Lark's Rise

Lark's Rise

Australian whisky has come of age. At the forefront of the country's drive for credibility is Bill Lark. Our man met him for a tinny.

People | 11 Sep 2009 | Issue 82 | By Rob Allanson

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If you're a traditionalist and of the view that the only country that can produce great malt is Scotland, then the sight of a fully bearded, fleecy-wearing Australian strolling across a Fife golf course offering advice on how to build a distillery there must have been a shock to the system.

Ironically, though, the presence at Kingsbarns on the Cambo estate in East Fife of Bill Lark, Australia's premier whisky maker, had absolutely everything to do with tradition, because when it comes to making single malt the old-fashioned way, the Lark Distillery in Tasmania is at the top of the game.

These are heady times for Australian whisky in general and for its Godfather Bill Lark in particular. His presence as a consultant to Scotland's latest distillery project caps a remarkable few months that have done much to cement Australia's reputation as a country with a golden distilling future. Over the last year one of Lark's whiskies picked up the World Whisky Award for the best malt from a non-traditional whisky making country, while the highly-respected Malt Maniacs awarded one of Lark's whiskies the thumbs up award for the most exciting new release in the premium malt sector.

A trip to Scotland to work on a new distillery project is the icing on the cake, but the involvement of Lark and his countrymen Greg Ramsay and Peter Bignell in the proposed Kingsbarns Distillery makes total sense. Doug Clement, who works at the Kingsbarns Golf course and is a driving force behind the new project, takes up the story.

"I used to work with Greg Ramsay as a caddy and he used to say he would go back to Tasmania and build a similar links course to Kingsbarns back there," he says. "We used to laugh at him but eventually he went back and he actually did it. Barnbougle is one of the top links clubs in the world.

"We had often said that Fife lacked a distillery close by to visit. Visiting players were having to travel to Pitlochry or to the Famous Grouse or Dewars World of Whisky because there was nothing nearer. The idea is to convert some buildings near the golf club on the Cambo estate. Greg was doing some work with Nant Distillery in Tasmania and we spoke about this project. That's when Bill Lark got involved as well as Peter, who restored the water mill at Nant."

Bill Lark has been making whisky since the early 1990s and during that time he has helped several other new distilleries in Australia. Tasmania, in particular, has benefited from his support to the point that it has become the centre for Australian whisky. The invite to help out in Scotland, however, was a pleasant surprise.

"I was very nervous about it at first," he says. "I have always had a very good relationship with the Scottish whisky industry and I wasn't sure how they would see my involvement in this. Doug Clement had spoken to a lot of people, engineers, still makers and so on, and they had told him to go big. He was told he would need millions and unless he had big volumes it wouldn't work.

"But he'd heard about us and we had exactly the sort of model he wanted. I mean we shovel in all the malt by hand and take a fully hands on approach. We've shown that a distillery of this size can work. Size isn't the issue, the secret is to make great whisky.

"Doug had seen how we had started so he approached me. I was delighted but worried that I'd get phone calls saying 'what do you think you're doing?' from the Scottish industry. In actual fact though, there has been a lot of support and interest. Kingsbarns has a good model and the only thing standing in the way is finance, but I think they're very capable of doing it."

The association paid dividends immediately, too. "The building we are looking at using are in a mixed state of repair," says Doug Clement. "One part is quite sound but the other part needs a lot of work to restore the roof and so on and that'll cost money. But the Australians had a look and said there was enough space in the good part of the building to house the distillery, so we can leave the other buildings until later and perhaps fix them up to be used as warehouse space."

For Lark the link to Scotland is important in terms of his own and Australia's credibility as a whisky-making nation. In addition to the natural prejudices which exist towards any country from outside the traditional whiskymaking world there are issues within Australia itself. A liberal attitude by the authorities to what can and can't be called whisky has created a market for whiskies of dubious qualities while the Scotch Whisky Association says the country has a serious problem with fraudulent bottling.

The likes of Lark, David Baker at Bakery Hill and Cameron Syme of the Great Southern Distilling Company, all key members of the Australian Distillers' Association, are all acutely aware of the potential damage that poor quality whisky might do to their growing reputation.

"We've now formed a Tasmanian Distillers' Group to help each other make the best whisky possible," he says. "There are those in Australia doing all sorts of stuff that isn't right and we are against that. When the rum and gin makers called on the Government to get rid of the minimum age (for maturing) we said no, if anything make the whisky rules stricter. We want the standards. If someone puts out an Australian whisky that isn't aged and it's awful, and that's your first taste of it, imagine what that would do for the reputation for the rest of the Australian industry. It'd be dreadful."

But there have, in the past, been plenty of Australian bottling which were, to borrow from the local vernacular, 'ordinary.'

"We've all made the mistake in the past of giving into the temptation to get on with bottling something but bottling it too young," says Lark. "But you have to learn from experience. In the early days at Lark we simply didn't make enough whisky and we never anticipated the demand and we never had enough barrels. Demand far exceeded our expectations so we released stuff that was too young and not good enough. At times we didn't have any whisky at all. In the last year or two we've reached the point where we have enough barrels to make consistently good whisky and we're picking up awards as a result. We have to help other distilleries make the right choices."

Lark's generosity with his time and willingness to help other distilleries both on the Australian mainland but particularly in Tasmania is why the Australian whisky will be successful.

"People ask aren't you helping out the competition but I don't see it that way. We are all helping each other because by doing that we can all move forward. If someone doesn't know Australian whisky and likes it in that first experience then it's going to lead them to trying other whiskies from here, and in to our world of whisky. We all benefit from that."

While over in the UK, Lark was meeting distributors and there are plans for to Europe, America and Asia. At home daughter Kristy has moved from distilling to running the business as general manager, while Bill and wife Lyn will develop the whisky experience offered at the distillery.

"We found that a lot of people didn't want to just taste whisky, they wanted to make it," says Bill. "So we offer a one, two or four day experience where you can really get your hands dirty if you want. You can shovel the malt, and clean out the mash tun, and because we have our own peat bogs we organise trips to dig the peat and have lunch up there of freshly caught trout cooked over a peat fire. We've started selling tourism."

Heady times, then, but just the tip of the iceberg, especially because most Australian whisky is still laying down in warehouses. With its own natural resources and access to the finest quality ingredients you suspect that the Tasmanian story is set to head off in its own special direction very shortly.

"We've got a busy year ahead," says Bill. "We're a small boutique distillery proud of what we're doing and have great expectations of what's coming."
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