BREAKING ALL THE RULES
In conversation with Tim Duckett of innovative Heartwood Whiskies
14 January 2014
Considering Australia is such a latecomer to whisky production, the country produces some serious drams. It does, however, seem a pity that everyone still follows the old-fashioned, proven methods, that no one has tried to find an Australian style. But wait – enter stage right, Tim Duckett and Heartwood Whiskies.
Tim Duckett is Australia’s first independent bottler, and although he doesn’t distil but rather buys new-make that he likes, he breaks all the rules of ageing and storing whisky, with the result that he produces what is easily the best Australian drams out there. And he’s incredibly consistent, too.
CENTURION: When and how did you start on this experiment?
Tim Duckett: I used to sit at the end of the university bar and drink a whisky then a glass of water and repeated that process all night, which meant I was drinking as much as everyone else, but managed to graduate. I always liked whisky, and when I was appointed to the Ben Lomond Advisory Committee (as I am an environmental scientist). Bill and Lyn Lark were involved as well, and they said they would make whisky – that’s when I said I would drink it. And that’s how we became friends. In 1999, several whisky barrels became available from Lark Distillery, and also the original Tasmanian Distillery, and I bought them as I could afford them. I only started producing my own whisky last year.
What makes yours different?
It’s the age of the whisky, it’s the strength of the whisky and we mature our whisky rather differently. I break all the rules, for instance, I will position the barrels next to a warm wall and some of my barrels are actually exposed to hours of sunlight each day. We use this method to drive off some of the aldehydes and volatile esters. They are not desirable, and we drive them off.
Then when we decant, we do this differently again: we pour the whisky into large stainless steel vats. They do have a lid, but it’s not tightly fitting and the whisky can breathe. We then leave it in there and go and check it every few days, and one day, usually after a couple of months, when you lift the lids all the volatiles will be gone. The nose is lovely and alluring, and that’s when you know the whisky is ready for bottling.
How would you describe your philosophy on whisky making?
A lot of the heavyweights in the industry describe whisky by mouth feel and mouth presence, not flavour. So I would like to think of my whisky as a Brontosaurus. It builds and builds, gets bigger and bigger, until it ends with a very long tail. So it’s that body shape I try to achieve when we produce my whiskies.
Where do you sell your whiskies?
Through specialist outlets, as there isn’t enough to go around and we have some rather obscure names (the people on our social media pages help us name some of the whiskies). If you want a bottle, you will find it.
Time for Whisky - The Whisky Fair Sydney 2013
Heartwood, was the other Tassie entrant I was particularly keen to visit. (To my knowledge) the only Australian independent bottler of Australian whisky, Heartwood bottle a range of Aussie whiskies, at cask strength, and sell them in 500mL format with names such as "Vat out of Hell", "Release the Beast" and "Velvet Hammer". But it was their 72.5% "The Convict Redemption" that stole the show. Tim (owner and Lark Distillery board member) was passing around drams to comments such as "wow", "full bodied" and "flavoursome" - presumably mostly from people who didn't realise they'd just tried a 72.5% ABV whisky. That's how smooth this whisky really is. Steph tried it, and (no stranger to cask strength whiskies, having recently gotten into SMWS bottlings) guessed it to be around 55-60%. A stunner.
Martin - Time for Whisky
Heartwood Malt Whisky - The Saga Continues
By Andrew Derbidge
Regular readers of AGP's Whisky Reviews may recall me submitting two previous reviews of the first two Heartwood releases.
The Mount Wellington Release (January 2012) and Release the Beast (August 2012) were both spectacular whiskies that stamped the arrival of a new player on the Australian whisky scene, if not a whole new style of Australian whisky.
For those new to these pages or who've enjoyed too many malts since then, some background may assist: Heartwood is not a distillery. Instead, Heartwood is an independent bottler.
Tim Duckett, the man behind the magic, has acquired parcels of whisky that were distilled by a number of different distilleries in Tasmania.
But it is from that point onwards that the Heartwood story and style takes over.
Rather than let the casks simply sit in the traditional warehouse and then bottle them at a nominal or commonly accepted age, Duckett plays with his casks. Or, in his words, punishes them.
He's taken some whiskies that were in smaller ex-port or ex-sherry casks and then re-racked them into different larger bourbon casks for a longer maturation.
He's left some casks in or beside a hot tin shed over the summer months, thus exposing some casks to massive temperature swings between the heat of the day and the coolness of the night.
He's played around with all sorts of bottling strengths, undertaking extensive testing and tasting to determine each whisky's optimum sweet spot. Which, to Duckett's tastes, invariably means something at cask-strength and usually well over 58% ABV. And he matures his whiskies to ages often beyond the norm for Aussie malts.
Yes, they are Tasmanian whiskies and, yes, their DNA comes from the same heritage as well known distilleries i.e. Lark Distillery & Tasmania Distillery (the latter bottled as Sullivan's Cove). But by the time Duckett finishes his fun and experiments, the final product in the bottle tastes a long way removed from the commercially available expressions released by the source distilleries. And that, precisely, is an independent bottler's raison d'etre.
Since the last review of a Heartwood whisky on these pages, Duckett has released three more whiskies, although arguably four, given that one of them was released at two different bottling strengths.
The follow up to Release the Beast was the much-talked-about "Convict" bottling. From an 11yo Australian ex-port barrel, the Convict release experienced a maturation phenomenon that is more often associated with pockets of the American bourbon industry: In Scottish, Irish, and traditionally in Australian circles, maturation in the cool warehouses and in the prevailing climate means that alcohol evaporates from the cask rather than water.
As such, the alcoholic strength decreases with time in the cask. However, Duckett's experiments in the hot tin shed mimicked the conditions that are prevalent in the top storeys of the rickhouses in Kentucky, and in that environment it was the water in the cask that evaporated, not the alcohol.
The end result was that Duckett had the ability to bottle this cask at an extraordinary and almost unheard of strength of 71.9% ABV! The high octane offering was coined "Convict Unchained" and bottled in 500ml bottles, but a more conventional version at a "mere" 58% was also released in 700ml bottles. I had the pleasure of comparing the two expressions side-by-side in a direct comparison last month, and it should surprise no one when I report that the Unchained version was my much preferred.
Heartwood wasted no time with a follow up shortly afterwards, releasing the aptly named "Velvet Hammer". From a 13yo ex-bourbon barrel at a massive 68.8%, this is one of the oldest ever Australian whiskies to find its way into a bottle.
With its bourbon heritage easily identifiable from the first sniff, the nose could fool you into thinking this was a soft and restrained velvet-like tipple....until the HUGE palate delivered the hammer blow!A more interesting release - at least in terms of its heritage - was the "Vat Out Of Hell", which was unveiled at the Australian Malt Whisky Convention in Adelaide last weekend.
"Vatted malt" is a term no longer permitted by the Scotch Whisky Association, replacing it with the confusing nomenclature "blended malt". However, given this is an Aussie whisky and thus beyond the clutches of the SWA, the name is both an amusing but still appropriate descriptor. For the Vat Out Of Hell is a vatting (a combining or....er....blending) of two different casks.
The first cask, distilled at Lark Distillery, was an ex-sherry cask filled in 2003 from a distillation run that had some sphagnum peat influence.
The second cask, distilled at Tasmania Distillery, was an ex-bourbon barrel filled in 1999. Married together (vatted) and bottled at 67.4%, the result is a complex and multi-faceted whisky that pushes many buttons and ticks all the boxes. My tasting notes for these three Heartwood whiskies follows below. Like any bottling from single casks, quantities are small and finite, and availability is limited.
Those interested in acquiring a bottle can enquire at email@example.com
The Aussie whisky community is now keenly awaiting his next release. The great thing about Heartwood whiskies is that Duckett is simply crafting, creating, and bottling whiskies that he likes and wants to drink. Fortunately for us, the man has good taste.
Nose: Toffeed honeycomb, or Violet Crumble. Toasty oak. The spice of port oak influence is evident.
Palate: High ABV is not obvious - it's cask strength, but not at all aggressive. The balance of sweetness, alcohol, wood and malt is nigh on perfect. Huge delivery of flavour - not necessarily diverse or broad-spectrum, but just powerful flavour that is tasty, enjoyable and you want to drink it. One of those great whiskies where you don't need to break it down and identify every flavour descriptor - just sit back and enjoy it.
Finish: Consistent with the palate - everything is here and it holds its line without deteriorating. Happily, it holds its sweetness, too.
Comments: Remarkable.....and all the more so when considering the insane strength! Great and balanced all around, with the oak at perfect potency. Very happy and pleasing flavours.
Nose: Polished furniture, strong bourbon notes, pencil shavings. Sweet, natural wood sugars. The longer you nose it, the more bourbon-like it becomes - particularly after 10-15 minutes.
Palate: Surprisingly punchy on the palate - more alcohol than the nose prepared me for. But not aggressive - just big. Bright American oak. Not as sweet as the nose sets up for, reminiscent of high-cocoa dark chocolate.
Finish: A slightly bitter-sweet note emerges, like the bitterness of charred oak, or charred rendered fat on the barbie.
Comments: An incredible nose that betrays its bourbon origins, and loads of alcohol and power - it's no shrinking violet. Very aptly named whisky! The bitter/sweet interplay is intriguing.
VAT OUT OF HELL
Nose: Sherry, but with sweet confectionery notes. Icing sugar on raspberries. Fruit flan on short crust pastry. Over time, Demerara sugar wafts out of the glass.
Palate: Beautiful silky mouthfeel - good oils and texture. Very creamy. High alcohol is well balanced and not obvious. With time, the dram changes: Vanilla custard. The crumble part of apple crumble. Quite meaty, too....a hint of lamb chops?
Finish: Still creamy. Only on the finish is the high alcohol apparent - and beautifully so, as the heat descends down your chest.
Comments: This is the perfect vatting, as it combines a touch of everything. The sherry gives delicious spice and wine-sweetness to the dram, and this is then enhanced with the vanilla and oak from the bourbon. It mixes savoury and sweet and achieves it beautifully.
Footnote by Franz Scheurer:
Let me say more or less diplomatically that I am no friend of Australian whiskies and have never found a dram worth drinking. This changed with Heartwood's Mt. Wellington Release about 2 years ago, which convinced me that we finally had a world-class whisky in Australia. This release was subsequently followed by more releases and each and every one a cracker. I would now rate Heartwood amongst the world's best and I love the fact that we finally have not only a great whisky, but a definite style.