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Waiheke Whisky was founded in 2010 by Mark and Ro Izzard. Together with beekeeper Richard Evatt, they set out to create a New Zealand whisky that would focus on the finest of local ingredients. With the help of Tony Denny, former brewer for Lion Nathan, they learned the basics of fermentation. Another friend, Eric, an engineer, designed a unique Pot Still and Patrick Newton of Mudbrick Vineyard took on the dual-roles of stillman and whiskymaker.
The Waiheke spirit is produced using New Zealand-grown barley that’s smoked with peat from Tussock Creek. The composition of the peat is unique to the country, being composed of moss and rushes, swamp forest and flax that have been compressed over millennia. The smoke it produces is very different to that of its Scottish equivalent. After distillation, the spirit matures in oak casks that once held bourbon, sherry and local wines are used to mature the whisky alongside a selection of virgin American oak.
The distillery has yet to release any of its whisky but the Waiheke team took the unusual step of selling tasting sets that would introduce customers to a selection of the range, before making full size bottles available.
The first sample pack was called “Adventures in New Zealand Peat” and included three 50ml bottles of single malt and a sample of new make spirit. The pack cost $65 (around £30 – £35) and provided the buyer with access to purchase full bottles of Seris 1 and Moss which became available for pre-order in June ’22.
Please note: there are no plans at present to make Waiheke Whisky available in other markets but I thought it would be interesting to share my findings anyway. Normally, I like to discuss the price of each dram and consider the value for money it offers. Since the whiskies reviewed here aren’t yet on sale and no price information was available, I’ve based my comments entirely on the smell and taste of each sample.
Full disclosure: The samples featured in this article were sent to me free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the drams.
Peated New Make
As the name would suggest, this is new make spirit, distilled in 2022. It’s made from heavily peated malt and bottled at 45%.
Smell: Clean and fresh. Malty and a little grassy. Fresh orange. Peeled tangerines. Lemon and lime. Interestingly, a wee touch of strawberry. Grist and breakfast cereals. Very subtle wisps of smoke.
Taste: Salty. Sea salt. Black pepper. Orange juice. Fudge biscuits. An earthy, smoky finish. With water, it took on a liquorice note.
Thoughts: Tasting new make spirit is always intriguing but you have to remember that it might be nothing like the final whisky. This certainly isn’t peat as we understand it in Scotland. It’s a very light, very clean spirit and the smoke is delicate, fragrant and subtle. It’ll be really interesting to see how it interacts with different casks…
Moss Single Malt
First release, Moss, is a lightly peated single malt, distilled in 2017. It’s matured in American Oak STR and ex-Bourbon casks. It’s bottled at 44%.
Smell: Nice wood spice note. Savoury. Salt and pepper. Apple and honey. Agave syrup. Toffee. Baking spices. Fragrant smoke. Waxy. Scented candles. Some freshly baked bread.
Taste: Orange and caramel. Honey. A wee bit chocolatey. Vanilla. Toffee. Apple and rhubarb crumble. Light, tingly spice and subtle, aromatic smoke.
Thoughts: I like the mouthfeel. There’s a natural oiliness that contrasts nicely with the oak-spice dryness. Once again, the smoke is gentle. In fact the whole whisky is very well balanced. Good maturation on show – having tasted the distillery’s new make you can clearly identify the spirit character as it mingles with the oak. I was half-expecting a whisky in the style of neighbouring Australia, where casks tend to overpower the spirit but this is far more tactfully done. I’m genuinely impressed. A fine debut.
Seris 1 Single Malt
Made from peated malt in 2017, Seris 1 will be the first release in the sherry finish series. It’s matured in a combination of American Oak STR and Apera Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. It’s also bottled at 42%.
Smell: Lots of spice. Wood varnish. Honey. Marmalade and lemon curd. Baked apples. Straw. Barley malt. Oatcakes. Vanilla. Buttercream. New oak. Wispy wood smoke. There’s also some dried banana, hazelnut and apple – reminds me of Fruit and Fibre breakfast cereal. With a splash of water, more smoke was released and I picked up a lovely rich, buttery note. A greenness to it as well, like pine needles. Complex nose.
Taste: Honey and caramel. The peat is a little more prominent in this expression. Pepper. Orange zest. Some dark chocolate and currants in the background. Sultanas. A wee earthiness that moves into the smoky finish.
Thoughts: Once again, this is a dram of poise and balance. The combination of peated spirit, re-charred oak and Pedro Ximenez sits very well together. It feels like those three elements could easily have worked against one another but they don’t. New oak and dark fruits sherry tempered with fragrant smoke. Nice fullness of flavour despite the relatively low 42% abv. Pick of the pack, so far.
Bog Monster Single Malt
We skip ahead to Release No. 5 – Moss is a heavily peated malt, distilled in 2015 and matured in Virgin American Oak and ex-Bourbon casks. It’s bottled at 46%.
Smell: More bourbon this time. Vanilla. Toasted oak. Butterscotch. Cinnamon. Ginger. A bit of a rum and raisin vibe. The smoke seems dialled up as well, though. Smoky bacon and maple syrup.
Taste: Prominent bourbon again. Toffee. Caramel. Milk chocolate. Jaffa Cakes! Dry oak and charcoal. Black pepper. Liquorice. Aniseed. The smoky finish seems almost fruity. Like there’s a blackcurrant note mingling with the smoke. Interesting.
Thoughts: The casks seem a little beefier this time – particularly the bourbon influence and especially on the nose. Despite the oak influence, however, the spirit doesn’t feel overpowered. In fact, the peat, while fairly subdued by Scottish standards, is more powerful here – and at 46%, it’s the strongest of the quartet. The combination of those factors seems to have created a more robust dram.
I’ve enjoyed working my way through this sample pack. It might be some time before any of Waiheke’s product crosses my path again but I’ll nevertheless be following with interest. There’s a clear house-style in evidence across the pack. It begins with a clean, fruity and smoky spirit and culminates in a balance of new oak and subtle peat with nuanced deviations across each expression. Through all three malts, Waiheke has achieved a total lack of immature spirit heat and while there’s a lot of oak on show, it stops short of burying the spirit. An interesting new brand on the world whisky stage and one to look out for in years to come.
Highlight for me? Definitely the Seris 1. The little added depth and complexity from the Apera PX was fascinating.
For more on Waiheke Whisky visit waihekewhisky.com