March 2, 2016

The Whisky Isle

It may traditionally have been known as the Apple Isle, but Australia’s smallest state is earning an ever-growing reputation for its production of fine single malt whisky that’s being hailed as some of the best on the planet.

When Bill Lark and his wife Lyn made their first single malt at the kitchen table of their Tasmanian home, they had one simple goal in mind – to see if they could produce some good whisky.

Twenty-three years later Lark Distillery is almost fighting whisky lovers off with a stick as the demand for their now multi-award-winning single malt far exceeds supply, and Tasmania’s profile as a source of some of the world’s best is booming.

“We actually said to ourselves, ‘Let’s just have some fun and see if Tasmania’s capable of making whisky, some really good whisky,’” says Bill, who at the time was running a busy surveying business and was part-owner of a Tasmanian highlands hotel. “And if we’re not happy with it we just won’t release it.”

The rest, of course, is history. The pioneering Lark Distillery is now one of a fast-growing band of distilleries in Tasmania producing handcrafted “liquid gold” that has aficionados swooning, and awards rolling in.

Last year Tasmania’s profile had a major boost with one local drop – Sullivans Cove – named the world’s best single malt at the World Whiskies Awards in London; this year the distillery responsible claimed the title of Best Craft Distillery in the world.

“It really is a wonderful thing,” says Patrick Maguire, the chief distiller behind Sullivans Cove and a pioneer of the industry who worked alongside Bill Lark in the early days. “Twenty years ago we had no idea we would be in this position today. Winning awards at the highest level was something we cheekily hoped and imagined we would do one day but never really expected.

“It’s an incredible feeling to have been at the start of a whole new industry, and not only that but one that is producing products gaining world recognition, and is growing and going from strength to strength.”

Tasmania today has Australia’s largest concentration of whisky distilleries. A current count shows there are 14 operating with five more in the planning stages. It’s this concentration, as well as the quality now being produced, that’s seeing the island state being compared to the famed Isle of Islay in the spiritual home of single malt, Scotland.

Recipe for fine whisky

Distillers say the secret behind Tasmania’s rise in the world of luxury whiskies comes down to several factors – the pure Tasmanian water and high-quality, rich oily barley, the hands-on methods being used to produce them, and the weather.

“Sixty-five percent of the character of whisky comes from the time it spends in the barrel, so where it sits is quite important, and the quality of the barrel,” says Bill Lark, whose distillery now produces around 50,000 litres a year. “But it also seems that here in Tasmania we have a greater diurnal temperature range and seasonal variation, and what that means is the whisky is moving in and out of the charcoal layer of the barrel more frequently; that helps in the cleaning of the whisky, making it richer and smoother.

“So this combination of the barley and the climate produces a distinct flavour, a Tasmanian whisky flavour, sort of like the terroir that you would talk about with wine.”

These days Lark’s name is usually accompanied by the title “godfather of Tasmanian whisky” in recognition of the role he played in revealing Tasmania’s potential as the perfect environment for making great whisky.

Lark famously had been fishing with his father-in-law and was tucking in to their catch, washed down with some Scottish whisky, when the conversation turned to why there was no one making whisky in a region with all the right ingredients.

Before establishing his eponymous distillery in 1992, Lark first had to lobby to have changed a century-and-a-half-old Distilling Act that effectively meant small distilleries were banned. When Lark began making his whisky he was the first licensed distiller to operate in Tasmania in more than 153 years.

Built on Scottish advice

With Tasmania today challenging countries with hundreds of years of tradition in the making of fine single malt, it’s ironic that the local industry has much to thank the generosity of Scottish distillers for.

“When we started we really had no idea how to make whisky, so we set about learning,” says Lark. “Within two weeks of getting my licence I had a phone call at 10 o’clock at night from one of the big distilleries in Scotland – offering to help us make good whisky.

“He said, ‘Bill, if you’re going to make whisky I’d rather you make good whisky’. And we’ve had nothing but support from the Scottish industry ever since.”

And the Scottish industry continues to offer support despite the ever-increasing success of Tassie’s distillers. “The good news is that all around the world the demand for single malt is growing so strongly that the small amount we produce compared to the world market is quite small,” says Lark.

“It’s not having an impact on them at all; in fact it’s maybe one of the things contributing to the international growth of the product, the fact that small craft distillers are starting up outside of traditional whisky-producing countries.”

Sullivans Cove’s Maguire says there’s a joy in the international industry that the growth of new whisky markets is fuelling greater appreciation of single malt. “When we started distilling whisky in a very, very small way Australians just didn’t really drink a lot of whisky – beer and wine were what most people drank,” he says.

“But in the last few years there’s been a huge resurgence in the consumption of whisky, and an increasing appreciation of quality whiskies, hand-crafted whiskies, and the stories behind them; people are interested in what water was used, where does the barley come from, is it double distilled, is it triple distilled. So it was really perfect timing for us because we’ve now got those good-quality whiskies here.

“The global consumption of single malt has increased and even with the Scottish, the Irish, the Japanese and others around the world making it there still isn’t enough whisky to supply.”

Whisky in demand

Having perfected the art of making fine whisky and with recognition growing, just keeping up with demand is one of the biggest challenges in an industry where you can’t just crank up production overnight, say Tasmanian distillers.

Old Hobart Distillery’s Jane Overeem, whose businessman father Casey secured his distiller’s licence in 2005 and began what he planned to be a small “hobby business” but which grew to become the producer of one of the state’s most acclaimed whisky brands, says demand far outstrips what the distillery produces.

“Currently that’s the biggest challenge,” says Overeem, who’s been tasting whiskies in the family business since she was 18. “We simply do not have enough ‘matured’ whisky to keep up with the orders coming our way. Whisky takes a long time to mature. Unfortunately you can’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Let’s double production today and meet the demand tomorrow.’ If only.

“We’re currently making four times the amount of whisky we made when we first started distilling in 2007. It’s a really exciting time to be a part of this industry.”

Overeem says a highlight in the company’s growth was when whisky guru Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, gave its first releases of both its port-matured and sherry-matured whiskies scores of 95, in 2013. It secured them places among his prized “Liquid Gold” category – whiskies Murray calls “the elite: the finest you can currently find on the whisky shelves of the world”. Other Tasmanian distilleries to have reached the esteemed level include Lark, Sullivans Cove, and Nant Distilling Company. “It was pretty exciting to know we’d received scores placing us in the top two percent of whiskies in the world,” says Overeem.

There are few concerns, though, that the planned growth in production could threaten the hand-crafted artisan reputation that is one of the appeals of Tasmanian whiskies, says Overeem.

“We’re producing one percent of what the Glenfiddich Distillery produces,” she says. “So even if we increase production significantly we’ll still be small and hand-crafted for many, many years to come.”

Maguire says that with the success of the business comes cash flow that is now allowing it to invest in the steady expansion of the operation, while staying intently focused on the techniques that have brought it accolades.

“We’re doing about 18,000 bottles a year – that’s all we can produce and that’s simply because that’s all the barrels we had for decanting in any one year,” he says. “But now we’re putting more barrels of whisky down than before – and in another 12 or 13 years we’ll be able to bottle hopefully about four times more.”

Iconic brand protection

The incredible rise in the Tasmanian whisky brand has sparked moves by the industry to protect such a valuable asset with the planned establishment of a place-of-origin appellation system. Lark believes the system will be in place within the next 12 months.

“The industry has been such a boon for Tasmania and for Australia, and we want to protect it, to protect the standard,” says Lark. “The danger for the industry is that there’s no real definition of what a Tasmanian whisky is, and what’s required to produce it.

“When anything gets a good name there’s always the threat that somebody will try to enter the market with something inferior.

“We’re more than happy to help people coming into the industry and do what the Scottish industry did for us – share our knowledge and promote good whisky production. But we need to protect the brand name that has become quite iconic.”

This article was first published in Private Word magazine (Summer 2015). Private Word is also available in an App for Android and iTunes users.

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