Tasmanian whisky has overcome the sceptics and is building a global reputation for its unique flavour
Whisky from Tasmania’s Lark Distillery is gaining a global reputation.
BILL Lark still remembers the day in the late 1980s he was fishing in the Tasmanian highlands with his wife Lyn and some friends. They were drinking whisky and wondered why no one in the state was making it. “We were eating the fish and drinking a bit of malt and we said to ourselves, ‘There’s good barley in Tasmania and good water. And look how well the beers are doing. Why isn’t someone making whisky here?” Lark recalls.
They had some discussions with people in the whisky business in Scotland. The fact that Lyn’s grandparents were Scots added to their interest. The momentum grew and the Hobart couple, part owners of a hotel in the Tasmanian ski fields, decided to give whisky making a try. But they found the Distillation Act of 1901 had an archaic provision requiring that anyone producing whisky had to have a substantial sized still –so large that it was uneconomic for a newcomer to get into the business. Undaunted, they approached their local federal MP who put them in touch with then small business minister Barry Jones, who agreed to amend the law. “He changed the regulation to allow small stills,” says Lark. “It was enough to get us started.”
The Larks produced their first whisky in 1992, setting up the first new licensed distillery in Tasmania since 1839. Lark Distillery went on to become one of the first companies to export Australian malt whisky to the US and has won a string of awards, the latest being the Telstra 2014 Small Business of the Year. Judges described the company as a “quintessential small family business success story that has become an international winner”.
The judges specifically noted that the Larks’ efforts in changing the law and providing support for other people to get into the business had been instrumental in founding the whisky distilling industry in Australia. Tasmania now has nine whisky distilleries and its whiskies are gaining worldwide recognition for their unique flavour.
Lark admits that many people were sceptical at first that whisky made in Tasmania could compete with traditional whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the US. “But once we starting winning awards around the world and some of the other distilleries started winning similar awards, people started taking note,” he says. “There were people from Scotland writing articles about how wonderful Tasmanian whisky was,” he says. “We didn’t go out of our way to get people to try it. People discovered it for themselves. We are at the point now that Tasmanian whisky is in such high demand, the challenge is to make sure we can supply that demand.”
Known as the godfather of the Tasmanian whisky industry, Lark says he has always been keen to help others into the business. “We teach people how to make whisky and set up distilleries,” he says. “Some people ask why we are helping our competitors. But we saw them as being friends and industry colleagues. We knew if we made a good product, we could create an industry in demand.”
Lark Distillery makes about 15,000 litres a year and employs 18 people. It exports some 20 per cent of its production to the US, Europe and Asia. But Lark says it is cutting back its exports because local demand has become so high. The business grew to the point where it needed significantly more capital to make the next big leap in its expansion.
Last year the couple sold down their interest in the company providing the extra funds to upgrade the Lark Whisky cellar door in central Hobart and its distillery in the Coal Valley. “We are looking at increasing production to about 45,000 litres a year over the next five years,” says Lark. The company has also expanded into making gin and vodka.
Lyn Lark remains on the board as a director while Bill is enjoying stepping back from day-to-day management and becoming a “global brand ambassador” for the company, travelling Australia and the world to talk about the company’s whiskies. Lark, who has also become involved in setting up a business taking tourists along a Tasmanian whisky trail, is proud of what the local industry has been able to achieve.
“The world is sitting up and taking notice of Tasmanian whisky,” he says.
Bill Lark among the spirits at Hobart’s Lark Distillery