au/
Old Hobart – 2005 – Blackmans Bay, Tasmania. OVEREEM – http://www.oldhobartdistillery.com/
Tasmania – 1996 – Cambridge, Tasmania. SULLIVANS COVE – http://www.tasmaniadistillery.com/
Belgrove – 2011 – Belgrove, Tasmania. BELGROVE RYE – uses waste cooking oil to heat still – 100% green?? – http://www.belgrovedistillery.com.au/
Redlands – ? – Redlands Estate, Tasmania – REDLANDS SINGLE MALT http://www.redlandsestate.com.au/distillery.html
Small Concern – ? – Ulvertsone, Tasmania – CRADLE MOUNTAIN – CLOSED -http://www.tasmanianwhisky.com.au/
Southern Coast Distillers – ? – ? – SOUTHERN COAST – CLOSED – http://southerncoastdistillers.com.au/index.php
Mackey’s – ? – Tasmania – MACKEY’S – Irish style triple distillation
William McHenry & Sons – ? – Port Arthur, Tasmania (at 43 degrees south – the worlds most southern family owned distillery). – THREE CAPES 10 YO – http://mchenrydistillery.com.au/
TRAPPERS HUT -? – Tasmania – Independent bottlers (Tasmania distillery) – http://www.trappershut.com.au/
HEARTWOOD – ? – Tasmania – Independent bottlers – http://www.heartwoodwhisky.com.au/
(9) – http://whiskysheffield.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/bere-barley/
(10) Compared to Australia though Tasmania is a little cooler. Hobart ranges from 8.3 degrees C to 16.9 degrees C and has 613mm of rain a year. http://www.weatherzone.com.au/climate/station.jsp?lt=site&lc=94029
Melbourne has similar rainfall but ranges from 6 degrees C to 26 degrees C http://www.visitmelbourne.com/Information/Melbourne-weather.aspx
(13) You have to factor into this the extortionate costs of transportation and duty into these prices too. One way of looking at it, as I said to a couple of people at the show, is to compare it to a limited edition artwork. Now I’ve paid around the same amount for a limited edition print (which had a lot higher run than 180 copies) and I’ve stuck it on my wall and I walk past it everyday and don’t pay it a blind bit of attention anymore. It’s just filling up a blank space on a wall. Don’t get me wrong, I like it but it’s just “there”, I’m no longer actually getting any worth out of that picture. At least if you bought a bottle of Overeem (and people really, really liked it, many saying it was the best thing they had drunk that day) you’re going to crack it open, maybe on a special occasion, hopefully sharing it with some friends. Essentially you’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to get the maximum use out of it and you’re going to have a memory of that occasion that you’ll be able to come back to, to refer to with your friends. And that, as those adverts keep telling us, is priceless.