Working with whisky: Q&A with Sullivans Cove

Bert Cason, sales and marketing manager at Sullivans Cove Single Malt Whisky, tells us about Australians' growing appetite for whisky, and what makes his brand stand out from the crowd.


Can you please give us a brief run-through of your career and your current position?
I spent 7 years in London in publishing, the latter four of those as the Group Commercial Manager at Union Press where I oversaw The Drinks Business and The Spirits Business magazines, the Spirits Masters Series of blind tasting competitions and a range of events. I moved to Tasmania in 2011 with my wife (who is Tasmanian) and took up the position of Sales and Marketing Manager at Sullivans Cove in 2012.

The main focus of my job is to grow the generic Tasmanian whisky brand, because the biggest growth potential for us lies in Australians choosing local whisky over imported whisky.

Tell us about Sullivans Cove Whisky.
Sullivans Cove is Tasmania's second oldest whisky, established in 1994. It is the biggest selling Tassie and Australian whisky and is also the most awarded brand. Sullivans Cove currently holds the record as the highest scoring Australian whisky in leading whisky critic Jim Murray's 2013 Whisky Bible with 96.5/100 and was voted Best Australian Single Malt by Whisky Magazine's World Whisky Awards in 2013.

Sullivans Cove is made using only Tasmanian water and barley, is non-chill filtered and is bottled as single cask expression, meaning that every barrel is bottled individually to capture the unique flavours from each barrel. This makes every bottle a unique experience, in the truest sense of the word.


What do you think has driven Australian consumers’ growing appetite for whisky at the moment?
Australians' appetite for whisky follows a global trend that started in the mid-2000s. Single malt whisky has shown the greatest and most consistent growth of all spirits categories over the past 10 years.


Could you tell us about the different casks that you use during the maturation process and what kind flavour profiles they deliver?
We use French oak ex-port casks from Mcwilliam's in NSW. These are 300L barrels and we mature our whisky in them for about 12 to 13 years. These barrels create our most popular whisky for the Australian market and deliver a wonderful, big, oily, rounded malt full of raisin, dark chocolate, burned cherry and even star anise flavours.

We also use American oak ex-bourbon casks from Jim Beam in the USA. These are 200L barrels and again we mature our whisky in them for about 12 to 13 years. These barrels create a beautiful whisky that is very popular in Europe, but less so in Australia. Again we have a big, oily, rounded malt, but this time the flavours are sweeter with caramel, vanilla, spices and citrus notes.


Can you tell us about the still that you use to create your single malt whisky? What unique flavours does it bring to the spirit?
We use a 2500L copper pot still that will be coming up to its 20th birthday soon. We had to get the boilermaker in a few months ago because she stared leaking a bit. The copper reacts with the liquid and wears down over time, resulting in some thin areas that become little holes after a while, but she's all good now. It is very hard to tell what effect the still has on the whisky because ultimately, and as the saying goes; "the wood makes the whisky."


Which of the Sullivan Cove whiskies is your personal favourite and why?
I am currently torn between French Oak barrel 525 and American Oak barrel 211. The American barrel is like drinking salty fudge, it's beautiful. Generally though I would say I prefer the French Oak for the overall composition of flavour.


Will any new batches or expressions be released in the near future?
Yes, look out for the Ballbreaker series! These are one-off cask strength (bottled straight from the barrel no water added, can be up to 73%ABV) expressions done on an ad-hoc basis as the right barrel presents itself.

Sullivan Cove now has an impressive collection of international awards. Which award are you most proud of?
96.5/100 in Jim Murray's 2013 Whisky Bible. He rated us as one of his top six whiskies of the year after tasting some 1300 whiskies, an incredible compliment.

Was it initially hard to get Sullivan Cove whisky recognised internationally considering such tough competition from long-established single malt distilleries?
It was harder to get local recognition, but having said that, it was still hard to get international recognition. They started to take more notice as the awards piled up over the years and Australia only really joined the party about a year or so ago. I think the international acceptance went a long way to convince locals that local whisky was up there with the imports.

What is the biggest challenge of being a boutique, small batch whisky producer in Australia?
Cashflow and scaling up. The product cycle is very long, from five to 12 years. That is a long time to be sitting around waiting for whisky to mature before you can sell it. The accountants and bank managers hate it, but we have managed this far and it is getting a lot easier now that we have sufficient mature stock on had to sustain growth.


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