Sullivan’s has taken the whiskey world by surprise. It’s a whiskey that not a lot of non-whisky drinkers have heard of. It’s not something you’ll see in the average bar. But, this liquid gold from Tasmania has been awarded several prestigious awards the world over, and in 2014 was named best malt whisky in the world! During our Communications Manager Kristin’s recent trip to Tasmania, she visited Sullivan’s to find out what all the fuss is about.
Sullivan’s Whiskey is unsurprisingly named after Sullivan’s Cove in Hobart. It’s the area that was first inhabited by English settlers in the early 1800’s and is where the distillery was originally located. Back then there were around 16 legal (plus countless illegal) distilleries operating in Hobart, though in 1838 Governor John Franklin put and end to it, banning all distillation in Tasmania. Little did he know, this ban would last over 100 years. It was the family behind another great Tasmanian whiskey, Lark Distillery, that got the ball rolling and the ban was lifted in 1992. Sullivan’s distillery was established in 1994 and at the time, the man behind it knew very little about whiskey, but he saw a gap in the market and decided to open a distillery.
As you enter the Sullivan’s, (now located about 30 min from its original location, in Cambridge) you step right into what looks like an old drawing room in a country house. A large, slightly faded, world map covers the back wall and the room is adorned with high-backed leather arm chairs, coffee tables, book cases and other vintage artifacts. Each table is lit by a lamp made of old whiskey barrels suspended from the ceiling. The smell of whiskey, wood, and leather hits your nostrils and leaving a warm and familiar feel in the air.
I’m greeted by Nathan, a whiskey fanatic with a long history in hospitality, who now looks after the cellar door. He leads me through the back and into a large warehouse, filled from floor to ceiling with barrels. In the centre of the room is a beautiful copper tank. It is almost to pretty to imagine that it’s functional. But this is where the magic happens.
This particular tank is actually modelled on a French brandy still and is not designed for whiskey.
designed for wine and not beer. But because of the little amount of research that was done and the little knowledge the founder had, it was suggested this would be best for the Tasmanian conditions.
And so it was.
But the whiskey business is a tricky industry. It’s not one where you start to make money quickly, in fact, Sullivan’s has gone bankrupt twice. One of the challenges when making whiskey is that you have to wait 10 to 12 years for your product to be finished.
Single malt whiskey starts as beer and Sullivan’s collaborate with Cascade and Moo Brew (who brew a flat beer with high alcohol content – according to their specifications). Each batch of beer/wash will have its own qualities and characteristics. Depending on whether it comes from Moo brew or Cascade, it’s always 100% malt beer, but with different strengths of yeast, different kinds of brewing techniques and different times of fermentation.
The wash is gently heated in the copper tank and as the temperature increases it starts to change. Water boils and evaporates at 100 degrees celsius, alcohol evaporates at 60 degrees, so the alcohol will evaporate first which allows it to separate from the water. When the beer goes in the tank it’s about 7-8% alcohol, after the first distillation its around 20-25% ABV. After round one, the tank is emptied and carefully cleaned.
“The best thing about a copper still tank is that copper actually binds with sulphur. Back at the brewery, in the process of making the wash, the yeast consumes the sugar. One of the by products is alcohol, the other is sulphur. As humans we have a very low tolerance for sulphur, which we probably associate with that struck match smell or the smell of rotten eggs. The copper binds with these compounds, and separates them. So after that first distillation there will be a layer of copper sulphur, like a blue film on the inside of the copper still. It’s very important to make sure that all the sulphur is removed before refilling the tank for the second distillation, so we clean the tanks and do it all again.”
Out of that original batch of 12,500 litres of wash, they will end up with around 1,000 litres of 60-70% spirit.
Once the wash has gone through the second distillation the spirit is around 63% alcohol and has a surprisingly creamy taste to it, with none of that hard and deep burn that you would expect when tasting clean alcohol. The batch is then barreled and left to age.
“All of these are the building blocks for our finished product, we operate to a standard that’s the best we can. All of these processes are conducted by touch, smell and taste. There’s no automation here. There are no timers or cut off points. It’s about what and when we think it’s good. We will judge each batch on its merits which will give our product a natural variation. But rather than looking for a particular taste, flavour or aroma, we look for consistency in quality. Thats what the small batch craft is about. To the best of our ability we will have a standard product that will go in to our barrels, and it’s in the barrels where about 65-70% of those characteristics will develop”.
In this sense the barrels are very important, but if you put a poor quality spirit in to a good barrel, its only going to make an okay whiskey, if you put a great spirit into a barrel, that will give the barrels the best chance to produce something great.
They use both Tawny Port barrels made of French oak, and bourbon barrels made from American oak. There is actually a guy who specially sources all the barrels for them, they are then broken down and delivered in pieces. The barrels need to be soaked in water prior to filling so that they swell, there is nothing holding them together except the hoop around the outside, so unless they swell to create that pressure, they wouldn’t hold anything.
When the whiskey is ready to be bottled it is decanted into large settling tanks. The strength of the whisky at this stage is around 70% and needs to be watered down to around 40-45%. When the water is added, the whiskey tends to go cloudy. Nathan shows me a small bottle of the mixture; it looks like a milky lava lamp. The whisky is left to settle in the tanks for around 4-6 months, during this time all of the sediment will sink to the bottom and leave a clear whiskey which can then easily be decanted in to bottles.
In many larger distilleries they use chilled filtration to speed up this process, but by doing so, strip the whiskey of its natural oils and colours. It can also leave the whisky with a harsh taste and often needing artificial colours to be added to regain the beautiful golden colour that comes from the barrels. By opting out of this process and allowing the whisky to naturally settle, Sullivan’s retains a creamy and smooth finish that has been created naturally. “What’s an extra 6 months when you’ve already waited 12 years for the whiskey to reach its peak!”
There is the kind of genuine love and passion that you feel when you visit Sullivan’s. These people care so much about their product, it’s not about making money or infiltrating the market with a brand whiskey. It’s about making the best whiskey possible, that reflects love and the natural beauty of Tassie. Made with all Tasmanian produce and humbly reflecting the climate and nature of apple isle.
It wasn’t until I had entered this simple warehouse, on the outskirts of Hobart, where I was greeted with such infectious energy and passion, that I understood why this whiskey is so hard to get hold of. The craftsmanship from grain to bottle is admirable. Not only have they persisted with that one beautiful copper tank, but once the whiskey has been blended and settled it’s then manually bottled, labeled and corked one by one, by hand. That’s currently 18,000 bottles a year, or 49 bottles a day.
It’s a lengthy process, a long game that can only be upheld by pure passion and dedication.
Since winning Best Malt Whiskey in the world in 2014 the demand for the product has sky rocketed and although they have increased the volume of production and pretty much work day and night, the results will not be seen for over a decade.
Once you hear their story and see the twinkle in their eye’s when they talk about their product, then you will ‘happily’ fork out the $200+ per bottle, just to get a chance to try this perfectly balanced single malt that has a caramel and creamy finish. It’s something beyond anything I’ve ever tasted before and as you taste it you will not only appreciate the amazing aromas and long lingering creamy finish, but also feel the warmth and love for the people who dedicate their life to producing this whisky. You will appreciate the time that they gave this product to become the best that it can be. You will not want to share it with your friends, you’ll will want to hide it away and only drink it when you have that special moment in the day ,where you can sink down into the sofa, on your balcony or in your garden take a long deep breath and inhale the aroma, close your eyes and imagine the life cycle that has gone into this, you then take a sip, because you deserve it. And as you do you will feel “hell yeah this is life”.