For the last decade Australia has been experiencing a boom in small-scale whisky production, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. While Lark Distillery, the famed rejuvenator of distilling Down Under, approaches its 30th anniversary, the more recent surge of new distillers appears to be part of an altogether larger movement. An increasing number of Australians are discovering first hand that a seven- or eight-figure sum is not a prerequisite for a successful whisky distillery. An hour’s drive south of Melbourne city centre, in Mornington Peninsula’s peaceful town of Somerville, nestled among the rear units of a small warehousing complex, one such distillery can be found. If the world needed any further proof of Australia’s love affair with small-scale whisky production, it needn’t look any further than here.
After several years of planning, Chief’s Son Distillery was founded in 2016 by husband and wife team Stuart and Naomi McIntosh. Despite the distillery’s youthful history, Chief’s Son has family and tradition firmly rooted at its core. Visitors are greeted with the words of Stuart’s grandfather, Alasdair McIntosh, “My grandparents passed the love of whisky through my parents to me and I want to make sure my children pass it on to their children.”
McIntosh, or Mhic an Tòisich in Scottish Gaelic, translates to ‘son of the chief’. Stuart tells me it is a name that can be traced back in Scotland some 900 years, and is not only the inspiration for the distillery’s name, but also for its core expression, the 900 Standard. It is released in batches of – you guessed it – 900 bottles.
Stuart’s career in both the military and finance, coupled with Naomi’s education in science, makes for one formidable distilling duo. When asked if any outside advice was sought while setting up Chief’s Son, Stuart wryly grins, “We float our own boat.”
As seen with smaller-scale operations, the distillery’s set-up is one of simplicity and practicality and upon entering the production floor, the entire process can be seen under one roof. Between the racks of variously-sized casks, pallets of bottles, intermediate bulk containers and spirit receivers, signs of family life, such as their young children’s scooters and doodled-on casks, can be seen.
Any seasoned distillery visitor would quickly notice a few oddities at Chief’s Son. Neither a mash tun nor any fermentation vessels are evident, as the McIntoshes opted to outsource the production of their wash to the nearby Mornington Peninsular Brewery.
The McIntoshes work closely with their brewing partner to ensure that every batch of wash received is brewed exactly to specification.
In fact, so particular are said specifications – namely the recipes of malts and yeast varieties used – that some have referred to their approach as being meticulously “Japanese”, Stuart declares with pride.
On the contrary, all I see is an abundance of the ingenuity that many Australian distillers are quickly becoming renowned for.
By far the most noticeable peculiarity to be seen at Chief’s Son is the single 4,000-litre copper pot still, which proudly stands as the lofty room’s centrepiece. The use of a single pot still system is not unusual Down Under. Furthermore, the still is powered by electricity, which is unusual for a still of its size. Stuart confirms that the electrical elements inside the still are indeed “a pain in the [derrière] to clean”. The purpose-bought generator glints in the rear corner of the room, quietly humming away.
Overlooking the production floor is the tasting room, where guests are welcome to sample an already-growing range of Chief’s Son single malts. The McIntoshes mature their whisky in a combination of 20-litre and 100-litre French oak ex-Apera casks, sourced from Seppeltsfield Winery in South Australia (Apera being the artist formerly known as Australian sherry).
All of their whiskies are currently three years old, a year older than the country’s two-year minimum maturation law. When asked why they waited an additional year, Stuart replies that they simply weren’t happy with it. The freedom to make such decisions is usually reserved for distillers without the burden of investors eagerly itching for their ROI.
Despite having received a number of offers from keen investors, Chief’s Son remains entirely funded by the McIntoshes. Stuart is adamant that they “are not for sale”.
Since the distillery’s inception, the McIntoshes had their hearts set on producing peated whisky. While peat can be found in parts of Australia, the country’s maltsters lack the facilities to produce peated malt.
For this reason, Chief’s Son imports its malt from Scotland.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that Stuart and Naomi’s whisky is very well made. The combination of their heady, ester-rich, lightly peated spirit and exceptional cask quality, maturing in the region’s variable climate, makes for some seriously top-notch whisky. The 900 Standard bursts with oloroso, old oak, caramel, liquorice and tobacco.
Alongside the 900 Standard, there are a further two expressions currently available: there is the 900 Sweet Peat, which contains, as the name suggests, a higher percentage of peated malt, and the 900 Pure Malt. And herein some confusion may sit…
To many, the term ‘pure malt’ conjures up images of Japanese whisky or perhaps old bottles of ‘pure malt Scotch whisky’ (which was reclassified as ‘blended malt Scotch whisky’ a decade ago). Chief’s Son 900 Pure Malt is to be confused with neither; it is in fact single malt. Stuart says, “Our aim was to create a whisky that tasted like malted barley, biscuit-flavoured. So we use more craft malts and at a much higher kilning. And we use what I call a ‘pure-batch process’; using between 8,000 and 9,000 litres of this ‘pure wash’, we distil it once, then only distil the low wines from that batch, so without any fores and feints.” It is an outstanding three-year-old whisky. Excitingly, Stuart and Naomi already have plans for expansion at Chief’s Son.
There is a truly inspiring, DIY attitude to be found among the ever-growing number of Australian whisky makers. In contrast to Scotland’s newcomers, distillers Down Under have cast aside the notion that large buildings, corporate money and industrial-scale equipment are prerequisites for making great whisky.