Tasmanian whisky legend Sullivans Cove sold to Melbourne-based family business

Australia's most decorated whisky brand, Sullivans Cove, has been sold for an undisclosed sum.

The new custodians are a family-operated group led by Adam Sable as managing director. A Melburnian, Sable began his professional life as a commercial lawyer, following his passion into the Scotch whisky industry.

Most recently he was general manager of Bladnoch, the lowland distillery acquired by Australian David Prior in 2015.

Tasmanian gold

Having been a keen observer of the meteoric rise of Tasmanian whisky, Sable is delighted to be taking control of one of its leading brands, which spectacularly won best single malt at the World Whisky Awards two years ago.

"It was Sullivans Cove in 2014 that put the Aussie industry on the map," he says. "The world whisky market is wising up to the fact that other countries can produce the same, if not better whisky, as Scotland.

The bigger it gets, the more cash flow you need.

Patrick Maguire

"We're very excited to be a part of that … and feel privileged to be leading such an exceptional team who have already built a brand of such acclaim."

Supply and demand

The sale brings to an end the 13-year ownership tenure of an investor group led by distiller Patrick Maguire, who says further investment is a necessity if the company is to capitalise on its recent success.

"Ever since we won the World Whisky Awards in 2014, there's been a lot of interest in the business from all sorts of places," says Maguire.

"The business had grown rapidly over the last couple of years and there's been a lot of money spent on increasing the amount of new make whisky we were producing.

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"All we could do was drive it on cash flow. The bigger it gets, the more cash flow you need and there's only so many barrels that we had to draw the cash flow from.

"We thought the sensible thing to do was to look seriously at some of the people interested in the business, and choose some people that we thought could really take it forward and put the right sort of money into it," he says.

Dream team

Maguire and the entire Sullivans Cove team will remain with the business, which Sable says will be vital in maintaining the brand's reputation for quality.

"We see the team as being critical to the product being as good as it is, and the brand's success to date. The focus will very much be on them continuing to do what they do best," he says.

"In due course, we might like to explore complementary products, very much guided by the team."

Sullivans Cove has doubled its ageing stock over the last couple of years, but Maguire says it needs to triple or quadruple this inventory for the business to reach its potential.

"That's going to take a lot of money in producing all those barrels and also in real estate. If we're going to be producing a few thousand barrels of whisky a year, then we need a lot of warehouse to put it all in, while it's maturing," he says.

Dramatic turnaround

The sale caps off a dramatic turnaround for Sullivans Cove, which made whisky of somewhat dubious repute prior to Maguire and partners purchasing it at liquidation in 2003.

"We've gone from – a few years ago – struggling to sell our brand, and now to demand outstripping supply by several times," he says.

The sale of Sullivans Cove is the third transaction involving an Australian whisky brand in the last 12 months.

In October, Australian Whisky Holdings bolstered its investment portfolio (already including stakes in Tasmania's Lark and Redlands) by acquiring Nant Distilling Company.

And global spirits giant Diageo purchased a minority stake in Melbourne distiller Starward in December 2015.

"It's interesting that companies like Diageo are recognising what's happening in Australia," says Maguire.

"Only a few years ago, Australian distilleries weren't taken seriously. We've done a lot of work over the years to become accepted in the global whisky industry.

"I think we've been very successful at it."