Heather Tillott of Sullivans Cove Distillery on making world-beating whisky: Season One, Episode Seven

This week on the Drinks Adventures podcast I play a conversation with Heather Tillott, production manager at Sullivans Cove Distillery in Tasmania.

If you have any awareness of Australian whisky you’ve surely heard of Sullivans Cove, known internationally for some of the incredible accolades it’s won in the last few years.

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In March 2018, Sullivans Cove won World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt at the highly prestigious World Whiskies Awards.

This followed the distiller’s French Oak expression being named World’s Best Single Malt outright at the World Whiskies Awards in 2014.

For an Aussie distiller to win one of these awards is remarkable, but two in such a short space of time is quite stupendous really.

Heather Tillott started in the beverage industry in wine production in the New South Wales Shoalhaven region.

She moved to Tasmania after a life change, thinking she would continue in wine. But a chance visit to Sullivans Cove put her on course to become a distiller.

I caught up with Heather at Sullivans Cove earlier this year.

More on Australian whisky:
Australian whisky, gin and bottled cocktails with Starward’s David Vitale: Episode Four

Heather Tillott of Sullivans Cove Distillery – full transcript

HEATHER TILLOTT: My name is Heather Tillott. I started in the beverage industry and wine production in the New South Wales Shoalhaven region. And then after a life change, I just wanted to move to Tassie. I thought I’d continue in wine here. But as it turned out, I kind of just fell into distilling by chance. When I moved down here just exploring what was happening in the beverage scene, I came here and tasted the whisky one afternoon because I thought, oh, you know everyone’s raving about the Tasmanian whisky, I might give it a go and completely fell in love.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now, March this year Sullivans Cove’s American Oak was named World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt at the World Whiskies awards. And obviously four years ago, the French Oak won the World’s Best Single Malt outright same awards. What was the atmosphere like at the distillery when the latest accolade came through?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Really surreal. Pat Maguire, the distiller, he was over at the awards in London texting us photos of these awards. We were just looking at them like, “Oh, my God. Really? What? We won.” It was really bizarre. To be honest, I feel like it hasn’t really sunk in yet, even the gravity of it because the team as a whole is really let’s just get on with it and do a good job. You know, head down sort of work ethic. But we were all just looking at each other, kind of laughing. It was really cool. Really, really cool. Over the moon.

JAMES ATKINSON: What’s harder? Making the ultimate expression of the French Oak, or American Oak, or making the Double Cask which obviously involves the blending exercise.

HEATHER TILLOTT: It’s harder in a sense to find a single cask. Because when you think about it, it’s just there’s not that many, and you, it’s almost like you’re just fishing. You’re fishing, you’re fishing, you’re throwing lines out, you’re throwing lines out, you’re just trying to find each barrel when it’s at its peak, and you know there’s some barrels that might not make it to that single cask level. And so you’ve kind of got them in your pool of Double Cask potential barrels. But to find a barrel that is at its peak of balance complexity, textures, texture structure, characteristics like the nose and the palate at a sweet spot is just a feat of nature. It’s an absolutely amazing feat of nature, and you can nurture it and kind of help it in its direction. But finding it at that point takes a long time of tasting and nosing and kind of following its journey. So, that’s really hard in one sense, but in the blending exercise is really time consuming and bizarrely mentally exhausting. When you’re using your nose and your palate in such an intense way. It takes a long time of tweaking and pulling bits and bobs from certain barrels together and matching barrels together. It’s surprisingly exhausting every time I do it. It surprises me that the mental exercise that goes on just from using, you know, so much.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so, that’s for the Double Cask?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Yeah, for the Double Cask, or for forthcoming blended of brandy. Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: And what do you think is giving Sullivans Cove’s whisky the edge, that have, you know, won these amazing accolades?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Look I really think it comes down to time. Time in a barrel. We’re using full sized barrels, and we’re ageing for quite substantial periods of time. We’re looking at substantial age in the barrel full sized casks. So, I really think time is a huge, huge part of it. Also, we’re not — we’ve got a pretty low intervention way of, like, working with our spirit as well, so we’re not chill filtering. That’s a really big thing that you’ll hear Sullivans talking about a lot. We don’t chill filter. We leave a lot of those haze, well, all of those haze forming particles that hold a lot of flavour, and texture, and aroma in the whisky. So, you’re getting raw whisky for lack of a better term. Which is a really, really cool thing. You’re getting everything from the grain, from the ferment, from the distillation, from the maturation, and from careful diluting and dealing with the spirit after maturation. So, it’s a cared for product.

JAMES ATKINSON: And how does that compare to, you know, commercial single malt production?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I’m not obviously going to that those whiskys haven’t got care that’s gone into them. But because we’re on a smaller scale, and we can do these processes on a, like, barrel by barrel basis, it’s a bit easy for us. On a large scale, obviously they’re looking at a large scale exporting and whatnot, and visually they would like their whiskys to look the same every time for example. So, you know, adding food coloring is a great way on that scale to get the similarity across bottles, and that each of them looks the same for example. But also, with chill filtering, I mean they don’t want to have haze particles in their whisky. So, from a large scale commercial perspective, it makes sense, and I think there’s room in the market for both. We’re just very adamant about where we are in it.

JAMES ATKINSON: And obviously Sullivans Cove is known for those three main products. Are there any other different innovative, whiskies that you plan to release in the future?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Yeah. Like certainly we’ve got the three; the three main in the range. We do have the special casks label, which from time to time, we’ll release a quirky but brilliant whisky in. And certainly upcoming, we will be releasing some interestingly some 300-litre American Oak x20 matured single malts. So, that’s a bit different. It’s a bit of an in-betweener for us. Usually, we’re using French Oak x20 and American Oak ex-bourbon, but it’s an American Oak ex-Tawny cask. So, they’re really cool whisky that’s coming out/ You’re getting all the American Oak, vanilla driven sweetness, plus a twenty hit. So, it’s kind of vinity as well; it’s really interesting. We’re also releasing brandies at the moment, some XO brandies, which is really lovely. We’re doing predominately single cask at the moment, but we will be releasing a blended brandy shortly.

JAMES ATKINSON: Were you a brandy enthusiast prior to, you know, having this brandy to work with?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I was. Which makes me very excited. I think, I guess, I, like, my palate – I’m more geared toward, you know, your fine Armagnacs, and Cognacs, and Calvados. They’re my spirits of choice. So, yeah, really excited. Yep.

JAMES ATKINSON: What’s the best thing about the job?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I actually think it’s being able to see your product go through so many transitions. That, for me, is like the crafting element of it. So, you can, you know, you can see the grain. You can, you can cover the ferment, you can watch the ferment, and then running it through the still a number of times, you know, you’re purifying it each time. And then you’ve got this new make that you put into a barrel. There’s just transitions. Each and every step of the way. It sits in the barrel for many moons. Years, and years, and years, and years. And watching whisky change and mature in a barrel is absolutely phenomenal. And then to work with that spirit. To find its sweet spot, whether it be a single cask or to work it with other whiskies to create complexity and balance and the structure that you’re after to create a good blend. And then see it in a bottle. It’s an amazing journey, just to watch.

JAMES ATKINSON: Obviously, with, you know, French Oak and American Oak, on the one hand you’re expressing a single cask, but on the other you’re try and look for a level of consistency across those releases. How much do they tend to vary from release to release, bottle to bottle?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Look, bottle to bottle or barrel to barrel?

JAMES ATKINSON: Barrels is what I mean.

HEATHER TILLOTT: Yeah. I know what you mean. Certainly, there’s always gonna be a fairly big spectrum of differences. I mean some. They’re always going to be familiar, right? There’s always gonna be that, “Hey, that’s like a Sullivans Cove French Oak,” right? But barrel to barrel, you’ll find some more spicy. Some have a bit more of a fruity note, some are sweeter, some more savoury. So, there’s differences in that, but there’s always that common thread of Sullivans Cove spirit that goes through them. Absolutely. Yep. And of course, when we’re looking at releasing them there’s obviously, you know, they have to make like a quality standards to get out the door in the first place of course. But, yeah. There’s certainly — think of them as people. They’re, it’s like a family. They’re all related so, they’re all similar, but they’re all really quirky and different too.

JAMES ATKINSON: Given the demand for Sullivans Cove whisky, has there been quite a big focus on trying to put more whisky down? So, that hopefully at some point in the future it’ll be a little bit more available. Because I understand that right now when each time a new cask gets released, it pretty much just gets sold right away.

HEATHER TILLOTT: Most certainly does. Yes. Demand is massive, but that’s okay. I mean we’re not, we’re certainly not going to start releasing whisky when it’s not ready. It’s just not something we’re gonna do. Defeats the purpose really. So, yet we’re in a bit of a drought at the moment. That’s going to continue for a bit. That’s okay. But certainly, we are putting down more now. Yes. So, we have a fairly intense production schedule now. Of course, that, you know, to seeing the fruit of that, we’re gonna have to wait at least a decade. But yeah, that’s the nature of the game. Nature of the industry. You’re thinking in the past and in the future all at once and on a couple of decades either way. It’s a really bizarre thing.

JAMES ATKINSON: How do you think Sullivans Cove fits in to the world whisky scene stylistically?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I guess the way I see it, and that’s, this is probably coming just from, like, a production kind of point of view, is that our set up, we’ve got a really bizarre still for a single malt. First of all, it’s a still that stylistically is like, you know, for Cognac. Like we’re running a Charentais alembic still, which is like, to look at, you’d be like, hey, that’s what they make Cognac with. It’s not the classic single malt still. So, we get it, and I mean because of that, we’ve got a worm tub condenser, which is a really old school rustic way of condensing a new make. Which gives you a rustic kind of barnyardy spirit. It’s a media. There’s more sulphur that comes through, for example. You get a very intense new make. There’s not that many distilleries out there that have still got this type of condenser. A lot of them are, you know, more efficient. You know [inaudible] kind of condensers. I think of distilleries like Mortlach, the best of Speyside, right? Gorgeous, gorgeous whisky. There’s always those sweet honeyed floral and spicy notes, but it’s broad on the palate. It’s more sulphur in it, it’s a bit rustic-er, more rustic, sorry, and it’s a bit richer. But I think Tasmania and like Sullivans, for example, is a really interesting thing to think about because we’ve got our own region, we’ve got our own terroir that no one else has. And in that sense, we’re really unique.

JAMES ATKINSON: What role does terroir actually play?

HEATHER TILLOTT: In spirits?

JAMES ATKINSON: In Sullivans Cove specifically.

HEATHER TILLOTT: Look I think the grain we use, Tasmanian barley, is a really, really interesting one because of the strains that we use in Tasmania, historically brewing strains. So, they’ve got less carbohydrate more protein in the actual grain, so there’s less alcohol yield. Still enough obviously to make it viable to distill and use as an industry, of course. But there’s less carbohydrate, and there’s more flavour. There’s a lot more fat content in them. So, we’re dealing with a very flavoursome base ingredient, very fatty flavoursome base ingredient. We have a fairly low and slow kind of approach to stealing, and so we’re getting a fairly soft spirit coupled at Sullivans with this, you know, the worm tub condenser type of meaty rustic spirit. Then you’re chucking it in a barrel for a long time. So, I think through all that you do still have a sense of place from the barley. The whisky that we decant from the casks, we don’t chill filter. There’s a lot of the haze forming compounds in there. There’s a lot of flocculant, which is a classic term you hear, so that they long chain fatty acids that have been formed in the ferment distilling distillation process and the maturation. But of course, because the barley had a lot more of the fatty compounds like particularly the fatty acids. There’s a lot more of it in there. Which means you get a very vicious spirit. A very, very vicious spirit. A lot of flavour, and I absolutely attribute that to the type of barley we’re using and where we are.

JAMES ATKINSON: We tried a whisky earlier on that was the ex-French White Wine casks.

HEATHER TILLOTT: Yeah, yeah right.

JAMES ATKINSON: What’s that series of releases, and are there likely to be more in the series?

HEATHER TILLOTT: Certainly. So, we’ve got some other barrels of that type down. I’m not, we’re not sure exactly how we’re going to release them at this stage. I mean they’re the label that we’ve released this one under is a special cast label, and so it’s, you know, it’s for quirky barrels that don’t really fit in our main range. But it’s not just because they’re quirky right. They’ve got to be crackers. Just something that absolutely stand outs. Really, really cool. So, that’s why this one is come in this particular barrel. We do have others of that type, and we’re open to playing with them. I think one of the things where we’re ever adamant about is letting the barrel tell us how to release it. Not try to pigeonhole it into something that we want it to be.

JAMES ATKINSON: Can you see yourself working in the wine industry again? Or has whisky got you now?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I think so at some stage later on down the track. But I don’t think I ever want to be without a still. Yep. I think whisky got me.

James Atkinson. Listening to you describing some of the aromatics of some of the whiskys we tried earlier. It’s very obvious how talented you are at nosing. What sort of work have you actually put into that, or is that just something you are naturally gifted in?

HEATHER TILLOTT: I don’t know. I guess sometimes I’ve got a fairly sensitive palate anyway. But I’ve certainly put a lot of work into just developing that, in my own time. And a lot of the time that just looks like I’ve seen nosing and tasting a lot of wine various spirits, various beverages, but also not just beverages. I think a lot of that is just comes down to a way of thinking about the world. You know you walk outside every morning and instead of just being like, “Oh, yeah. It’s a nice day.”. Actually stopping, and being quiet, and smelling, and thinking about what you can smell. Just being mindful about what’s happening in your senses really. What are you feeling, smelling, tasting, hearing? So, sometimes I might go buy a packet of lollies or whatever and just think on it. Taste of all smell, and I’ll think on it. You go to the Botanic Gardens, have a Rose Day, or have a vegetable patch day, or a leaf day, or go to a copy copying, or go to a team emporium, or something, and just expand the palate. Not just in beverages but in general. Go to a spice shop. That’s my favourite.

JAMES ATKINSON: Red jelly beans. One of the tasting notes that you came up with earlier. Cookie dough, another one?

HEATHER TILLOTT: That’s correct. Yep. It’s pretty funny. Sometimes the things that you brain comes up with when you put that much effort into thinking all the time about what you smelling. It scares me sometimes. You had one earlier when you were like, “What the hell?”. I’m like, “It smells like the sand on a hot day at the beach.” I think sometimes maybe I’ve gone too far.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well Heather it’s been a fascinating chat. Thanks so much for your time. I will leave it there.

HEATHER TILLOTT: Pleasure. Thank you.

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