By Melissa Keogh
Whisky aficionado John Rochfort always knew there was something special about South Australia.
While producing fine malt whisky in Tasmania – Australia’s whisky capital – the former chef says his home state continued to be praised within craft industry circles.
“Every time an award was won it was won with SA (wine) casks and SA grain and it was getting to me,” he says.
“I was determined to come back.”
After running the ship at Tasmania’s Lark Distillery – a pioneering company in the Australian whisky industry – John returned home and launched the McLaren Vale Distillery.
John says SA’s high quality barley, wine barrels and clean water supply made it an ideal base for a craft distillery.
Two years later, the business is setting the bar for not only whisky producing in SA, but across the country.
Earlier this month McLaren Vale Distillery took two major awards at the inaugural Whiskies and Spirits Conference in Adelaide.
Some of the world’s finest whisky makers were in town for the event – a first for the southern hemisphere.
“I’m proud to be South Australian after the other night – and I always was – but to take that leap of faith to leave Tasmania and do something here and have it pay off, it’s been great,” John says.
About 40km from Adelaide, McLaren Vale Distillery is run by the Rochfort family and business partner Jock Harvey.
Its single malt whiskies are aged in ex-fortified wine barrels sourced from 20 vignerons across McLaren Vale and the Barossa.
Some of the barrels have previously held premium Century-old wines.
The barrels impart their flavours on the maturing whisky and John says this means a port cask is likely to create a deep red colour, while a sherry cask will infuse floral notes.
While Tasmanian and Scottish whisky makers also rely on the wine industry for their craft, John says his distillery makes the most of the wine barrels’ flavours.
“The standard process in Scotland and Tasmania is when those casks arrive to the distillery they fill it with water to expand the wood because they don’t want their spirit to leak everywhere,” he says.
“As an ex-chef I would just watch the crimson, red or gold water flow out of these casks and think that is the best flavour you guys have got.
“The flavours we were getting in the first 10-20 days … were flavours and aromas we weren’t getting in two or three years in Tasmania.”
John says whisky making is a hard slog requiring patience and dedication, with his distillery’s first batch of single malt whiskys due for release in 2018.
“It’s not like being a chef where the meal is ready in 20-30 minutes,” he says.
“It’s five or six years before you see the product, so when you gain notoriety it means so much.”
However, the Bloodstone Collection, a limited series of 20 collaborations between McLaren Vale Distillery and SA winemakers, is a preview release and has already proved popular.