Down Under

Down Under

Adventures in Tasmania

Travel | 25 Apr 2014 | Issue 119 | By Claire Smith

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Ask anyone about whisky industry Tasmania and is never long before you hear the name Bill Lark. Lark is the former surveyor with a passion for Scotch who fancied trying his hand at distilling and accidentally invented a new industry.

Visit the Lark Whisky Bar, on the Hobart waterfront with cloud covered Mount Wellington rising behind and there is a very good chance you'll end up hearing the story first hand from the man they call the Godfather of Australian whisky.

Lark is in particularly high spirits when we meet, having just scored the Best Australian Distiller and Champion Whisky awards at the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards.

As I find out over the next couple of days awards and accolades are in no short supply at Tasmanian distilleries. There are now nine distilleries on the island - with two more expected to enter production over the next years.

But the story began when Lark bought a second hand still at a garage sale and realised it was illegal to use it.

"When we wanted to make whisky in Tasmania back in the eighties we realised Tasmania has fantastic barley, plenty of peat, fantastic water and the right sort of climate. So we wondered why somebody is not making whisky."

Lark discovered the last distillery in Tasmania closed in 1839. When Australia became a federation in 1901 the country adopted the Scottish Distilleries Act, which effectively outlawed smaller operators.

"Nobody really thought about boutique operations it was all about industrial sized operations.

"I happened to be walking through Hobart with the Federal MP Duncan Kerr and I told him the story. He said: "This would be a good industry for Tasmania.' He contacted Barry Jones, the MP for Canberra, who said: 'I will change the Distilleries Act.'"

The correspondence between the two politicians which led to the change in the law is framed and on display on the wall of the whisky bar.

"That was how we came to be the first licensed distillery to produce malt whisky since the early colonial days".

The moment I got my licence in 1992 I got a phone call from Scotland saying: "How can we help you." As well as the natural advantages of the soft Tasmanian water and cool climate, tales from Scottish distillers about the benefits of hand crafted small batch production also helped shape the industry.

Lark whisky is all matured in quarter casks and sold as single cask editions - with the number of the cask printed on the bottle.

Whisky aged in the re sized barrels takes on more of the character of the cask more quickly - giving it tremendous flavour.

Dutch born construction engineer turned distiller Casey Overeem says the idea of using half and quarter size casks came from Scottish distiller John Grant. "He said: 'My father always said

that the best whisky came out of 100 litre barrels.'"

Despite the folksy name the Old Hobart Distillery the Overeem HQ which uses wash from the Cascade Brewery, is in a pristine shed at the foot of the driveway of his immaculate suburban family home overlooking Blackmans Bay.

"It was a hobby. I never expected it would become a business."

On the shelves of his distilling shed he has a veritable library of bottles, including a 35-year-old Caol Isla, which he asks us to sample.

"I love Scotch. We have never been trying to out do the Scots. They have been a tremendous help."

When demand for his product grew, he, his Norwegian wife Grete and his daughter Jane became a production line. "Me, Grete and Janey would be there filling the bottles, with Janey cranking up the music."

To get an idea of just how individualistic distilling can be in Tasmania - you can't do better than visit Peter Bignell, who produces rye whisky on his estate at Belgrove.

Wearing his trademark floppy straw hat Bignell shows visitors the copper still he welded himself and the heating rig pulled together from a swimming pool heater and a toaster. His mash tub is an old dairy vat.

A renowned artist who travels the world making futuristic sand sculptures Bignell decided to have a go at whisky after finding himself with an excess of rye.

"I claim I'm the greenest distillery in the world," says Bignell, who hands out samples of rye whisky from an upturned barrel and offers to sweep the outside toilet for spiders with a handy blue plastic broom.

A less eccentric but no less hand crafted approach can be found at the Sullivans Cove distillery, in a rather bland industrial unit off the beautiful Coal River Valley.

This is the home of the sensational French Oak Port Cask malt, which claims to be Australia's highest awarded whisky.

General Manager Patrick Maguire said: "Part of the art of what we are doing is choosing which barrels to bottle and when."

The choice is not scientific - but personal: "I'm looking for a whisky I can kick back and enjoy over half an hour. At the end of the day when you are trying to relax you want something with a nice creamy mouth feel."

Sullivans Cove produces around 16,000 bottles a year but is still small enough to allow each cask to settle naturally before bottling. The process of using gravity rather than filters is one of the things which allows such extraordinarily satisfying flavours.

The small scale of production is definitely one of the secrets behind the success of Tasmanian whisky - but there is change afoot.

Both Lark and Overeem have recently been taken over by private investors who plan to increase production - although Bill Lark and Casey Overeem will remain ambassadors for the brands.

The state government has recently given $120,000 (AUS) to establish a Tasmanian Whisky Trail. And it has

offered support to the new Lark distillery and visitor centre in the Coal River Valley, where visitors will be able to watch the process of whisky making.

Once derided for its sleepy pace of life and cool climate Tasmania is becoming a hip tourist destination -not least because of the success of the Museum of Old and New Art - an extraordinary art gallery built by the head of a gambling syndicate to house an eclectic collection of antiquities and conceptual art.

I hitch a lift with Morgan and Wallace to the Redlands Estate - a nascent distillery with big plans. Alongside derelict convict quarters and a disused brewery the first Redlands Estate whisky is already maturing in the casks.

The first bottles are expected to be ready by late 2015. Jackson and MD Phil Fitzpatrick both have broad shoulders from turning over the malted barley on the floor of a converted sheering shed. Fitzpatrick, gives me a lift back to Hobart and tells me how excited he is to have such a hands on role: "The whole point for me is to make something in Tasmania where I live. I am a part of the story and it makes me proud."

Tasting Notes

Lark Distillery

Single Cask Single Malt Whisky?

Nose: Malty, lightly peated, peppery spices dig into the oily malt.

Palate: Massively malty, clean and fruity with a powdery oak offering further complexity, oily and fat.

Finish: Beatifully spiced and delicate with fluttering malty tones caressing the palate.

Single Malt Distillers Selection

Nose: Sweet and fruity with delicate floral notes.

Palate: Plum pudding richness with oak, port and pear.

Finish: A delightfully rounded yet complex finish with added notes of chocolate and toffee.

Single Cask Malt Whisky Cask Strength

Nose: Sweet and spicy with a hint of nutmeg and vanilla.

Palate: Intense and oily. Floral and plum pudding notes with hints of maple syrup.

Finish: A long balanced spicy finish which lingers on the tongue.


Single Cask, Single Malt Whisky - Port Matured

Nose: Moderately intense aromatics, fruit chocolates, caramel, butterscotch, Turkish delight, creme brulee, plum pudding, rum soaked raisins, hint of cider.

Palate: Creamy texture, sweet and delicately spicy, fruitcake, caramel, licorice and sweet malt.

Finish: Long. Vanilla bean laced with spiced raisins.

Single Cask, Single Malt Whisky - Port Matured

Nose: Notes of choc-chip cookie, orange marmalade and clove.

Palate: Spicy dried fruits (raisin and date)

Finish: Hints of plum, sultana and cocoa.


100% Rye Whisky

Nose: Distinctive dill pickle scent.

Palate: Smooth and delicate chamomile tea, boiled sweets, caraway seeds.

Finish: Dry, mildly tannic with good length.

100 % Rye Cask Strength Whisky

Nose: Honeycombe and peppermint with unusual green notes.

Palate: A bittersweet and gentle delivery with flavours of sponge cake followed by intense, mildly bitter mustard seed like notes.

Finish: Warm and mildly tannic.

Sullivans Cove

Double Cask

Nose: Vanilla driven perfume, floral fruit soft spice and cloves

Palate: Soft, creamy, well structured and balanced. Herbal, then some spices and honey, English candy notes and a hint of pear.

Finish: Well rounded fruity finish of a medium length with hints of honey and milk chocolate.

American Oak Bourbon Cask

Nose: Malt, spice, subtle nutty characters and light cream.

Palate: Rounded, full, creamy. Initially lots of sweet barley and fruit at front of palate, vanilla comes through and citrus notes in the middle palate.

Finish: Honey, long even finish with great balance.

French Oak Port Cask

Nose: Full rich dark chocolate with cinnamon, orange peel hazlenut and liquorice mint

Palate: Rich and sweet front palate with flavours of chocolate, pepper, toffee and fruit cake.

Finish: Long lingering finish of dried dark fruit and dark chocolate.
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