Spirit from the South Seas

Spirit from the South Seas

M. F. Jameson looks into the past, present and future of Tasmanian whisky production
In a faraway seaport, buffeted by polar winds and dotted with Georgian architecture, barrels of single malt lie slowly maturing. The whisky rests in a bonded store near the ruins of a long abandoned distillery, just one of perhaps half a dozen that sprang up in the city during the early part of the 19th century.A closer inspection of the barrels shows a local distiller’s brand, however this single malt is not from Scotland nor Ireland, or even the northern hemisphere.The barrels contain single malt whisky distilled in Hobart, the second oldest city in Australia.Not content with a flourishing wine industry, a small band of Australian distillers, using traditional techniques, are now producing world-class single malt whisky. Most of that production is based on the island of Tasmania, the smallest state in Australia.“My aim is that Tasmania becomes known for whisky in the same way that South Australia is recognised for wine,” says Patrick Maguire, head distiller and manager of the Tasmania Distillery that made the bonded whisky.This is no passing fad. The Australian passion for distilled spirits goes back to the First Fleet. During the early years of settlement, when hard currency was non-existent, trading in spirits, particularly rum, was the universally accepted method of barter. In 1796, the fledgling colony of New South Wales was in the grip of a serious grain shortage, yet it was necessary to post colonial orders warning “ … it was transportation to the coal mines for… inhabitants to have mash or wort in their possession.”It has been suggested that by 1824, Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then called, had up to 16 distilleries operating, though this number probably included some breweries. A Hobart Town Gazette from the time claimed that one local product was “ … equal to the best gin manufactured in London.” Good news for gin drinkers, but what about those who appreciated a dram?When William de Gillern spent £3,000 setting up the Constantia Distillery, the Gazette ran an intriguing report that the Tasmanian spirit was “ … allowed by good judges to be superior to any of that kind hitherto produced at any of the other distilleries in the island. It is totally free from mixture, and very much resembles the fern-tosh in Scotland.”The overall standard of colonial distilleries remains questionable. Author Robert Hughes notes in The Fatal Shore that a Tasmanian bushranger of the day was stupefying potential witnesses by forcing them “ … to drink their masters’ whiskey.” This killed an unhappy teetotaller, while others “ … due to the vile quality of colonial spirits, became very sick.”A sharp jump in excise charges closed most of the distilleries and the outright banning of distillation in Van Diemen’s Land in 1839 put the matter beyond debate. For whisky-lovers who appreciated the local drop, it was a long time between drinks, and for 153 years there was no licensed distillery in Tasmania.That changed in May 1992 when a general spirit makers licence was issued to Bill and Lyn Lark.The idea surfaced on a fishing trip in the mid-‘80s.“We were having a malt and barbecuing a beautiful four-pound trout, with the [Tasmanian] Clyde River nearby, in an area where they grow good barley,” Bill Lark says. It led to the thought: ‘Why doesn’t somebody make malt whisky in Tasmania?”It was a good question. Tasmania enjoys a reputation for ‘clean, green’ produce, and much is made of its air quality and pure mountain water. Just as importantly, in 1981 a research scientist started developing Franklin barley specifically for Tasmania’s cool climate. Ironically, Franklin was also the surname of the 19th century governor who banned distillation.The biggest challenge was amending federal legislation restricting distillation licences to stills with a wash capacity of 2,700 litres. A sympathetic local member of federal parliament took the Lark’s case to the responsible minister, who made the changes with a minimum of fuss. After receiving the licence, Bill and his wife Lyn, the firm’s distiller, embarked on a steep learning curve. Along the way they received assistance from a South Australian wine college and the University of Tasmania’s science laboratory.Peat was sourced from Tasmania’s Central Highlands, and a local cooper enlisted to supply the distillery with oak casks from cut down, re-toasted port barrels. Originally, 20 and 40-litre maturation casks were used, but, over time, 50 and 100-litre casks were introduced. Using small casks was crucial because it meant that the whisky could be released in just three years.The decision paid off when Dennis Nicol, best known for his time at Laphroaig, visited the Hobart distillery and gave his opinion on how the Lark single malt was performing.“He felt that because of the smaller barrels, our whisky, at three years of age, reminded him of a good eight-year-old Highland malt, and it had the right balance between smoothness and oak,” recalls Bill Lark.During the past 11 years, the Lark Distillery has progressed from an experimental 20-litre antique still to a 500-litre still producing 10,000 litres of cask-strength whisky per annum. A custom-built 1,500-litre model has been in operation since late April this year.A legacy of the Lark-inspired change to the federal distillation act was that it cleared the path for other boutique distilleries, such as the Tasmania Distillery. Opened in 1996, the Tasmania Distillery is a larger operation, with the capacity to produce 100,000 litres of whisky each year. Manager Patrick Maguire is a friend of the Larks. Maguire lent a hand when the Larks were starting out, and ended up becoming a distiller in his own right.He has firm views on the positioning of Australian whisky, especially his flagship product, Sullivans Cove Single Malt.Despite employing traditional distillation techniques, including the use of a copper pot still and double distilling, he steers away from comparing it with any particular single malt Scotch.“We make it at the opposite end of the planet, so naturally our whisky will have its own character,” he says.Unlike the Lark single malt, Sullivans Cove is an unpeated whisky, matured in 200-litre casks for around five and a half years. Maguire plans to extend this to eight years and then 12. Sullivans Cove has attracted favourable comments from whisky writer and judge Jim Murray, who noted the outstanding flavour.“The body is big and lush, the intensity of the malt a sheer delight. Fabulous balance between the sweet malt and intervening oak … At the moment your malt is highly enjoyable, at times brilliant … ”This is also good news for the third local distiller, Whisky Tasmania. Based at the other end of the state in the town of Burnie, Whisky Tasmania’s parent company has invested $4.5 million (£1.7 million, US $2.7 million) in a purpose-built distillery, producing around 120,000 litres a year. Whisky Tasmania will release its five year-old single malt in 2004, and is hoping to emulate the success of Sullivans Cove.With the sudden boom and bust of the 19th century distilleries still on my mind, I ask Patrick Maguire a final question regarding the future of the single malt whisky he is so carefully making.“It’ll see me out,” Maguire notes with dry Australian humour.
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