After 25 years Sullivans Cove remains one of Australia's best whiskies

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when Sullivans Cove struggled to find buyers for its whisky.

But that was the case until just five years ago, when Whisky Magazine handed the prestigious award for the world's best single malt for 2014 to a maker few in the global industry had heard of, hailing from a corner of the world where whisky had no history or profile.

These days, if you're lucky enough to find a bottle, expect to pay upwards of $350 – or thousands, if you want one of the few bottles still in existence drawn from the award-winning barrel.

Now celebrating 25 years in the distilling business, Sullivans Cove has proven not only that persistence pays off – it spent its first two decades "making lots of mistakes", according to head distiller Patrick Maguire – but that a focus on quality would stand it in good stead in the long run.

Winner winner

The tiny Tassie distiller-that-could proved that shock victory was no fluke, snaring the award for the world's best single cask single malt in 2018, and awarded 'liquid gold' status by the respected Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. There was also a deserved accolade for Maguire, inducted into the Icons of Whisky Hall of Fame in 2018.

Yet the quality-over-quantity equation is also a double-edged sword – at the World of Whisky store in Sydney's Double Bay, Sullivans Cove products rarely reach the shelves. Even at $350-plus a bottle, the scant stock that store co-founder Larry Aronson can source walks out the door to waiting whisky aficionados the moment it's received.

Aronson, a keen observer of the whisky industry for the past 20 years, says the 2014 win was "monumental" for Sullivans Cove and put Australia firmly on the global whisky map. "Everything exploded, and that has had a domino effect on the rest of the industry," he says.

One giant leap

Tasmanian Whisky Academy director Anne Gigney agrees. She runs introductory courses for aspiring distillers and in the past five years, has seen roughly four-fold growth in new distilleries (predominantly whisky and gin) just in Tasmania. "When Sullivans Cove won that award there were about 10 distilleries in Tasmania, and now there would be more than 40," she says.

"That wouldn't have happened without a strong light shining on places like Sullies. It's been absolutely fascinating to see how they focused on not being the biggest, but being masters of quality. They want to be the best and that's something that has been very influential."

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Gigney regularly takes her course participants to tour the Sullivans Cove distillery on the outskirts of Hobart and meet with Maguire, and believes he is a major reason for the brand's stunning success.

"Patrick will never say so, but he's a big part of it. When you go there, there is an unmistakeable focus on quality – both the product and the people," she says. "His perseverance and insight have been absolutely instrumental."

Barrels, barley, and patience

Maguire demurs. In his opinion, the key ingredients that distinguish Sullivans Cove are large barrels, Tasmanian barley and plenty of patience.

"A lot of distilleries in Australia use smaller barrels, like 20, 50, 100 litres. We use 200 or 300 litre barrels, mainly because I want to mature our spirits out to 10 to 12 years, minimum. There's a lot that happens in the barrels in that time. The barrel is an ingredient – it's no different to the barley or the water or the yeast," he says.

Before the 2014 award from Whisky Magazine, about 90 per cent of Sullivans Cove stock went to overseas customers. The win galvanised a fascination locally for Tasmanian whisky and the equation reversed, with 90 per cent of stock snapped up by Australians.

A matter of time

While the demand has been unrelenting, the victories also brought increased expectation. "There is more pressure to get it right. We always were fussy about what we put in the bottle. Now, we're even more fussy because we don't want to disappoint our faithful customers or the new ones coming along," Maguire says.

"For us it's been not a matter of 'the barrel turns 15 this year, so let's bottle it'. It has to tick a lot of boxes before we do that.  It could be nine (years), it could be 15 or 20. Every barrel has its day, you just have to pick them."

While the Sullivans Cove distillery looks little different to 25 years ago, with just the one still, there are more barrels under maturation than ever before and Maguire promises significantly more product will hit the streets "in five or six years".

In whisky terms – where barrels may mature for up to 25 years – that's virtually no time at all to wait.