Tasmanian Whisky - Taking on the World
On the trail of the island’s burgeoning boutique industry
BILL LARK WENT FISHING, and caught a great idea. Enjoying a single-malt scotch with friends on a trout-fishing trip in Tasmania back in the 1980s, he marvelled at how perfectly matched Australia’s island state was for whisky-making. “Why hasn’t someone made whisky in Tasmania?” Bill recalls thinking. “We seem to have everything you need – terrific barley, pure water, peat. Somebody should have a go.”
It turned out no-one had (legally) had a go since 1838, when distilling was banned by colonial governor Sir John Franklin. Some say his wife, Lady Jane, bent his ear, scandalised by drunken convicts roaming the streets. Maybe so, but the dry facts state Sir John was hell-bent on stopping local spirits undermining lucrative duties on imports. Then came the Distillation Act of 1901 allowing only stills so large that small-scale producers couldn’t actually afford to get started.
Undaunted, Bill approached his member for parliament and then the federal customs minister, who proved keen to help. The law was changed in 1992 and before the century was out Lark
released Tasmania’s first homegrown whisky in 160 years. In 2015, after two decades generously helping others start up, Bill became the southern hemisphere’s first inductee into the international Whisky Hall of Fame.
This year, Tasmania’s whisky renaissance toasts its first quarter century. Some 20 distilleries make more whisky than all Australia’s mainland states combined – but it still isn’t nearly enough to meet the demand generated by an international reputation for quality.
For all their boutique individuality, Tasmanian whiskies can be broadly characterised, Bill says. “We all have, despite the styles we make, a lovely,
delicate floral base to the barley – and our barley dictates that. And nearly all of our whiskies have a very rich, oily note to them across the middle of the palate.”
Driving the ‘ Whisky Trail’ across the island from the capital, Hobart, to Burnie, on the north coast, leads not just to diverse cellar doors but also across diverse country, from the gently hilly Midlands to the wild majesty of peaks, forests and highland lakes.
Down by Hobart’s Constitution Dock, Lark Distillery’s snug cellardoor tavern has a cosy maritime ambience with wooden beams and low ceilings, where one can sample a wee dram or two.
Sullivans Cove Distillery receives visitors for tours and tastings on weekdays at its nondescript industrial premises near Hobart Airport, but the whisky is far from nondescript. Sullivans Cove put Tassie whisky on the global stage when its French Oak Cask won World’s Best Single Malt in the 2014 World Whiskies Awards. And the locally made French-style alembic still is not just another point of difference, it’s a work of art in itself. “We don’t look for a standardised flavour or taste,” says the distillery’s Nathan Campbell. “We look for a consistency of quality. There will be variation from spirit run to spirit run within our distillery. That’s the charm of natural variation, of drinking something boutique.”
The first whisky trail stop beyond Hobart is the historic village of Kempton, 45 minutes to the north on the Midland Highway. Kempton’s grandest Georgian pile is Dysart House ( 1842), a former colonial inn that looks like a perfect place for filming a Jane Austen novel. After more than a century as a private home, it became Redlands Distillery’s sumptuous cellar door in late 2015. Redlands’ manager, Robbie Gilligan from Glasgow, was “blown away” by the whisky when he came to Tasmania five years ago.
“Here was this whisky that was some of the best I’ve ever drunk in my life. I met Bill and a lot of other people and I decided this was the industry for me. Here, it’s not about how much money can we make; it’s about making the best spirit possible. And we all do it together. I’ve never come across an industry before with such a collegiate approach and unity. We’re working together to create a Tasmanian brand that is recognised across the world.”
“We have a lovely, delicate floral base to the barley. And nearly all of our whiskies have a very rich, oily note to them”
The whisky is cooked up in a stone building that used to be the stables, while meals, tastings and music sessions take place in the elegant, old-world setting of Dysart House. Robbie’s vision of Redlands as a full paddock- to- bottle producer came to fruition in December 2016, with a flourishing hectare of barley in an adjacent field, and another 25 hectares just up the road.
Also just up the road from Kempton, Peter Bignell’s farm-based Belgrove Distillery is already paddock-to-bottle, although on a smaller scale (producing up to 130 litres a week) and with a very different product: Australia’s only rye whisky. “We had a surplus of rye one year, so I thought I’d give it a go,” says Peter, a sixth- generation local farmer. “It’s only about three years in the barrel. If it’s left in too long the wood hides that lovely spiciness, the vibrancy of the rye.”
A pioneering can-do spirit abounds at Belgrove. Grain is malted in a converted tumble dryer. The world’s only biodiesel still is powered by cooking oil recycled from a local business. It’s tucked away in a cobblestoned 19thcentury stable, with the original horse stalls. ‘It’s all part of the terroir,’ says Peter – even the spider webs. “We need the yeast and bacteria that live in the area. It’s important to get this tiny bit of wild ferment happening. If you’re absolutely sterile you don’t get that. I have particular strains unique to this area. If I moved to a different location, the whisky would be different.”
Unusually, Peter doesn’t use a hydrometer to help tell when the whisky’s ready – just his own senses. Clearly they’re in fine fettle, as his ‘liquid gold’ rating in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible attests (an accolade Lark and Sullivans Cove also share).
From Kempton, whisky pilgrims take the high road, turning off the highway six kilometres to the north to ascend into the lakes region in Tasmania’s Central Highlands. Just outside Bothwell, Nant Distillery is picturesquely sited on a colonial property amid 13 heritage-listed buildings.
“We’re the highest-altitude distillery in Australia, at about 300 metres,” says new owner Chris Malcolm, chief executive officer of Australian Whisky Holdings Ltd, which also has shares in Lark and Redlands. “We have hard [high mineral content] water because it comes off the highlands, whereas everything below us in Tasmania has a soft water. The whisky here has a more Scottish character; it tends to be a little bit more subtle.”
The water comes courtesy of the Clyde River, flowing past the cellar door and 1820s stone mill. “We can grind and grist our own barley using the millstone brought out from France in the early 1800s,” Chris says. “They don’t have anything like that in Scotland.”
They tend not to have resident wild platypus, either.
Small But Special
Nant’s original farmhouse will soon house five- star accommodation. Other historic buildings serve as bond stores, suffused with the silent mysticism of maturing barrels, where the angels take their share (as distillers fondly dub barrel evaporation). No two barrels are identical; each gives individual expression from idiosyncratic variations in cooperage, charring and wood character. Each holds unique counsel with the angels.
“We put a lot of time into the selection of barrels,” says Chris. “A barrel gives you about 70 per cent of the flavour of the whisky. We hand-select them, and we nose them to make sure they have the right freshness.
And then we re-cooper and char to our own recipe.”
From Bothwell, the road passes spectacular lakes, wild heath and craggy peaks, finally descending forested slopes for the run into Burnie on the north-west coast. Here, Hellyers Road Distillery is another unique Tasmanian story. Betta Milk Co-Op, suddenly faced with big-money competitors when its industry was deregulated, took a bold diversifying plunge into whisky in 1999. The result: Tasmania’s biggest and best- selling distillery, exporting to 20 European countries and Japan.
Next door to the still- thriving milk factory, Hellyers Road’s airy, modern cellar-door café and visitor
centre overlooks idyllic Emu Valley. The name honours colonial explorer Henry Hellyer, who, in 1827, built the first road inland from Burnie, hacking through the valley’s rugged bush and passing by what was to become the site of the distillery. “We specialise in a lighter style,” says visitor centre manager Sharon Deane, explaining they waited seven years before opening in 2006, wanting a larger-scale capacity in place.
A decade on, the bond store has Australia’s biggest whisky stockpile. On the factory floor, huge gleaming stills and vats look positively space-age compared to more homespun concerns like Belgrove. But even Hellyers Road is tiny by global standards.
Meanwhile, demand is booming and expansion is looming. Most concerns are planning new and bigger distillery buildings. State output is set to quadruple in the next two years. But even that shouldn’t dent the boutique, artisanal essence lending Australia’s ‘Whisky Island’ its vital charm. “We don’t make as much whisky as the Scots spill producing theirs,” Chris Malcolm says of Tasmanian production. “They talk in the millions of litres. We’re probably looking at 2000 barrels a year at 100 litres a barrel, and that’s after we expand.” Bill Lark adds that attitude is vital. “It’s not always how big or small you are – it’s how you go about doing it.” Barrel evaporation – the angels’ share – tends to be higher in Tasmania than Scotland. Differences in climate and barrel size are the conventional explanations, but it could simply be that the angels can’t resist coming back for more.
“We don’t make as much whisky as the Scots spill producing theirs,” Chris Malcolm says of Tasmanian production
Nant Distillery, dating to 1821, is a mix of colonial and modern architectural styles
Sullivans Cove Distillery is home to a World Whiskies Awards gold-medal winner