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Turning wine into whisky in McLaren Vale

Primary Industries

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ACCESS to high quality barley and barrels and a variable yet temperate climate have distillers confident South Australia can emerge as a top-shelf whisky region.

A $2.5 million distillery in the McLaren Vale wine region – best known for its bold shiraz – will begin operating this month with the aim of releasing its first single malt in about two years.

The McLaren Vale Distillery Founder and General Manager John Rochfort has moved back to South Australia after several years honing his craft in Tasmania, one of the premier whisky producing regions in the southern hemisphere.

His last role was as CEO at Lark Distillery ­– the gold medal winner for Best World Whisky at the International Whisky Competition in Chicago in 2014.

The McLaren Vale region, about 40km south of Adelaide, is home to the original Hardys winery, which has grown into a major international wine brand.

Rochfort said access to high quality local barrels was one of the reasons McLaren Vale was chosen as the site for the distillery.

“We’ve selected some incredible South Australian barrels with amazing history like a 90-year-old muscat cask that continually held muscat for the entire period of time – it was the same block of muscat every single season – and we’ve got our hands on some incredible port barrels as well,” he said.

“A lot of the vineyards are coming forward with their best, award-winning barrels saying ‘we’d love you to have them, please in four or five years when it’s ready can you spare us a bottle’.”

In recent years India and Taiwan have emerged as leading warm climate whisky producers while the southern Australian island of Tasmania has long been known as a hot spot for high quality single malts.

McLaren Vale is about 10km from the coast and is warmer than Tasmania but cooler than Bangalore and Taiwan.

Its Mediterranean climate has average maximum temperatures between 14C and 28C and average minimums between 7C and 16C.

Rochfort said the distillery’s location in the southern Mount Lofty Ranges overlooking the vale was an “amazing climate” for maturing whisky.

“We get these really crisp, cool nights and then South Australian summer days and then in the afternoon around three or four o’clock we get these really nice cool breezes that bring it right back down so for maturing barrels and really getting the most out of the wood it’s an amazing location,” he said.

A malting plant will be built on site to allow barley from specific districts to be malted individually to make true single batch whiskies.

“What we’ve been able to do is work with farmers in four specific regions of South Australia – they each have their own climate that produce a different character to the grain.

“So by doing that small batch malting, every single barrel we put out will have its own provenance from the grain.”

Rochfort will work alongside his brothers Nicholas and Lachlan and father Christopher at the distillery.

McLaren Vale Distillery founder John Rochfort, third from left, with his team.

They plan to mature most of the whisky in 100 and 200-litre barrels, but will initially use some 50-litre barrels to kick start the operation.

“Obviously with the wood to spirit ratios they will mature much faster so I would expect that in two years, two and a half years there to be a first release,” he said.

“We would like to think it would be a good rich, oily whisky, that’s got a lovely oily mouth feel and is rich with a really good palate feel, that’s the goal.

“Bill Lark in Tasmania really taught me everything I know and I spent a lot of years tasting and assessing Lark whiskies before we made them available for release and everything that we did in Tasmania we’re recreating here with the benefit of a much better ability to select barrels.

“We’ve already been approached by a couple of different countries putting their hands up for our first thousand bottles, which we haven’t even put down yet -demand is incredible at the moment.”

Output at the distillery, which has been helped by a $500,000 South Australian  Government Regional Development Fund grant, is limited because it can only   process 100 tonnes of barley a year.

“So we’re looking at around 20,000 litres in our first year growing to a maximum of 50,000 litres by year five,” Rochfort said.

The range of whiskies will start with the McLaren Vale single malt at $120-$150 through to the Bloodstone Collection featuring the “Best of the best” barrels from South Australia, ranging in price from $500- $1000.

“These are barrels that have previously won amazing awards – it could be a 1967 Grange Hermitage barrel – so when we get hold of these barrels we want their complete history from everything that ever went into that barrel, the dates of the fill, it must have only ever had the same grape variety from the same block in that barrel or we won’t accept it as a Bloodstone barrel,” Rochfort said.

“The grain must be specially grown on farms, it must maintain its provenance.

“When we bottle them, an original bottle of the muscat, or sherry or port or bourbon or whatever was in that barrel before we took use of it will be part of that box set when the whisky is matured. You’ll also be able to have a little bottle of the Mount Lofty spring water that we use, a little sample of the grain that we use for that particular bottling and some shavings of the actual wood from the barrel as well as the bottle of single malt.”

Rochfort said he was working with separate groups in three other South Australian wine regions – Barossa Valley, Limestone Coast and Clare Valley – who wanted to start their own whisky distilleries.

“We would really like to see the single malts representing the regions of South Australia because each region has its own special wines and grain growing abilities and to be able to produce a single malt which is truly made up of that region’s input is the goal,” he said.

About 45km south of McLaren Vale at the mouth of Australia’s biggest river, The Murray, Gareth Andrews has been running the Steam Exchange Brewery in Goolwa for a decade, where he now also distils whisky. He hopes to launch his first single malt towards the end of the year.

The G R Andrews & Sons Fleurieu Distillery is producing spirit for three established Australian whisky makers – including two in Tasmania – to help provide cash flow while its whisky matures. 

Andrews said South Australian distillers were beginning see the opportunities created by a global whisky boom.

“Globally, the whole whisky boom is on and people are looking for quality over quantity and they are starting to realize that good quality single malt whiskies can be made in other places than Scotland,” Andrews said.

“We’ve got the barley, we’ve got the climate, so everything’s good.”

Adelaide-based Southern Coast Distillers began selling its South Australian whisky in 2011. Jim Murray described one of its single malts in the 2012 edition of The Whisky Bible as “one of the most astonishing whiskies it has been my honour to taste”.

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