While single cask whiskies are rare and magical beasts, the art of blending is also fundamental to the Sullivans Cove range.
Most distilleries will either focus on large vattings that produce tens of thousands of bottles at a time, or single cask bottlings – and not much in between. But at Sullivans Cove, small batch blending is key to our Double Cask expressions. Unlike commercial distilleries, our vatted expressions are painstakingly constructed in very small batches from just a handful of casks.
Read on to find out how we create complexity and character in our whiskies through the art of blending.
Sullivans Cove Distillery is mostly known for our award-winning single cask whiskies. These whiskies are carefully selected from our most complex and intriguing casks, decanted at the peak of flavour and character after being closely monitored and tasted many times, and bottled one cask at a time so that each can express its own unique characteristics. But individual casks that shine completely unblended are a rare and elusive thing. Ask any distiller, and they’ll tell you that most casks will turn out perfectly well, but generally lacking the depth of character to go it alone. That’s why single cask whiskies tend to be a lot less common and more expensive than standard vatted expressions.
According to Sullivans Cove Head Distiller, Heather Tillott, “It really comes down to listening to the spirit, as each cask will tell us where it’s meant to be. Some casks want to stand on their own- they are complex, well-rounded, well-balanced and interesting. They want the spotlight, and I say let them have it! But these superstar casks are the minority, so when they come along we can’t look past them, and we dress them up in a Single Cask outfit.
“The majority of casks, on the other hand, are their best selves when they’re matched with others. They’re the team players, they work together and complement each other to achieve the things that those Single Casks manage to achieve on their own. Most casks have a particular strength, so when you mindfully put them together you can balance out their traits to find a very happy place, like recruiting players for a well-rounded sports team.”
At most single malt distilleries, standard releases are made by vatting together hundreds or thousands of casks. By doing this, commercial brands can create a consistent style because any outlier casks with odd flavours will be diluted among all the others. In this way, most single malts aim for an average flavour profile. It’s more about maths than carefully selected casks: x% of ex-bourbon casks + y% of ex sherry casks = the flavour profile that the consumer will recognise, batch after batch and year after year.
But to do this, you need access to thousands of casks from the same distillery. At Sullivans Cove, we only bottle around 50 casks per year – not nearly enough for large scale vatted expressions based on averages and mathematical equations. Even what most other distilleries would call “small batch” would dwarf Sullivans Cove by orders of magnitude. Our Double Cask batches are genuinely small, only producing around 1,000-1,500 bottles each, and that means we have to take a unique approach to blending. It takes time to get each batch just right by tasting and smelling and blending, sometimes for months at a time. That’s why we release only four or five batches every year, every single one a labour of love.
As our vatted expressions only contain whisky from a handful of casks, that blending process is critical. We build our Double Cask batches like you might create a perfume, with each cask representing a critical element of the final product. One cask might be selected for its rich and creamy texture, another for bright fruit and floral notes, one for a lingering finish, etc.
According to Heather, “I have a rule of thumb when it comes to the basic percentages of cask styles in any batch, but it’s only a guideline. That’s because every cask is unique, and the mature casks we have available at any one time will change. It’s like making an omelette from what’s growing in your garden; last week it had zucchini in it and this week it has peas, but it always has eggs and black pepper. The only way to figure out how the casks will work together (or not!) is to get your nose in there and work it out, one blend at a time.”
Heather pours over these cask samples for days at a time, using each like the spices in a curry to come up with the perfectly balanced blend. Some casks will be used in their entirety, while others will only be used a few litres at a time for a subtle influence across multiple batches. Heather says, “It absolutely takes time and a lot of patient detail work. 1L of liquid in 1,000 can make a noticeable difference, so getting it right every time is both beautiful and daunting!
“A typical blending day for me looks something like this: I won’t go into the distillery, but rather work from home so I can offer the task my full concentration. I’ll start by prepping mind and body as much as the palate with some form of rhythmic exercise (cycling, rowing or yoga) and try to clear my mind. I’ve got to be quiet and still to hear the liquid- the liquid always knows when you are edgy. It will give you edges in return! So I get myself set up with my samples, no loud music, bright lights, perfume, lotions, candles, or other things that have an obvious scent or could otherwise distract me, and make sure my palate is clean with no dairy, coffee, black tea, salty things and absolutely no sugar. I basically eat plain porridge cooked in water the morning of a blending day.
“I’ll be set up on my dining room table, surrounded by stacks of glasses, sample bottles, measuring cylinders and syringes, a notebook and a laptop. Each iteration is done on a very small scale, so there’s a lot of minute moving of liquid (i.e. using a syringe!). There’s a lot of nosing, tasting and staring into space. It’s super repetitive. If I’m not in a patient mood, then it’s not a day for blending. But when I’m in the right mood, I won’t stop until I’ve hunted it down. My partner will tell you how I’m on a somewhat crazed mission until I find the right blend match.
“I start by tasting a recent batch of Double Cask to give myself a baseline and get in the zone, going over the data for each component to check the volumes and ABV’s are correct. Then I get into nosing over my cask samples to spark the memory – these are the paints on my palette. I look at the previous iterations of the current batch I’m working on, which will guide what I’m trying to achieve for the day. Where am I? What’s missing? What’s there too much of? I plan out my trials for the day on paper, then put them together and dilute them. I’d do this 2-3 times on a blending day, with breaks for other work in between.
“To come up with the final recipe, I usually start with half a dozen rough options, and then chose the best 2 or 3 from those. I then refine the best ones and put them all up against each other. That continues until there’s a clear winner. It’s kind of like the Olympics. So in the end each batch would have gone through roughly 30 iterations, some way more (pesky darlings) and some less.
“The final version has to have recognisable Sullivans Cove Double Cask attributes and be a good representation of our spirit and maturation style. It also has to be delicious, to make me want to drink more. It has to be interesting, complex, good breadth through the nose and across the palate, and have good length. The narrative has to be deep and right the whole way through. When it’s finally right, I’ll pour over the maths again to ensure it’s perfect, and then send through the plan to our distillers, who will carefully marry all of the components. The last step is our very gentle dilution and settling process which usually takes about three months before we can finally bottle the whisky and send it out, ready to drink.”
We’re almost ready to release our next batch of Double Cask Tasmanian Single Malt whisky. Make sure you’re signed up to our mailing list to hear about it first by clicking the link below, and if you have any questions about how we make any of our products, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.