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The Whiskies of Oz

It was ever thus: you wait ages for an Australian single malt and two come along at once. Well, not exactly at once.

I have had a review sample of Release the Beast, courtesy of Australian independent bottlers Heartwood, for a number of weeks now – I even had notes prepared. But I would not release the beast, partly because Honours level university assessment coupled with part time work at a hotel whisky bar leaves one with precious little free time, but mostly because Doug Clement of the Kingsbarns distillery project in Fife insisted he had a gem with which I might compare it. He was right, but a little more about Heartwood first.

The company began sourcing whiskies from Australian distillers in 1999, and they are very particular about their requirements for the spirit they mature, and what casks they use. Evidently this is the advantage of an independent bottler working with the raft of independent and ambitious Australian distilling movement: specifications can be negotiated and results speedily assessed in this category which explores the limits of whisky’s definitions. As the leading quote on their website reads: ‘We are not limited by tradition. Isolation often leads to innovation.’ Check them out online here.

Release the Beast is more than just an accident of assonance. Heartwood took spirit distilled at Lark in Tasmania, the product of two port casks, then married them together in an Australian sherry cask and bottled the result at 65.4%. On first tasting, I was intrigued by the taut, intense nose, but could not coexist with the aggressive flooding of the finish with Sherry and sugar flavours. Alongside another Lark, however - Doug’s Lark Single Cask #205 - its true character emerged.

The two young Aussies side-by-side.

Heartwood Release the Beast 65.4%

Colour – a rich, deep and thick red. Toffee apple.

The Heartwood label.

Nose – at first, musty and creamy with nutmeg. Then the spirit reveals itself: very young and not exactly integrated with the ‘old’-seeming oak. Coffee filter paper. Closed. Walnut, some spice and spring onion. Plump dates.

Palate – sweet and nutty at first with some candied orange rind. And then all is lost as tannic ferocity gouges the tongue.

Finish – absolutely fascinating: perfumed and scented with Olbas oil cold remedy, purple fruit skins. Rich biscuit flavours build into the foreground.

Adding Water emphasised the wood and the spirit on the nose, which surge to the fore again with so much Sherry. Maple syrup and a dash of an aroma I will come to fall in love with: a scented smokiness which may be the cask or light Tasmanian peat. Against this is a meaty flavour like smoked back bacon. That scented Olbas oil-like aroma. A log fire with cinnamon and clove.

Palate - Sherry, alcohol heat and texture. It doesn’t bloom with richness as I had expected but contracts on bitter orange, oak and some warming sweet spice.

Finish – aromatic oils return, but with more tannic dryness – almost dusty. Meatiness again.

This whisky still remains an intractable character, like the socially-awkward one who doesn’t know when to hold back and when to engage. The spirit and wood properties never quite meet in the middle, unfortunately, and the heavy tannins combined with the eyewatering strength make this nearly undrinkable neat. The warming spice and fixing sweetness of Lark is discernible here and there, but the overloading of Sherry sweetness at the close mars the experience.

Lark Single Cask #205 Bott. 2011 58%

A lovely Lark.

Doug tells me that this is a 7yo whisky distilled using peated Franklin barley from Australia (Tasmania supplies the peat for the malting process). It has been matured in a cut-down 100 litre Australian port cask, apparently, which is a lot of details to take in. None of these particulars were known to me when I tasted the whisky, for Doug’s sample came in an unmarked chemist’s bottle.

Colour – rich full gold, verging on amber.

Nose – sharp, citric, junipery. Spiciness immediately, too: coriander seed. Cooking jam: fruit (plums, strawberries, raspberriess) with a heady sugariness. Some sweet hay as it warms up with red liquorice. Lemon and honey, boiled sweets. Pastries.

Palate – initially gin-like but the honey arrives in time. Lemon and clove. Really expressive and fresh. Light malt, and it is clear that the cereal provides a lot of the spice characteristics.

Finish – clean, sharp. A little vanilla sugar. Shortbread biscuits. Lemon and lime peel linger.

Adding water pulled out a weightier spirit on the nose with leathery characteristics but also – weirdly – more acidic citrus tones. Floral. The citrus resolves into lemon sherbet and icing sugar. A sense of hot, sweet earth. Warm Granny Smiths apples. Pooling yellow fruits and spice (like a sharper Balblair 1989). Some anise in the background, taking us back to the gin comparisons of earlier. Overall, very bright and warm.

Palate – parched grass, maltier. Sharpens again, only on barley which I described as ‘brown’. Spice in abundance (coriander leaf) then lime.

Finish – considerably shortened but still with a candied citrus focus.

This is more like it. I like my whiskies bright and assertive and this Lark boasts impressive scores in both categories. It still has the ability to fix the nose and palate with crystal-clear aromas and flavours which speak so eloquently of a very well-made spirit. It lost a chunk of its va-va-voom with water, and I rated it much closer to the Beast bottling under these circumstances, but the Port casks (didn’t see that coming beside the Beast) added complexity rather than screaming of their presence.

The Heartwood was a fascinating bottling, which maybe tried a little too much too soon. The official Lark release, however, shows that Bill and family are really on to something Down Under.

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November 16, 2012 um 5:33 pm
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