First up

Tas­ma­nian whisky has over­come the scep­tics and is build­ing a global rep­u­ta­tion for its unique flavour

The Australian - The Deal - - First Up - Story by: Glenda Korporaal Pho­to­graph by: Matthew New­ton

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

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