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.