Using casks from local vineyards, Tasmanian distilling company Spirit Thief produces single malts that bring the world of wine and whisky together
The short copper tube that is used to extract whisky from a cask goes by several names. Its formal name is a valinch, but it is also called a “dipping dog”, “copper dog” and “whisky thief”. Brett Steel knows it as a “spirit thief”, an indispensable instrument that a master blender uses to draw samples to check the progress of each batch. That makes Spirit Thief an ideal name for the award-winning whisky company that Brett co-founded in 2015, which has created some of Australia’s most memorable single malts by maturing first-class whisky in carefully selected casks from local wineries.
“We are making Tasmanian single malt whisky for connoisseurs of fine wine,” explains Brett, one of Spirit Thief’s four directors. “I grew up in a wine family in South Australia and was introduced to Scottish single malts when I was in my early twenties in London. I then took on a real love and interest in single malts and had a vision of bringing the world of wine and whisky together. I understood our rich history of wine and how winemakers use wood and casks, seeing that as an opportunity to look at how Tasmanian single malt whisky might be able to take on elements from the wine world.”
From a purpose-built facility in Tasmania, Spirit Thief produces whiskies that have each been left to mature in different wine barrels such as American oak shiraz and oak cabernet casks, as well as French oak grenache and oak pinot noir casks, among others. Prior to bottling its own whisky, Spirit Thief experimented with a range of barrels before settling on the current selection. “We work with local winemakers to source their barrels,” explains Brett. “Then our coopers strip, toast and char the barrels to build up the different flavour profiles we are seeking.”
With stockists in Australia, Switzerland and China, Spirit Thief is part of a wave of New World whiskies. Outstanding whisky – for decades the preserve of the UK, Ireland, the US and Japan – is now being made everywhere in the world, and each region has its own specific flavours due to climate conditions or the style of barley, grain and water that is used. Spirit Thief’s team favour a Belgian ale wheat stock yeast because it imparts a flavour profile of truffle and forest fruit that perfectly complements the red wine casks, helping create their signature style of red-wine cask-matured Tasmanian single malt.
It is a style that has seen Spirit Thief’s Cellar Reserve whiskies win a series of medals at international awards, as well as being named World’s Best Design at the World Whisky Awards 2022, thanks, in part, to the company logo of two crossed valinches. That success attracted investors who were prepared to back the creation of a bespoke distillery and cellar room in Tasmania, where Spirit Thief can welcome visitors.
“We want to be seen as the gateway to the southern Tasmanian wine region,” says Brett. “We will have our own copper pot stills in place, and people will be able to take their own spirit thief from a selection on the wall and then draw a sample direct from the different barrels and different styles of whisky to see how it is progressing. Anybody who is coming to southern Tasmania to see the wine region will be able to visit the distillery and enjoy this unique visitor experience.”