South Australia has the potential to produce Australia’s best whisky thanks to an abundance of high quality barley, a huge supply of oak barrels and a surprisingly suitable climate, says the family behind McLaren Vale Distillery.
“Here we have some of the finest barley in the world, much of which is sent to Scotland and Tasmania, and access to amazing, high quality barrels and casks to be used for maturation,” says Chris Rochfort, patriarch of the clan behind McLaren Vale Distillery.
“We want to prove that South Australia can not only produce great wine, but that it can produce great whisky, too.”
The distillery was established in 2015 with the team including Chris and his sons Lachlan, John and Nick. Chris has spent most of his life as a farmer and never really drank much whisky, preferring to reach for a bottle of wine. Rather it was his sons that paved the way, as son Lachlan experimented with home distillates as bit of a hobby, and John, who took it further, having worked at Nant Distillery in Tasmania.
John’s time at Nant saw him meet one of Australia’s most acclaimed whisky makers: Bill Lark of Lark Distillery, who recently achieved hall of fame status within the industry. This meeting proved invaluable, as a mutual interest in one another led John to work at Lark, before spending some time as CEO. Yet the itch to return to South Australia to open the family distillery always lingered.
Recounting his conversation with Lark about the idea of heading home, John says the experienced distiller told him it was a fantastic decision, as South Australia had the potential to create better whisky than Tasmania, or even Scotland.
Nick spends much of his time in the likes of the Yorke Peninsula selecting and sourcing different types of barley. “We’re now looking to work with farmers to plant specific kinds of barley, that are a little lower yielding, but ones we think can produce a better spirit,” says Chris.
The distillery itself is located on Chapel Hill Road in McLaren Vale within the picturesque surrounds of parks and vineyards. The initial plan was to set up their headquarters in the Adelaide Hills, but a few hurdles saw that they ended up in the Vale, which has proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“Here we’ve been able to immerse ourselves in the region and forge close relationships with winemakers and wineries, giving us almost instantaneous access to some of the highest quality barrels,” Chris says. “You have to remember that a spirit is clear white when first comes off the still, with its colour and flavour being derived in and from the barrel.”
The Bloodstone series, the company’s current product range, makes sure the drinker knows about the oak that went into it. Each product, currently referred to as a ‘malt spirit preview’— as the spirit needs to be aged for a minimum of two years in wood to be called whisky — comes with information detailing the oak’s provenance, including the winery it hails from, the type of oak used, and what wine was used to sit in the barrel.
“It takes a lot of things to make a great whisky and we want be make sure everyone is acknowledged,” says Chris.
Another defining element to any good whisky is the climate in which it’s matured. McLaren Vale’s warm days and cool evenings makes for temperature fluctuations that see the spirit contract and expand throughout its maturation. This gives the spirit much greater oak nuances and character at a faster rate than would occur if it were made somewhere much cooler.
So it was when international whisky judge Damien Riley-Smith tried a sample of their 44-day-old spirit. He organised for samples to be sent to the Whisky Luxe exhibition in Taipei based on his shock and appreciation for what he had tasted. It was the first time a pre-release was exhibited and went on to be classed in the top one per cent of all whiskies exhibited.
As such, the Rochforts are ardently optimistic about the future of their products, and look forward to continuing to improve the Bloodstone range, as well as release more accessibly priced whiskies.
“We truly believe that in the next five years, we’ll win some major accolades both locally and internationally,” says Chris.
McLaren Vale Distillery
Open for tours and tastings Wednesday to Sunday from 10am