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Meet the people behind Tasmania’s new breed of whisky distilleries

Tasmania’s growing whisky scene is a colourful community of distillers and farmers making handcrafted golden spirits.

In the 1820s, Hobart had seven distilleries; an industry born out of barley agriculture and the European colonists’ thirst for the spirit. But when governor John Franklin, who was a teetotaller, arrived in 1837, he began to outlaw the dram business. In 1839, distillation of spirits was prohibited, and distilleries got their death knell.

Lark Distillery and Sullivans Cove

Bill Lark, founder of Lark Distillery

Franklin’s law stood until the late 1980s, when Bill Lark came along. A land surveyor and Scotch acolyte, Lark wanted to make local whisky. After all, the island’s water was pristine and the barley was excellent, he thought. For A$65, he got himself a table-top copper pot still from an auction. Cascade Brewery, Tasmania’s oldest beer producer, then gave him wort and yeast to ferment. But he could not get a licence to distil.

By chance, he met then federal Member of Parliament, Duncan Kerr, who liked whisky. “I told him my problem. He phoned the federal minister of Customs, Science and Small Business, who then changed the distillations act,” recalls Lark, now 63. He applied for and got his licence in 1992, founded Lark Distillery and became the first Tasmanian whisky producer since 1839. The distillery has since moved from Richmond to Cambridge, a suburb of Hobart.

Lark Distillery paved the way for others. Today, there are 23 whisky distilleries in Tasmania. “In a couple of years, there will be 30 distilleries,” opines Lark, who is known as the Godfather of Tasmanian whisky. “Demand for Tassie whisky is going through the roof.”

Recent wins at the World Whiskies Awards, says Lark, have helped put Tasmania in the limelight: Lark Distillery’s LD-100 Barrel won the Best Other Single Malt Whisky in 2009, and Sullivans Cove distillery’s French Oak Cask snagged the World’s Best Single Malt Whisky honour in 2014. Long contented to serve their locals with small batch drams, Tasmanian distilleries now have to quench the thirst of a growing legion of overseas fans.

Lark Distillery’s signature Classic Cask is a bloom of raisins, dates and roses on the palate. “You can identify a Tasmanian dram from Scottish whiskies—ours have this oily, floral note,” says Lark. “This quality comes from our Tasmanian barley.”

Whisky begins from malted barley (germinated and dried grains). Lark Distillery and Sullivans Cove in Cambridge get their malted grains from Cascade Brewery, which sources them from the island’s barley farms. Nathan Campbell, 30, sales and marketing assistant of Sullivans Cove, says this outsourcing lets them “focus more of their time on making high quality spirits”.

Whiskies being aged in barrels at Sullivans Cove

Good whisky once seemed impossible at Sullivans Cove. Established in 1994 by Robert Hoskins, an entrepreneur, the distillery was initially called Tasmania Distillery. Making whisky demands patience: the tipple needs to mature in barrels (a minimum ageing of two years is required for a spirit to be legally called whisky in Australia). But Hoskins couldn’t wait, and blended his spirit with cheap Scotch he bought off the market. Quality suffered and the distillery went bankrupt in 1999. Patrick Maguire, one of the distillery’s staff, then gathered investors and acquired the company.

“Patrick changed things at Sullivans Cove. He had brought Bill Lark on board to assist with the distilling,” says Brett Steel, 35, founder of Drink Tasmania, a company that brings guests on tours to the island’s wineries and distilleries. “Ever since the distillery won the award in 2014, the reputation of Tassie whiskies went up, and journalists and whisky fans have been coming to see what was happening here.”

Two years ago, Sullivans Cove launched the Cellarmaster program, which gave a customer the chance to have a dram aged in his own 20-litre ex-Tawny Port cask. It became so popular that the distillery had to stop taking orders. The team is now thinking of experimenting with smaller barrels themselves, such as 50-litre casks, as a complement to their 300-litre barrels.

Barrel maturation mellows new-make whisky (spirit fresh off the still), lending it its golden hue and sweet, woody notes. The Scots generally use American ex-bourbon casks, but Tasmanian distilleries favour Australian ex-Tawny Port casks. The heyday of Tawny Port or fortified wine may be over, but its production is still alive and well in South Australia. Lark Distillery sources most of its barrels from Seppeltsfield, a Barossa Valley winery known for its Tawny Port tradition.

Redlands Distillery

Redlands Distillery’s whiskies

Redlands Distillery uses ex-Pinot Noir barrels to age their whisky instead. The oily spirit has a subtle note of plum; a ghost of the Pinot. “Tasmania has amazing Pinot Noir. Using those barrels from the local wineries is our way of showcasing that aspect to drinkers,” says Robbie Gilligan, 37, business manager of Redlands Distillery.

Located in the town of Kempton, Redlands Distillery occupies the Dysart House, which once served as an inn for travellers journeying from Hobart to Launceston in the mid-19th century. The adjacent former brick stables holds the distillery’s 900-litre copper still and a bond store or barrel room. Redlands Distillery is aiming to be one of the few paddock-to-bottle Tasmanian whisky producers, meaning every aspect of the production is done on-site: barley has been planted next to the distillery, and a new facility will include a malting floor. Gilligan reckons that everything will be completed by end of this year.

Redlands Distillery has hired many Kempton locals. (Gilligan, however, is a Scot. He came to Tasmania five years ago, tried Lark’s whisky and the rest is history.) For a town of just 360, this is a welcome move, especially in rural areas where employment opportunities are near absent.

“Tasmania’s changing economic landscape means places that were traditionally dependent on mining and forestry are now suffering and have to adapt to new industries like tourism,” says Steel. “Distilleries—as a part of the tourism industry—have blossomed well so far.”

Shene Estate & Distillery

David Kernke, distiller and heritage conserver of Shene Estate & Distillery

Shene Estate & Distillery in picturesque Pontville is a distillery that is shaping up to be a tourist destination. Owners David and Anne Kernke are heritage conservers who have been restoring historic houses in Queensland. In 2006, they acquired the early 19th century gothic sandstone property at Shene, and began the restoration. Today, the elegant buildings often hold events like birthday celebrations and weddings.

David and head distiller Damian Mackey (Lark’s ex-colleague from his land surveyor days) are also putting the finishing touches to a new timber-lined facility that will produce Australia’s only Irish-inspired triple-distilled whisky. According to David, triple distillation creates “a smoother, mellower whisky”.

Belgrove Distillery and Nonesuch Distillery

Peter Bignell’s yard is a dystopian scene, a Mad Max world cobbled together by rusty machinery, corrugated metal and serpentine rubber hoses. The focal point is a modified laundry dryer, which Bignell uses to malt and peat-smoke his rye: the grains go into the drum, and a timer spins it a few times a day, rotating the rye and spraying water on it via a sprinkler. The grains germinate and excess water is drained away. Peat from Tasmania’s northeast coast is then lit and placed in a cabinet beneath the drum, smoking the grains.

Rye whiskies at Belgrove Distillery

The 65-year-old Bignell is the owner of Belgrove Distillery in Kempton. The rye farmer became a whisky maker eight years ago when an extra crop of rye prompted him to turn the grains into spirit. Today, he specialises in making Australia’s only rye whisky. Known as Gadget Man among his peers, Bignell lives and breathes self-sustainability: he bought a copper sheet, welded it and created his own still. The small distillery runs on cooking oil he collects from a nearby roadhouse. As if the man weren’t eccentric enough, he also makes sand sculptures in his free time.

Bignell is a true paddock-to-bottle producer, albeit operating on a tiny scale—just a few hundred litres is made for each batch of whisky. Demand for his drams has surged after his rye whisky earned ‘Liquid Gold’ in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2016. But the distillery is still largely a one-man show, so he prefers to keep his production small.

Rex Burdon, makes sloe malt (new-make spirit soaked with sloe) at Nonesuch Distillery

Joining Bignell in making a different kind of dram is Rex Burdon, 61, owner of the cheekily named Nonesuch Distillery in Forcett. Inspired by his production of sloe gin (gin steeped with sloe berries), Burdon decided to make sloe malt—new-make whisky soaked with sloe for 14 months and with no barrel maturation. It was a wild idea but it had Lark’s approval.