NZ versus Australia: the Bledisloe Cup of whisky

Contests between Australian and New Zealand always have a certain frisson about them, built on decades of butting heads for Antipodean - and, sometimes, world - bragging rights. No clash encapsulates that fierce rivalry better than rugby's Bledisloe Cup.

Australia hasn't won an edition of the annual trans-Tasman series since 2002, and ahead of Saturday night's third and final match in Brisbane, the Wallabies have already lowered their colours again in 2014.

However, all is not lost. Both countries have been developing small - but already globally significant - whisky industries, between which the only competitive history was a skirmish in 2012 won by Australia.

Although still global minnows in production terms, distilleries on both sides of "the ditch" have made an impressive mark in the quality stakes. Tasmania's Sullivan's Cove was the shock winner this year of the world's best single malt trophy in the World Whisky Awards, while the New Zealand Whisky Collection's Dunedin DoubleWood has collected a swag of awards. Many others have also come to global attention.

Greg Ramsay has a foot in both camps. The Australian-born owner of the NZ Whisky Collection, he runs the South Island-based business from Tasmania, which is the engine room of Aussie whisky distilling. He is also close friends with the man considered the elder statesman of whisky in Australia, Bill Lark.

It was Ramsay who suggested a rugby-themed challenge: a blind tasting of four Australian whiskies versus their similarly-styled NZ counterparts by a panel of judges comprising an expert, an industry veteran and a couple of novices.

The expert, Executive Style spirits blogger Luke McCarthy, works behind the bar at the venue which hosted the tasting, Melbourne's Whisky and Alement bar. It stocks a deeply impressive selection of 500 whiskies, and McCarthy says he has tasted them all. David Vitale, the CEO of Melbourne-based Starward Distillery, has worked in the whisky industry for a decade, the past four as the driving force behind Starward.

In the spirit of the contest's inspiration, former Wallaby and Melbourne Rebels player Adam Freier was drafted to the panel for his first-ever whisky tasting experience. Rounding it out is your correspondent - a keen enthusiast with a handful of tastings under his belt but plenty still to learn.

The four judges scored each whisky out of 10, with scores tallied in each of four head-to-head contests to crown an overall winner.

ROUND 1: SINGLE MALTS (Part 1)

Kaiapoi Distillery Single Malt 17-Year-Old (NZ)

Hellyers Road Single Malt 12-Year-Old (Aust)

The Kaiapoi Single Malt is the first cab off the rank (although its identity is not revealed until later) and it immediately grabs everyone's attention with a "biscuity" nose. McCarthy describes the flavour as "savoury" and "a bit spiky" in character, while Ferrier notes a more persistent finish than its rival.

The Hellyers, meanwhile, brings comparisons to coffee, chocolate and mocha flavours from each judge. It's noted for a light, clean finish by McCarthy. "I could sip it all day," says a surprised Freier of his first whisky-tasting experience.

WINNER: Hellyers Road 28 pts defeated Kaiapoi 23 pts  

ROUND 2: WINE CASK-MATURED WHISKIES

Starwards Wine Cask Edition 1 (Aust)

Dunedin DoubleWood (NZ)

Still judging 'blind', it's quickly noted these two are clearly "poles apart" from the previous whiskies, with both exhibiting darker, richer colour and an immediate impression of wine-like influence. It's later explained that both have spent time in wine casks – the Starward for all its development, while the DoubleWood starts in bourbon casks and is finished in French oak ex-red wine barrels.

McCarthy says the Starward's aroma is "just gorgeous" with hints of berries and apples, while Freier notes an oaky texture across his palate. The DoubleWood is "just big, big flavour", says McCarthy, with general agreement that there's a hint of strawberry icecream in the taste. It's also noted that both have quite a dry finish, which Vitale explains is likely to be the work of residual tannins left in the oak from earlier wine production.

WINNER: Dunedin 29 pts defeated Starwards 28 pts

ROUND 3: THE GRANDADDIES

New Zealand Whisky Collection 25-Year-Old Single Malt (NZ)

Lark Single Malt Single Cask (Aust)

The competition steps up a notch with what immediately becomes clear are two big and bold, yet complex contestants. It's no surprise to later find these are two of the better-credentialled whiskies Australasia has ever produced.

The NZWC 25-year-old has big citrus notes ("orangey", says Freier, while McCarthy picks up limes) up front, with a hint of saltiness and lingering oak for good measure.

But it's the Lark Single Cask that really gets the judges enthusing about its "mouth coat" and "extraordinary softness". Vitale says its flavour profile is the tightest so far, which McCarthy notes includes malt and "barnyard" in the nose and spice and a touch of smoke across the palate. "It did hang around a lot longer than the first, it's been my favourite," Freier says.

WINNER: Lark 33 pts defeated NZWC 29.5 pts

ROUND 4: SINGLE MALTS (Part 2)

Limeburners Single Malt (Aust)

South Island Single Malt (NZ)

Coming into the final round, no-one knows the score, but we're well aware that trans-Tasman bragging rights are up for grabs and the score may well be close.

A couple more single malts look well matched on paper, but on the judging table the differences are clear-cut. The first sample, later revealed as Western Australia's Limeburners, is reckoned to be "not quite resolved" by some and "a bit lightweight" by others. Its grassy nose was attention-grabbing, says Vitale, adding he was "a bit let down that it didn't follow through". Its rival exhibited a "really sweet, musky character" with McCarthy picking a hint of seaweed in the aroma, followed by general agreement on sweet tropical flavour with a hint of spice in the finish.

WINNER: South Island 28 pts defeated Limeburners 24 pts

THE VERDICT

There were some wide individual margins in the head-to-head match-ups, but overall the two countries were closely matched in the quality of whisky judged  - far more so, at least, than their respective rugby teams have been for the past decade.

Ramsay, who tasted all the whiskies but didn't participate as a judge (and admits to being biased), asserts that Antipodean tipples are as good as any in the world. "You couldn't put eight Scotch or Irish whiskies up against these and pick any superiority from them," he proclaims. Vitale, who also has skin in the game, agrees: "It's hard to see the Scots doing much better with any of their 25-year-old stuff."

OVERALL WINNER: Australia 113 points defeated NZ 109.5 pts

In the end, the numbers fell in Australia's favour and McCarthy says this is probably the right result given the host nation has a longer history in the whisky game.

"There's quite a strong culture here and I think New Zealand is playing catch-up," McCarthy says. "In general there were some fantastic flavours but most of the New Zealand whiskies were a bit lighter compared to Australia.

"At the moment (Australian whiskies) have a great depth of flavour and intensity, something that's been noted around the world in various competitions."

One surprise for the Whisky and Alement barman was the strong performance of the wine-casked competitors, Starward and Dunedin DoubleWood.

"That was really promising and I hope we see more of this style in this part of the world, it could go a long way towards establishing a distinctive style of whisky for this part of the world," he says.

The experience left a strong impression on retired rugby ring-in Freier, a confessed beer drinker at the start of proceedings who is already planning to introduce the spirit to some of his Rebels ex-teammates. "It's opened my eyes to a new way of appreciating it. You can actually have a spirit and do it in the right way rather than standing at the bar doing shots," he says.

The Bledisloe Cup may be gone for another year, but Australia has at least salvaged some pride with a narrow victory in the whisky-making stakes.   

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