Over the past decade, Tasmania has emerged as a new Australian whisky region. As a nascent producer, social media commentators and journalists are regularly misrepresenting the apple isle’s colonial distilling period. The truth is more interesting and Tasmania deserves the record set straight.
Myth number one states that Tasmania prohibited distilling until 1992. However, since 1901, Tasmanians had the right to distil when federation brought all Australian states and territories under the national jurisdiction of the 1901 Distillation Act. This permitted large and small distilleries producing whisky, rum, brandy and neutral spirits to continue production under new national licensing standards. The Colony of Tasmania did prohibit distilling from January 1839; now under federal law, they could apply for a distiller’s license. The small population and capital needed to invest in a distilling venture was a commercial barrier, further burdened by mainland distilleries and foreign competition. In December 1968, the government removed the requirement for a customs officer to be present during production, giving discretionary powers to issue special permits. In September 1997, the Act formally struck down minimum capacity, clearing the pathway for micro-distilleries.
Now for myth number two: Tasmania had dozens of distilleries in the 1800s. However, colonial Tasmania actually had only eight distilleries: Sorell, Derwent, Cascade, Constantia, Caledonia and Macquarie, plus two rectifying distilleries, Franklin and Fitzroy in the 1830s. Most lasted less than two years and distilled mainly cane spirit from Mauritius sugar to compound into gin, cordials and faux-whisky. The greater bulk of spirits produced was rum.
The truth is more interesting and Tasmania deserves the record set straight
Myth number three is that Governor Franklin led the ban on distilling, whereas in fact, Legislative Council in 1838 passed the committee bill recommending the distillation ban. By 1830 only two distilleries were in operation: the Derwent in Hobart and Caledonia outside Launceston. In 1836, before Franklin arrived in Tasmania, the government established an enquiry into distillation. It reported that the excise tax differential subsidising the deleterious local spirit was onerous and abused. Retailers blended inferior local spirit with a foreign product to improve the taste and charge customers the marked-up price.
The fourth and final myth is that Lark was the first malt whisky brand. Actually, several dozen Australian distilleries made malt whisky and marketed many whisky brands from the 1820s to the early 1990s. Surprisingly, after the advent of blended Scotch whisky after the August 1860 British Excise Act, only one country has ever had a malt whisky as the market-leading brand. Old Court, a blended malt whisky from the amalgamation of three malt distilleries in Victoria, became Australia’s top-selling whisky brand from 1928 until 1934. Robert Jenkins of Sydney made the first legal malt whisky on his 200-gallon pot still in May 1822. A couple of weeks after starting production he was thrown from his horse outside James Underwood’s house and died. Ironically, Underwood opened the Sydney distillery a year later. Meanwhile, in Hobart, Robert Midwood started the Sorell Distillery in late November 1822. The following year he was bitten by one of his hogs and died of blood poisoning.
The last major mainland whisky distillery in South Australia ceased production in 1994, selling some of the company’s 1980s Victorian Corio malt whisky to an independent bottler sold as Great Outback malt whiskey in 1996. In April 1997, Tasmania’s first bottling of Cradle Mountain malt whisky from the Small Concern Distillery was released as a two year old, followed by Sullivans Cove in March 1997 and Lark in 1998. Sullivans Cove had a strange twist. The first release of its ‘Tasmanian whisky’ in 1996 was from Speyside; it became the first successful prosecution of a misleading label under a new Federal Trade Practices Act. Under new ownership, 18 years later Sullivans Cove went on to be awarded by this very publication.