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Heartwood Malt Whisky - Convict Redemption Batch 2
This is now the fourth review and story on Heartwood Malt Whisky featured on AGP. You'd be forgiven for thinking such exposure hints at favouritism or that the spotlight is focussing too closely on just one player. However, in a week where an Australian whisky just picked up "World's Best Single Malt Whisky" at one of the most respected international whisky award shows on the planet, the opportunity to focus again what's coming out of the Heartwood stable should not be dismissed.
For those unfamiliar with the name or the story, the executive summary is that Heartwood is an independent bottler of Tasmanian malt whiskies, headed up by Tim Duckett. Duckett has acquired casks from several distilleries, at various stages of maturation, and he treats and experiments with them in such a way that the final result and flavours are a long way removed from what the rest of the industry is producing.
Heartwood's latest release - and the best to-date - is the Convict Redemption Batch 2.
The bottling has some interesting provenance, having been distilled by Bill Lark at Tasmania Distillery. Yes, that's the distillery responsible for Sullivans Cove, the aforementioned award winner. Distilled in May 2001 and bottled in December 2013, it is a monster of a whisky, weighing in at an unbelievable 71.9% ABV.
The last two-three years have been watershed moments for Duckett, as his theories and experiments have begun to hold water. (Or, more accurately, lose water, judging by the increase in ABV!). Duckett readily acknowledges that some of his casks were nothing particularly special at the start of their journey, however, the treatment he gives the casks and the processes he undertakes to refine them is borne out of a combination initiative, inspired genius, happy accidents, and hard yakka. Trial and error goes a long way in the whisky game, and Duckett has tried all manner of steps and tricks to reduce the volatiles in his whiskies and coax out their goodness. And it's clear that he's learned what works and what doesn't. "The early releases were good whiskies" he explains, "but if I knew then what I know now, they'd have been even better." The experiments included leaving the casks in hot tin sheds over the Aussie summer (one of the reasons why water is evaporating before the alcohol and thus increasing the alcoholic strength); opening the decanting vat repeatedly to release the accumulated volatiles; and even holding back the release of each expression after initial bottling, so that the whisky can adjust to "bottle shock". Those in the production end of the Scotch or bourbon industries would suggest there's no such thing as bottle shock, but simple testing and tasting by Duckett demonstrate otherwise. And it's that sort of "hands on", head-first approach that is yielding amazing results.
And so to the Convict Redemption Batch 2. Duckett believes this is his best whisky yet, and this reviewer didn't take much convincing to agree. Duckett's ultimate whisky is one that he describes as a brontosaurus. If you picture the body shape, it's small and narrow at the front, then builds to a huge, big, powerful middle, and then tapers off to a long tail or finish. The Convict Redemption Batch 2 achieves such a profile, and impressively so. Perhaps one of the most astounding things about this whisky is that, despite (or in spite?) of the ridiculously high ABV, there is not a hint of aggression.
The nose is instantly sweet. The cask in question was an ex-port French oak cask. 12 years is a fair old age for Australian whisky, and the years in wood have brought out spice, coffee, toffee, roasted nuts, dark chocolate, and sweet pastry notes.
The palate is - well, let's not mince words - HUGE. One must never forget that whisky making is the art of producing flavoured alcohol. Hence, the more alcohol, the more flavour. In this instance, the palate explodes with big, powerful flavours that capture so many different categories and families of flavour. Sweetness? Check. Malty? Check. Spices? Check. Vanillins? Check. Oak? Check. Port influence? Check. Pleasant experience? Double check. If you're not used to drinking cask strength or high alcohol spirit, then I concede this might be a bit too big for some, and perhaps be perceived as a bit hot by others. But one mustn't confuse heat with aggression. To this palate, the experience was powerful, but wonderfully smooth. And for those that do need to bring down the strength, a few drops of water don't go astray.
The key thing here is balance. There are too many whiskies being released presently - from all over the world - where the balance is lost or seen as a luxury. Big sherried whiskies have no sweetness to balance the tannins; grassy Speysiders have no malt or sweetness to balance the bitterness; and youthful drams have no oak to balance the volatile spirit. The Convict Redemption Batch 2 is the perfect example of how good a whisky can be when balance is achieved. The oak and the spirit combine rather than fight; the sweetness is balanced by spice, rather than being cloying or too saccharine; and the palate is complex rather than lopsided or one-dimensional.
However, to be a good whisky, the dram must have a good finish. In this instance, the brontosaurus' tail is insanely long, yet is consistent with the body. This is a dram that leaves a mighty big footprint on your tastebuds - yet they're all the more grateful for the experience!
Followers of Heartwood on Twitter were treated last week to some pictures and morsels of the next generation of Heartwood releases. They're still quite a few months away, but come from casks of different provenance, distilleries, and production methods (including the use of peated malt!) The world can only get better!
Thank you Andrew; In my opinion the Heartwood is the only Australian whisky I rate and the only Australian whisky I actually buy and drink.