AGP readers may recall a rather glowing review I gave of the debut release from Heartwood Malt Whisky earlier this year - The Mount Wellington Release. That particular bottling was recently served blind at a gathering of·hardcore whisky enthusiasts, none of whom picked it was an Australian whisky, and all of whom gave it the highest score of the night in a line up against some very formidable cask-strength Scottish releases.
Tim Duckett, the man behind Heartwood, contacted me recently to tempt and tease that he'd found another incredible cask amongst his inventory - one that, after years of slumber, had suddenly hit its straps and was pushing his buttons. Perhaps giving an insight into the whisky's character, he's coined this new offering "Beast". It is yet to be bottled and made ready for commercial release, but the good man was kind enough to send me a sample.
Okay, so the truth is, I know a bit about this whisky, i.e. where it was distilled, who distilled it, what sort of cask treatment and maturation it had (this is a fascinating story in itself), and what little tricks and experiments Tim pulled to get it to this particular flavour profile and point of readiness for release. However, I've been sworn to secrecy at this stage, and all will be revealed when the cask is actually released commercially. Let's just say that there's a twist in the maturation process that I don't think the Scots will be copying anytime soon! For the time being, all you need to know is that the whisky was distilled in Tasmania.
The first thing you notice is the colour - it's incredibly dark. Such is the authenticity of my cask sample, it's actually still got rather large chunks of charcoal flakes floating in the spirit that were drawn up by the pipette. If we taste with our eyes, this one's already off to a flying start. The second thing you notice is that the darkness has a colour - a wonderful reddish tinge, like the darkest jarrah. The whisky is a marriage of two 100 litre casks (a particular type and with a particular past history) that were combined and re-racked into a 200 litre cask of a different type and with a different past history. And you can certainly read those histories in the colour.
My sample has been bottled at 64.2% ABV which - in fairness - is pretty bloody high for a whisky bottling. However, I'm probably not the best person to comment on this, since the vast majority of whisky I drink is cask-strength, and I'm not even sure I could taste a whisky if it was less than 50%. So whether it was actually the whisky, or just my immunity to high-strength spirit, I have to say that the nose was surprisingly genteel, and certainly didn't betray that this was a high-octane affair. Similarly, the palate, whilst obviously powerful and "over proof", was neither hot nor aggressive. All good so far!
Whereas the first Heartwood release fooled many people into thinking it was a Scottish malt, this second Heartwood offering is unmistakably Australian. The spicy honey, eucalyptus, marzipan, hazelnuts, pollen, and wild bush flowers are all here. Where this whisky stands out though, is the balance and the power. I don't mean power from the alcohol, but power from the unity and integration of the flavours. It delivers on a uniform front, and there's no weak component or poor ingredient in the make-up. And the oak doesn't miss you either, with some healthy tannins thrown in for good measure.
Given I'm critiquing this, I elected to add water - and was amply rewarded by a surpisingly wider and more floral nose. Hard toffee also came into the picture, as well as peanut brittle, bush honey, and even some coffee notes. With water, the palate softened and was suddenly sweeter, with hints of cream, berry coulis, and danish pastries. Then, with a bit of time in the glass, came some real "toasted and roasted" notes - porter beer, dark chocolate, and mocha coffee. The finish, I have to say, turned a little bitter in the dying aftertaste, and so judicious use of water is needed to find this one's optimum sweet spot. However, with a starting point of 64.2%, there were only so many times I could try this on the fly on the one night and still be able to type!
The verdict? It's powerful, vibrant, fascinating and - above all else - extremely tasty! If it's a Beast, then there's a touch of Beauty in there as well, because this is worth seeking out for all the right reasons! As the Australian whisky landscape changes and grows with more and more new distilleries coming on stream, the independent offerings from Heartwood look like they'll continue to pave the way for new and exciting flavours - not to mention some fascinating new maturation techniques!
Heartwood Malt Whisky - The Beast
By Andrew Derbidge
Australian Gourmet Pages