Tasmanian Independent Bottlers and Heartwood Malt Whisky with founder Tim Duckett: Season Three, Episode Eight

Whisky fanatic Tim Duckett is founder of Tasmanian Independent Bottlers and Heartwood Malt Whisky, and he has developed something of a cult following among Australian whisky drinkers.

In this episode, Tim and I discuss his journey to date with these two companies, along with the role that independent bottlers play in the whisky industry more generally.

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And as someone who has been closely involved with Australian whisky since the early years, the Tasmanian Independent Bottlers founder has some interesting views to share on its recent trajectory and future prospects.

Help us fund Season Three of Drinks Adventures by purchasing your limited edition drink coasters here.

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

More:
Australian whisky innovation with Archie Rose Distilling Co’s Dave Withers
Australian whisky pioneer Bakery Hill Distillery celebrates 20 years
Australian whisky must strive for consistency and quality, says Andrew Derbidge

Tasmanian Independent Bottlers founder Tim Duckett
Tasmanian Independent Bottlers founder Tim Duckett

Tasmanian Independent Bottlers and Heartwood Malt Whisky with founder Tim Duckett: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Tim Duckett, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

TIM DUCKETT: Absolute pleasure, James.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’re an independent bottler, and a lot of people wouldn’t really know what that is. Maybe you could talk about the role of an independent bottler in the whisky industry.

TIM DUCKETT: Historically throughout Scotland you would find whisky supplied by independent bottlers. Independent bottlers are those people that are not a distillery but they purchase mature or maturing whisky from distilleries and release it under their own label. The difference between my company and those companies is that we actually source the new make spirit from distilleries in Australia, in New Zealand, and put it in the barrels we choose and then we do the maturation.

JAMES ATKINSON: So it would normally already have been through some maturation and maybe finished in casks by the independent bottlers in Scotland?

TIM DUCKETT: Not necessarily. It can be just a cask purchased from a distiller and then put into storage in the independent bottler’s warehouse and they would mature it further before it was released. And as I say, they would release it under their own name, though they would refer back to the distillery of origin if the distillery wanted them to do that. Some distilleries do not want their whisky mentioned on an independent bottler’s label, but that’s okay. It’s just part of the industry.

JAMES ATKINSON: In that case they would just have to say it’s ‘an Islay distillery’ or something along those lines?

TIM DUCKETT: That’s right. Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: So how long have you been doing it and what made you decide to do that as opposed to starting a distillery?

TIM DUCKETT: I am an environmental consultant that works in construction and mining and doing habitat restoration and mine closure. That’s my area of expertise. I was appointed to the Ben Lomond ski field advisory committee in Tasmania to look after the environmental issues on the ski field. On that committee was Bill Lark and Lyn Lark, because Bill and Lyn had a share in the hotel on the mountain. They said they were going to make whisky and I said to them, “I’m going to drink it,” and that’s how our relationship started. When barrels first became commercially available in 1999 I bought my first barrel. So I started buying barrels from that time and I did not bottle until 2012. Fortunately, my other business supported my bad habits and allowed me to purchase, in the good years, allowed me to purchase barrels to put aside in storage.

JAMES ATKINSON: So how many have you got in your warehouse now?

Heartwood Malt Whisky bottlings
Heartwood Malt Whisky bottlings

TIM DUCKETT: We run two companies. So we run Heartwood Malt Whisky, which has been established since 2012, and Tasmanian Independent Bottlers, which was established in 2015. We would have under our control 20,000 litres between Heartwood and Tasmanian Independent Bottlers. We buy from 14 distilleries in Australia and New Zealand and we have 20 different new make styles. That does not include apple brandy or rum or oat whisky or rye whisky. We have 14 different barrel types as well, and they’re sourced from all over the world, and we use six different cooperages.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are you blending these different whiskies from different distilleries or are they all single malt releases?

TIM DUCKETT: We have blended. We have produced vatted malts, moreso in Heartwood than Tasmanian Independent Bottlers. TIB, as I said, it’s only been around a little while. Well, I should probably talk about the difference between Heartwood and TIB. Heartwood is always bottled at cask strength and it’s usually matured in 200, 240, and 300 litre barrels, and has significant age for Tasmanian conditions. Whereas Tasmanian Independent Bottlers, they’re matured in 100 litre barrels and released at a younger age. Not every barrel is going to be good. So fortunately with a large variety of different spirit types that we have, we can blend and we have blended, and we will be blending more in the future. We produced a whisky called ‘The Craft’ from TIB and that was a vatting or a blending of whisky from two mainland distilleries. With Heartwood we’ve always produced two blends, if you like. One is called, ‘The Dregs’. As you can imagine The Dregs is the dregs and we have a good time with that. The other one is called ‘The Beagle’. The Beagle was named after Charles Darwin and his boat on his voyage of discovery and the evolution of whisky, and he came to Hobart. ‘The Beagle’ can have any number of different distillery releases in it. Our last one, The Beagle 6, came from eight different barrels and four different distilleries.

A Tasmanian Independent Bottlers release
A Tasmanian Independent Bottlers release

JAMES ATKINSON: You were talking about how some of the distilleries in Scotland don’t want their name to be on the label. What’s been the general approach of the distilleries in Australia?

TIM DUCKETT: Most are very, very happy to have their name associated with us because we’ve done quite well on the world stage, particularly this year with TIB and Heartwood. Some of the distilleries have sought us out to take on their new make and release it under the Heartwood or Tasmanian Independent Bottlers label. But there are a couple on the mainland that do not want their name mentioned. That’s okay. We have no problem with that. That’s not dissimilar to what happens in Scotland too.

JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned that everything under the Heartwood label is cask strength. Other than that, is there any sort of what you could call a house style?

TIM DUCKETT: No. I think distilleries base a lot of their production on having a house style and that’s not just in Australia, it’s also in Scotland and Ireland and Europe. The beauty I think of being an independent bottler, we can make anything we like. So a house style is probably only based on my palate. I like a long, persistent, thick whisky and that’s what we try and achieve. Something that lingers but has great length. There’s nothing worse than tasting whisky and it disappears in the first third of your mouth and is gone. Maybe that is the house style, is the actual texture of the whisky that we produce. That’s very important to us.

JAMES ATKINSON: Are you getting the new make made to your specifications?

TIM DUCKETT: No. I still like the new make to come from the distillery and be a distillery style. However, I will get a sample of new make sent to me and I will match it to a barrel. So if it is a lighter style and I want to increase the persistence or the texture or the mouth feel, I would put it into a fortified with a lot of sugar. So I specifically match new make to barrels. Some new makes you can put them in any barrel and they will be absolutely fine, but others may be a little bit short or a little bit astringent up the front or something like that, and you can actually match it to a barrel to produce a better whisky later on.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now you seem to, from what I’ve seen online, developed a bit of a cult following. How has that happened?

TIM DUCKETT: I mean whisky is made to drink, but I also find producing whisky quite entertaining. So not only do we produce a whisky that is quite unique, because under the conditions that we have in Tasmania the alcohol concentration goes up with time, where in Scotland the alcohol concentration goes down, so we have produced whiskies that vary around 60 per cent up to 73.5 per cent and that’s naturally how it comes out in a cask when it’s finished maturing. That in itself is quite unique in the world. So that has attracted a lot of people, plus our technique of decanting and maturing our whisky and using temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees to drive off the volatile front end. The term we use is ‘syrup up’ and that came from Chris Thompson, the head distiller at Lark Distillery. That gives us a more syrupy texture. Plus we have good fun with the names and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I think people enjoy that as well. And the whiskies that we produce, we’re not trying to produce a house style, as I said, and we’re producing whiskies that are different all the time and yet maintaining the same quality.

JAMES ATKINSON: You’ve pretty much been around since the early days of the modern whisky movement, if you want to call it that. What are the changes that you’ve seen in Tasmania in that time?

TIM DUCKETT: It’s not just in Tasmania, it’s right throughout Australia. But what we’ve got now, we’ve got a whole lot of new distilleries coming online within the next two to three years producing new product, and so the market will get a little crowded. In some ways, that’s very much a positive because we aren’t limited by too many rules. So we can have pot stills and column stills and sour mash and triple distillation and a whole range of different products we can produce. The problem is that it’s all coming at the same time and a lot of the new distilleries do not have a market for their product. So a correction is coming. The other thing is too, a number of distilleries in Australia have expanded for whatever reason. I won’t say why they’ve done that and they have the capacity to produce, let’s say, a million litres. In Scotland, when a distillery produces a million litres, 90-odd percent of it goes for blending. We don’t have a blending industry here yet, so it’ll be interesting times.

TIM DUCKETT: I always use a geological analogy. It’s like a Cambrian explosion and all of these different life forms started off and then competing and then you had a Devonian extinction later on. But through evolution, those that are adapted to the conditions the best will survive, but I fear that there will be a number that won’t.

JAMES ATKINSON: Because you’ve got these larger players coming on that are going to be able to release products at a much greater volume, at a more competitive price point, where does that leave the smaller players that don’t have those economies of scale?

TIM DUCKETT: It is going to be very difficult for them and a number of them are already in stress. Australia, a few years ago, a couple of years ago, we produced 400,000 litres of new make in Australia. Last year I think I was told it was two million. We have one distillery that has the capacity to produce 800,000 litres and another one wants to go up to a million litres. Plus, we have a number of other distilleries being constructed to produce even more. So it’ll be interesting times. The shakeout will come, but I don’t know what form it will take.

JAMES ATKINSON: One of the criticisms of Australian whisky that you hear from drinkers a lot, is that it’s too expensive.

TIM DUCKETT: Yeah.

JAMES ATKINSON: Do you think it’s a positive though that we’ve got some large players coming on that can release more affordably priced whiskies?

TIM DUCKETT: I think the price of whisky will come down and that is inevitable, but there’s always a place for the boutique producer. But like I say, it’s still going to shakeout. Is that good? Not at this stage. It may have benefits in the long run, but I’m not sure you can predict that at the moment because there are still so many distilleries out there still trying to flog their product. I don’t want to see them go under, but some could. I think they will, yes, or people will just walk away.

JAMES ATKINSON: What about globally speaking? Is there an Australian whisky style, do you think?

TIM DUCKETT: In Scotland and Ireland they have 400 years of whisky history. We’ve got 27. I think we’re still finding our style. We do have house styles with Lark and Overeem and Sullivans Cove. Is there an Australian style? We can do anything. We can make anything. Look at Peter Bignell and his rye whiskies, and his malt whiskies, and the experimentation he’s done. I think that’s one of the beauties of Australia is that, maybe because we’re colonials, we do experiment and there’s a lot of innovation. I don’t think there’s an exact Australian style, but the beauty is we can probably make anything we like.

JAMES ATKINSON: When you set up your barrel store in the early days, what were some of the lessons that you learned about maturing whisky in the Australian climate?

TIM DUCKETT: In Scotland and Ireland, they have evaporative losses of around one to two per cent per annum. We have losses of four, four-and-a-half to seven. One of the interesting things, and some people have described it as the best conditions for maturing whisky in the world, is that particularly in Tasmania we will have a 38 degree day. This occurred two summers ago, and then in 72 hours it was 8.5. So we have these hot winds coming down from mainland Australia and it gets replaced by a cold front coming in from South Africa. So you have these massive temperature, pressure, and humidity changes, so you get greater interaction of the spirit with the wood. So you get a greater intensity of flavour in a shorter period of time than you do in areas of cooler climate. That’s a unique characteristic. We are still learning about our conditions and what we can produce. And look, we don’t have all the answers. We do quite well with malt whisky, but I’ve got some rye whisky from Peter Bignell and it’s a totally different beast. We’re still learning about what the conditions and how the conditions affect those as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of the most recent or upcoming Heartwood releases or TIB releases that people can look out for?

TIM DUCKETT: We had two releases a couple of weeks ago. I think they’re all gone. The last release went in a day and a half and the previous release to that, that was quite funny. I spoke about it on social media because I use social media to tell people what we’re doing. I produced a whisky that was going to be called Market Correction. I get an email from a guy who said, “Can I have 24 bottles please?” I said, “No, you can have two.” People were saying, “Can I have six?” I’d go, “No, you can have two.” We limit the number. With our last release, The Beagle 6, we limited that to one bottle per person, and that went in a day and a half.

TIM DUCKETT: Then we have Tasmanian Independent Bottlers. TIB is structured to be much more commercial, and particularly with all the new distilleries coming online, I think it’s going to be much more difficult to sell TIB just because of how crowded the market is becoming. I think also too, retail spending in Australia is dropping a little bit. So some of the releases prior to the last one had been a little slower than when we started off.

JAMES ATKINSON: When you talk about people wanting to buy six or 24 bottles, they’re clearly looking to sell them on the secondary market?

TIM DUCKETT: Yes.

JAMES ATKINSON: That’s something that a lot of people in the industry are bemoaning at the moment that people are looking to flip whiskies. Is that something you’re concerned about as well?

TIM DUCKETT: It’s always been a problem. As soon as we run out, I’ve seen prices double or triple, and immediately. So that’s one of the reasons we limit one or two per person. Because quite often too, we’d have the same people buying the whiskies all the time. So we try and get them out there to as broad a spectrum of people as possible. That’s why we limit the number. I even hold some back and put them back on the website later as well, so other people can get them.

JAMES ATKINSON: All right, Tim, great to chat and we’ll leave it there.

TIM DUCKETT: All right. Thank you very much.

Author: James Atkinson

Accomplished freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®. Founder Drinks Adventures podcast.

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