A decade ago, it might have seemed strange to celebrate world whisky day with a nip of Australian whisky. I wouldn’t know, I was in middle school back then. Times are a bit different now, with website getting crashed from eager fans trying to get their hands on the latest release, to award winning casks skyrocketing through the roof, Australian whisky producers are being celebrated and finally getting the due recognition for making some of the best new world whiskies currently in the market. So how does the latest cult leaders in the industry navigate through the sudden surge in popularity?
“We used to sell our whiskies at farmer’s market, did you know that?” said Mr. Brian Hollingworth of Black Gate Distillery “We only started working with Kathleen 18 months ago” Things have certainly changed for Brian and Genise Hollingworth since selling their rum to the locals. After signing on with Ms. Kathleen Davies of Nip of Courage and becoming the sensational hit at the Oak Barrel whisky fair last year, the couple from the small NSW town of Mendooran have since gone on and achieve a whole lot in the space of a calendar year, there were the BG005 and the 520 that practically flew off the shelves; then a pop up restaurant named Noma decided that they would offer Black Gate whiskies on their menu.
We sat comfortably inside the tasting room at Stitch Bar, just one of the specialist bars in Sydney that has become the gathering ground for whisky lovers in the past couple of years. I told him how the 007 appeared to be indicative of the growing on the distillery; definitely less rugged, certainly more refined.
“No two whiskies we have made have been the same, the thing I focus on is consistent quality rather than consistent flavours” Brian explained and I can attest to that having been a keen follower of their releases so far. It is perhaps unfair to expect that Black Gate’s latest offerings to closely resemble their earlier batches; after all, they have had a new still installed and their production philosophy primarilly revolves around single casks due to their limited scale of production.
“I think I have told you this story before, when I first tried BG002, I was so disappointed because it was nothing like what I have tasted in the past”.
I hazily remember the first time I first heard Brian saying that. It was during the 2015 Whisky Fair, I had already tasted BG002 back then and I was keen to speak to the maker who had nailed what I thought was an uniquely Australian whisky. BG002 has this fascinatingly dirty diesel note on the nose that is so endearing, it works well emotionally even though it had only spent a little over two years in a sherry cask. The malt feels young but it’s bright and sugary, an embodiment of the beauty of youthfulness. As far as I was concerned, that was the moment I became a fan.
And with each release, the keen observers in Australian whisky circle have had the unique opportunity to watch this boutique distillery grow before their eyes and in their Glencairns. BG005 is dirtier and grittier still, soaked mandarins and caramel fudge packed with spices; it’s big on sherry influence.
Then Brian released the 520..
The 520 is a big sherry bomb, it offers a generous dose of bright floral and fruity notes but also sturdy injection of diesel, tannins and minerals that makes the whisky quintessentially Australian from the on set. A luscious body that is syrupy and full on, it excels with a rather complex finishing of ginger infused Christmas cake, peanut butter and peat. As an archiver of some sort, I do honestly believe I can pinpoint the Oak Barrel launch of 520 as the point in time when Black Gate became more than just an amateur distillery in the general public’s eyes. Unlike a lot of their Aussie counterparts, the 520 is a drop that yields a complete delivery, a whisky that actually finishes rather than just falling off a cliff after the mid-palate. The 520 is a true winner in my eyes and I often refer it as the expression that propelled Black Gate to where they are now.
I was surprised to learn that it normally takes Brian and Genise 10 distillation runs to produce about 100 litres of new make. The inherent restrictions due to their small scale production present obvious challenges; looking from afar, it does seem like Black Gate is a happy accident of some sort, driven by circumstantial factors rather than an intended direction from the on set. I suppose it is no wonder the two humble distillers are darlings of the whisky circle, they are fundamentally nice people who have put in a lot of work and despite adversities they have managed to realise their dream in producing whiskies they can proudly call their own.
I am not worried that the sudden surge in popularity will affect them that much. In fact, the chat with Brian remains most enjoyable to say the least; naturally he was surprised at how well his whiskies have been received, but he has no doubt gotten more used to it after some months and it really hasn’t changed who he is, he is still one of the warmest human beings you can meet. And Genise is the same, a kind soul who has no doubt had a positive influence on how things are done up at the distillery. You can see her small touches here and there when you visit them at Mendooran. Not to mention she’s an accomplished spirit maker in her own right, as a rather partial rum punter, I find Genise’s Black Gate rum to be throughly enjoyable, it’s simply a glass of heavy, gooey satisfaction, enhanced by the use of sherry casks.
“I think she is one of four working female distillers in Australia,” Brian said with a broad grin, “I am very proud of her.”
It’s hard not to root for them.