The origin story of the modern-day Tasmanian whisky industry is a good yarn. Bill Lark has told it countless times. That’s because he’s both its author and leading character.
It was Lark, a former land surveyor, who found himself in the Tasmanian Highlands on a fishing trip in the 1980s, talking over a whisky with his father-in-law. After finishing a barbequed meal of freshly caught brown trout, the two men began reflecting on their drinks.
Tasmania, they wondered aloud, had all the elements required to make whisky: water, barley, highland peat, and the right climate. So why weren’t Tasmanians making it?
“We probably had just enough whisky to be able to say something silly like, ‘Perhaps we should have a go?’” says Lark. “It was as simple as that.”
It might have ended there, but for the encouragement of friends and Lark’s wife Lyn (who is a partner and distiller in Lark Distillery). “Wherever I went,” says Lark, “I found myself being swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for the idea.”
One problem – while Lark was adept at drinking the stuff, he had no idea how to make it. After buying a small copper pot still (used for distillation) at an auction for $65, he studied distilling at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia, where he was able to learn on its 3000-litre still.
It was when he tried to get a licence that he encountered the next obstacle: a long-forgotten convict-era ban on distillation.
In the 19th century, Van Diemen's Land had boasted 16 legal distilleries. According to local legend, in 1838 Governor Franklin banned non-commercial distilling on the island at the behest of his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, who allegedly told her husband, “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine.”
Lark thought that might be the end of his whisky-making dream. But on a whim he dropped into the office of his local MP, Duncan Kerr. “Fortunately, he loved whisky,” says Lark, “and he thought we should do something about it.”
Kerr reached out to the Minister for Small Business and Customs, Barry Jones, who – as fate would have it – was also a whisky lover. Jones amended the legislation, and in May 1992, Lark was issued with the first licence to distil spirits in Tasmania since the 1830s.
With the first batches of Lark whisky produced, local support was slow. “We struggled a bit trying to convince the top hotels and restaurants to take our whisky back in those days,” says Lark. “The general reaction was, ‘We don't make whisky in Australia.’”
That all changed in 2009 when Lark Distillery won the award for best whisky outside of Scotland and Ireland at the World Whisky Awards. “That was the start of it,” says Lark. “A lot of international whisky magazines wanted to know about this puny little distillery in Tasmania winning such an impressive award.”
Now situated on the harbour’s edge in Hobart, Lark Distillery is celebrating its 25th anniversary. It’s currently making around 300 barrels of whisky a year and employs more than 30 people. In 2015, Lark – widely recognised as the godfather of the Tasmanian whisky industry – travelled to London to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the World Whisky Awards.
A growing industry
Lark’s efforts have had a ripple effect. The distillery is just one of a growing community of local distillers – 22 at last count – combining to make Tasmania’s whisky so popular it might yet be known as the Isle of Whisky.
Chief among them is Sullivan’s Cove Distillery, in Cambridge near Hobart Airport. In 2014, the whisky was named the best single malt in the world, and in 2015 the Craft Distiller of the Year. At Belgrove Distillery, north of Hobart, sustainability guru Peter Bignell uses a bio-diesel powered still claimed to be the only one in the world, to make Australia’s only rye whisky. Like Belgrove, Redlands Distillery in Kempton is a pioneer of the paddock-to-bottle movement, and grows its own barley on-site. Preceding them all is Cradle Mountain Whisky, which under its previous name – The Small Concern Whisky Distillery – began producing soon after Lark began. Such is the demand for Tasmanian whisky that when they’re not sold out, many retail for several hundred dollars.
An ideal island
What makes Tasmanian whisky so good? Lark says it’s primarily a combination of pristine water and an ideal climate for maturing. “We have great diurnal ranges of temperature and seasonal variations,” he says. “So the whisky moves in and out of the charcoal layer of the barrel (part of the maturation process) more frequently, probably, even than Scotland.”
Then there’s the local barley. Thanks to Tasmania’s long history of beer brewing, Tasmanian whisky makers are well positioned to make use of the region’s brewing barley, rather than the traditional distilling variety. “We don't get the same return of alcohol per tonne of barley (as in Scotland), but what we are getting is a big, rich, oily malt that stays on the palate,” says Lark. “It's a big, long finish.”
A community spirit
William McHenry is a friend of Lark’s. A former pharmaceutical executive on the mainland, McHenry gave up corporate life and moved south to become a whisky distiller. He operates McHenry Distillery, Australia’s southern most distillery, located near the historic town of Port Arthur. The site has everything required to make quality whisky: access to quality grain, water that is clear, pure, and soft, and a cool, temperate climate.
McHenry says the critical factor to Tasmanian whisky is the people who make it, and their “ideas, passions, and experiences.” He’s quick to praise Lark for the vital role he has played in establishing the industry. “Each distillery has relied on Bill either a little or a lot,” says McHenry. “There's a lot of sharing of information. We're all very happy to help out and lend support.”
McHenry is a member of the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association (TWPA), an industry body founded by Bill Lark and Patrick Maguire of Sullivan’s Cove Distillery in 2007. The TWPA oversees the Tasmanian Whisky Trail, a distillery tour that has become a pilgrimage for whisky lovers.
McHenry says the distillers love the trail and the importance of tourism to the industry. “We make a high-quality spirit,” says McHenry. “So when people try our stuff they generally love it and become ambassadors for our brand.” That word of mouth spreads. Every year thousands of people travel to Tasmania to tour the distilleries, and in 2016 the inaugural Tasmanian Whisky Week debuted, bringing together a showcase of the best of Tasmanian whisky at masterclasses, tastings and regional dinners. This year it returns, running August 4–13.
Seven years after his move south, McHenry has no regrets. “The Tasmanian lifestyle just suits me down to the ground,” he says. He even loves the weather. “Log fires. Glasses of whisky. Some fantastic food. There's nothing better than Tasmania in winter.”
Five of the cosiest places to drink whisky in Tasmania in winter
Lark Cellar Door and Whisky Bar
Once a hydro-electric pumphouse, Pumphouse Point now offers luxury accommodation in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park. Its two staff-free “honesty bars” are the perfect setting to enjoy a dram of local whisky.
Bruny Island House of Whisky
Thousand Lakes Lodge