Spirit of Tasmania

Jan 12, 2009

by DAVID LEVELL, Deputy Chief Sub-Editor

Why does Tasmania make more whisky than all the mainland states put together? Mainly because of the vision and drive of Bill Lark, who opened his licensed distillery in 1992 – the first on the island since making spirits was forbidden back in 1838. Others quickly followed, but Lark was the first of today’s players to recognise and harness Tasmania’s natural bounty of three key whisky ingredients – water, barley and peat.

The purity of Tasmanian spring water is well known, attested by the success of Mount Franklin and other bottled brands. And peat is more abundant on the island state than anywhere else in Australia, a happy accident of climate and geography. Perhaps the most vital of these local elements to the whisky renaissance, however, has been Tasmania’s very own Franklin barley. A high-performance malting barley developed in 1981 by the state’s Department of Primary Industries & Water, its use has been licensed to breweries as far afield as China and South Africa. At the outset, most Tasmanian distilleries depended on home-grown Franklin barley, although it has since been largely superseded by Gairdner barley, a recent cross between Franklin and another variety, Onslow.

Tasmania’s six operating distilleries account for 80 per cent of Australian whisky production. Those open to the public offer experiences ranging from tours and tastings to accommodation and whisky distillation tuition. With Hellyers Road in the north-west, Nant in the central highlands – one of the state’s prime peat locations – and Lark down south by Hobart’s docks, it’s possible to combine fondness for a dram with a tasteful tour through three diverse Tasmanian regions.

Lark Distillery
14 Davey Street, Hobart.
+61 3 6231 9088.

With five years in the cask, Lark Single Malt achieves the same maturity as many eight- to 10-year-old whiskies due to the small (100-litre) barrels used. Lark is a blend-free zone; all its whisky is single-cask as well as single malt. Last year it won four medals at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. Export markets include the UK, New Zealand and Singapore – and soon, perhaps, the US, Israel and Scandinavia. Lark also makes briol, a gin-like bush liqueur using Tasmanian mountain pepperberry to warm and spicy effect. The downtown dockside headquarters offers live music nightly (Wednesday-Saturday), tastings and cellar door tours. If deeper immersion in the spirit world is to your taste, the four-day Tasmanian Whisky Experience Tour is more than a mere lark. Making your own involves digging the peat in the Central Highlands – where Bill has his own bog – and picking the wood for your custom-made 20-litre barrel.

The Nant Estate
Nant Lane, Bothwell.
+61 3 6259 5790.

Australia’s only barley-to-bottle distillery, with its Franklin barley grown on-site. The first Nant Single Malt is due in late 2011 after a four-year ageing, but meanwhile you can enjoy Nant Double Malt, a blend of Nant and other Tasmanian single malt whiskies. Launched by Queensland businessman Keith Batt, with Bill Lark as consultant, Nant Estate is on a Heritage-listed working farm with a convict-built, sandstone flour mill. The 1857 miller’s cottage is now a 12-seat function room, while the bar/lounge features 200 of the world’s whiskies, including exclusive Ardbeg ’65 from one of the only bottles in Australia (it cost $6500). To get into the spirit, a three-day Whisky School includes lessons from Nant’s distiller. A round next door at Ratho, Australia’s oldest golf course (1822), goes down nicely with a wee dram. Visits by appointment; book at least a day ahead.

Tasmania Distillery
1/14 Lamb Place, Cambridge.
+61 3 6248 5399.

This boutique producer of Sullivans Cove and Franklin River Single Malt whiskies follows traditional methods using an 1860s-design copper alambic charentais (a still from Charente, in France). Unlike most Tasmanian distilleries, all the whiskies are unpeated. In 2007, Sullivans Cove bourbon maturation cask won the World’s Best “Other” Single Malt Whisky in the World Whiskies Awards. Export markets include New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, the UK and continental Europe.

Hellyers Road Distillery
153 Old Surrey Road, Burnie.
+61 3 6433 0439.

Australia’s largest single malt distillery has a 200,000-litres of alcohol per annum capacity and also produces Southern Lights Vodka and a cream liqueur. The Visitor Interpretation Centre, open daily, encompasses tasting bar and lounge, shop and a popular restaurant. Hellyers Road Original Pure Australian Single Malt Whisky, matured in American white-oak barrels, is unpeated, but lightly and fully peated varieties are also available. Visitors who take the Whisky Walk tour have the chance to pour and wax-seal their own bottles.

Small Concern no longer produces, but its lightly peated Cradle Mountain Single Malt is still available (Website), and also a double malt blending with Springbank, a Scottish single malt. Two forthcoming small concerns, yet to release, are Mackeys Distillery (Website); and Old Hobart Distillery, which has a peated single malt due in about three years. It will have a 30,000-litre annual capacity.

Source: Qantas The Australian Way October 2008

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