On the grapevine: Australian whisky makers' affinity for wine casks

On the grapevine: Australian whisky makers' affinity for wine casks

Australia has long been known for its boldly flavoured wines, and the country’s distilleries are now harnessing these characteristics to create a unique style of whisky

Production | 01 Feb 2023 | Issue 188 | By Luke McCarthy

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Home of World Renowned Fortified Wine and Iconic Australian Whisky.” So reads the sign on the Morris Wines maturation shed, located just outside the small town of Rutherglen in northeast Victoria. No, not Rutherglen in Glasgow. This Rutherglen, although named after the Scottish town, is a three-hour drive north of Melbourne and is surrounded by some of the world’s best fortified wine producers.

Since 1859, five generations of the Morris winemaking family have created what Jancis Robinson has referred to as “Australia’s greatest gifts to the wine world”. Walk into the dark, dirt-floor maturation sheds at Morris, breathe in the musty, heady, burnt-toffee aroma that fills the air, and you quickly understand how these fortified gifts have enthralled wine lovers around the world for decades.

“Some of the wine in these Muscat and Topaque barrels is over 100 years old. These are the real thing,” says Darren Peck, the man in charge of the Morris site, his Yorkshire accent halting on ‘real’ for emphasis. Australia was the last inhabited continent Peck hadn’t made booze on, he likes to point out, arriving a decade ago following a diverse international brewing and distilling career that saw him working across Europe, Africa and Asia, most extensively for Diageo.

Then in 2016, Peck’s employer, Casella Family Brands, producers of Yellow Tail, one of the world’s biggest-selling wine brands, bought the ailing Morris Wines business from drinks multinational Pernod Ricard. With sales of fortified wine continuing to plummet, Casella developed an ambitious plan to add a whisky distillery to the Morris site, one of Australia’s most important heritage wineries.

Peck was made head distiller of the new Morris whisky project. Veteran Scottish master distiller John McDougall, who’d previously worked for the likes of Balvenie, Laphroaig and Springbank, was drafted in as well. The late Dr Jim Swan was also a key member of the original Morris whisky team.

The Morris Wines vineyard. Credit: Luke McCarthy

In designing the site and its eventual single malt whisky, the team ensured that the history of Morris remained front and centre. A decommissioned 1930s Morris fortification still was fully restored to produce malt spirit. It was later joined by a near-identical twin still from the same era that underwent similar restoration.

Once the new Morris spirit was distilled, then came the ace in the hole: Morris and Casella wine casks. Casella wineries in the Barossa and Coonawarra wine regions started supplying casks to undergo Dr Swan’s trademark shaving, toasting and re-charring (STR) process. Flagship Morris whiskies The Signature and Muscat Cask, first released in June 2021, were then finished in casks that previously held some of the ancient fortifieds the winery is famed for.

“It’s the specialness of the wine that makes my finishing barrels so special,” says Peck. However, he stresses that he doesn’t want to purely rely on wine to drive flavour into these whiskies.

“Here, because of the climate – down to -4°C in winter and then up to 42°C in summer – it’s about balancing the speed of maturation. You’ve got to think about your spirit as well. Your spirit has to be of a quality that it can mature quicker. In Scotland, you can put something in a cask for 10 years, 15 years and you’re not going to overkill it with tannins. Over here, you will.”

The barrel house at St Agnes distillery

Morris isn’t the only historic Australian winery to flick on the whisky switch of late. Angove Family Winemakers has been in business in South Australia, the heartland of Australian wine, since 1886. The Angoves are no strangers to the distilling game, either, having produced St Agnes, one of the world’s most awarded brandies, since 1925.

In July 2022, the St Agnes Distillery made its first foray into whisky with the release of the Camborne Single Malt Whisky brand. Fifth generation winemaker Richard Angove instigated the whisky project, running beer wash through the old St Agnes brandy pot stills that were originally installed in 1910.

“What a lot of people might not understand is that the Australian wine industry was built on distillation in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” says Angove. “Many, if not most, wineries had a still to create brandy or fortifying spirit because it was such an excellent way to use wine that wasn’t going to make the grade.”

Like Morris, St Agnes has an entirely in-house cask programme to mature its spirit, and Angove sees enormous potential in educating consumers about Australian wine history.

“We’re so lucky to be able to manage our own casks internally before they see whisky. Whether they’ve held red wine, white wine, rare fortifieds or brandy, we’re able to know the exact history of each cask. For instance, we can go back and say this cask has seen our own single vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz for six years. It’s then been washed with St Agnes XO for eight years and moved into our whisky programme.”

Pouring a glass of Morris whisky

Of course, not every distillery in Australia has the luxury of an in-house cask programme. But the strategy of employing used local wine casks to house and flavour Australian whisky is quickly becoming an industry hallmark.

The brand that has arguably done most to advance that hallmark is Melbourne-based Starward. Since releasing its first red wine cask-matured single malts back in 2016, Starward, backed by Diageo’s start-up accelerator Distill Ventures, has marched into markets across the world touting the bright red berry and spicy oak flavours its whiskies have become synonymous with.

But the decision to fully mature its spirit in casks previously containing Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir was not taken lightly.
“In the early days, we were taking a big risk,” says Jarrad Huckshold, Starward’s head blender.

Huckshold is part of the new brigade of Australian whisky makers who originally trained as winemakers. He completed a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and oenology at the University of Adelaide and then spent five years working in wineries before making the switch to whisky production. For the budding Starward wine cask programme, his move was perfectly timed.

“When we started no-one at Starward really had any experience in red wine cask maturation,” says Huckshold. “Having that background in wine and understanding the variations between vintages and casks and then relating that to whisky really helped when we were trying to communicate to winemakers what we were looking for.”

From there, Huckshold and the Starward team began to fine-tune their approach. They now employ a range of different methods to prepare their wine casks, from filling spirit into ‘wet-fill’ casks virtually dripping with wine, to shaving, toasting and charring casks to produce brighter, more intensely flavoured whisky. “Then, depending on what we’re blending, we use different ratios of wet-fill to charred casks for different styles,” Huckshold adds.

Starward Nova

Of course, internationally, there’s nothing new about maturing whisky in table wine casks. Over the last two decades, a huge array of single malts have been finished in almost every type of wine cask you can think of. Australian red wine casks have even been used to finish whisky produced by distilleries in Scotland (Springbank), Ireland (Teeling) and Japan (Mars Shinshu).

So, is there anything particularly unique to the Australian approach? Heather Tillott, the award-winning distillery manager of Sullivans Cove, certainly thinks so. Tillott is passionate about the interplay between the Australian whisky and wine industries – she also trained and worked as a winemaker before starting her tenure with Sullivans Cove. For Tillott, the way so many Australian distillers fully mature rather than finish their whisky in wine casks has created a distinctive flavour profile.

“One of the typical markers of Australian single malt in the global market is epic wine influence, especially from fortifieds. And for Sullivans Cove, in particular, we seldom finish. Full maturation is what we specialise in,” Tillott explains.

“We’ve got casks out there that have had 100 years with tawny in them. When you try an Australian whisky that’s matured in one of those very old tawny casks, your brain explodes. It’s so rich and there’s so many dark corners and bright corners, it’s just astounding.”

Barrels resting at Sullivans Cove

Tillott acknowledges, though, that these bygone-era Australian fortified casks are now becoming difficult and expensive to source. Production of Australian fortified wine has been declining for decades, suffering the same fate that befell the port and sherry industries whose casks Scottish whisky makers so revere.

“Those casks aren’t infinite, absolutely not,” says Tillott. “But we’re an industry, we’re a living entity, we’re a part of history. We have access to these casks because of the Australian wine industry and its particular history. It’s a natural progression, and I think industry-wise, we should be embracing table wine casks. It’s all about building and growing that relationship and partnership with winemakers and respecting the history that these casks represent.”

That’s a powerful statement, considering the single cask that won Sullivans Cove the World’s Best Single Malt title in the 2014 World Whiskies Awards was one of those tawny old timers. That cask originally hailed from McWilliam’s Wines, one of Australia’s oldest wine businesses, which, in yet another sign of the times, was recently bought out after entering voluntary administration in 2020, ending 141 years of family ownership.

Clearly, whisky makers, like winemakers, are at the whim of changing tastes, and it will be fascinating to see how drinkers take to the flavours these wine cask whiskies throw up. If the two industries keep working together, the scope for collaboration is endless, and we might just be seeing the beginnings of an Australian whisky style emerge.
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