Looking Back: Patrick Maguire on Sullivans Cove

Before Sullivans Cove French Oak was named “World’s Best Single Malt” at the World Whiskies Awards in 2014 which catapulted the Tasmanian whisky to world stage, I met with Patrick Maguire, Sullivans Cove Whisky Master Distiller and Chairman of the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association in 2012. This article is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series.

Patrick Maguire – Photo © Cocktails & Bars

Corinne Mossati: Tell me a little about yourself, where you grew up and how you became a whisky distiller.
Patrick Maguire: I’m a Hobart boy, born and bred there. In my time, I’ve done a lot of travel overseas. I’ve lived in places like London, Melbourne, Birmingham and so on. But I always end up in Hobart because it’s such a nice city to live in.

One of the reasons I got into this business was that my first boss said to me when I was 16, if ever I want to do anything good, I have to leave Tasmania. And that really annoyed me.

I’ve always looked for something to do in Tasmania and export. When whisky came along, I thought it might be something I could do. My wife is Scottish and I spent a bit of time there and toured many distilleries.

In the late 80s, myself and Bill Lark were in business and ran a hotel for about 20 years. He came up with the idea about making whisky and started on the kitchen table. I’d go to his place and we’d distil into a 2L cask.  Then the law changed in 1992 to and the Larks got into it then. In 1999, I was invited on board to the Tasmanian Distillery as their distiller – and that’s the whisky we bottle today.

How did the idea of Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association come about?
We (Tasmanian whisky producers) often share tables at whisky events and work together quite a bit. We all have the same philosophy about producing the best whisky. None of us are about quantity, we’re all about quality. So we’ve set up the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association with the idea of marketing Tasmania as the whisky state of Australia. We’ve talked to state governments and Departments of Economic Development and Tourism and the Arts, and they’re going to get on board and help us market it.

Can you tell me a little about Sullivan Cove’s whisky making philosophy?
My idea was that we’ll never be a giant company producing millions of bottles per year. We’ll always be a small producer, at least in my time. What I wanted to do was produce something unique to Tasmania. It’s about being a local Tasmanian whisky, not to copy an Irish or Scottish whisky. I want to bring the flavours of our soil, our barley, our water, and I think we’ve done that very well.

What makes Sullivans Cove different to other Tasmanian whiskies?
The differences are subtle but when I taste other Tasmanian whiskies, I pick up a note that’s different. Because we’re small producers, we have the luxury of time. In our distilling methods, we don’t force the still, we let it run freely. The heart of the run is fairly short which it gives the whisky a creamy mouthfeel. We use 200 litre or 300 litre American oak or French oak barrels. You can mature a lot faster in smaller barrels but the larger barrels do more justice to the whisky.

With bottling, we spend time seriously tasting a lot of the barrels and pick the ones that are peaking at that time. If it doesn’t pass my taste test, it doesn’t go in the bottle. If it passes then we look at if we’ll do a single cask bottling or double cask bottling, the ABV, and so on, so a lot of care is taken. When we decant it, we spend 3-4 weeks diluting it to bottle strength then we allow it to settle for 3-4 months before we bottle. We don’t chill filter so we’re not stripping out colours and flavour and we don’t use additives. We end up with a natural flavoured whisky.

As Master Distiller for Sullivans Cove, what does an average day entail?
It varies. I talk to distributors and retailers. Then I can be at home, in the distillery, working the still, bottling and labelling. My brother handles dispatch as well as doing some distilling and bottling. Jacko looks after production and manages the still. I fit in where I can. Now we have Bert Cason to handle the marketing.

This year we’ve done whisky shows in Perth, Melbourne. We have three shows in Sydney, then we’re off to Europe to do Whisky Live in Paris. We’ll be in Dubai for their Dubai Duty Free stores then a few weeks to the USA, then Hong Kong. So I’m kept busy. That’s my life at the moment.

Are there any new trends in whiskies that have impressed you of late?
I wouldn’t say impressed me, but some of the white whiskies or heavily peated whiskies are a new trend. Some are over the top but it’s making more people aware of single malt whisky. And that’s a good thing. I like the idea they’re getting promotion but I’m not convinced people will stay with it for long.

One of the major trends is the age of the consumer, being a lot younger and cross gender. It works well for us. Our market isn’t the older men who are set in their ways and the whiskies they drink. We’ve come along when young people and women are interested in single malt. We’re better off appealing to them, so by the time they’re older they’re set in their way with our whiskies. Because anything to do with whisky is long term.

What has been the relationship with whisky producers from Scotland?
We’ve had various distillers come out from Scotland, spent time with us, give us assistance and guidance. When I travelled to Scotland, everything was open for me to see and experience. The Scots have been very supportive. We probably wouldn’t have got as far as we did if it weren’t for their assistance.

You’re currently exporting to ten countries across Europe, as well as Singapore and Canada. Where is the Sullivans Cove brand heading over the next 3-5 years?
The growth we had in the last twelve months was incredible. We’ve doubled our turnover. The reaction we’re getting now is amazing. You go to whisky shows and people are starting to accept us as serious whisky makers instead of being mildly curious.

We’re getting more inquiries from overseas. We’re talking to numerous distributors in Australia and getting more calls and inquiries. The market is opening up to our whiskies. Our job is to make sure we end up in the right places and with the right distributors, here and overseas.

Two years ago, we were producing 120 to 140 200 litre barrels a year until we reached 1000 barrels. We stopped producing and put the money into marketing. Now we’re not only marketing, but we’re distilling again and we’re in a good position.

“Patrick Maguire on Sullivans Cove” is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series which takes a historical lens to key industry personalities. The article is based on an interview originally published on our sister website Gourmantic.

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