Tas­ma­nian Whisky - Tak­ing on the World

On the trail of the is­land’s bur­geon­ing bou­tique in­dus­try

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY DAVID LEVELL

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.”

In­di­vid­ual Charm

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

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