‘Peppered with personalities’: touring Tasmania’s world-class whisky distilleries

From a wowser ban to global accolades and Gordon Ramsay shovelling sheep shit, Tasmanian whisky has come far in its 30 years

It’s “a meddling woman” who’s often blamed for destroying Tasmania’s fledgling distilling industry.

Until 1822, the colony of Van Diemen’s Land largely relied on rum imported from England for its libations. Then, close to the site of the current-day Cascade Brewery, Sorell distillery in South Hobart opened, swiftly followed by another dozen or so distilleries, both legal and not. The nascent industry came to a grinding halt 17 years later, however, when Governor John Franklin introduced a bill banning colonial distilling. He was said to be influenced by his wife, Lady Jane Franklin, a devoted supporter of the Temperance Society, who allegedly claimed she “would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine”.

The bill’s conception was more likely provoked by pecuniary rather than puritanical concerns, with Hobart Town’s distillers being notorious for dodging paying duty to the crown.

Denounced as “arbitrary”, “unconstitutional” and “impolite”, the highly controversial distillery prohibition bill was passed in 1838 and the population resigned themselves to slaking their thirst with imported alcohol.

With the federation of Australia in 1901, the act was repealed and new regulations introduced. However, with licence fees set at £50 (around $6,700 today), a minimum still size of 600 gallons (around 2,700 litres) and distilleries required to provide bed and board for a full-time “supervising officer”, there was little incentive for wannabe distillers.

A man nurses a drink at Belgrove whisky distillery in Tasmania.
A man nurses a glass at Belgrove whisky distillery in Tasmania. Photograph: Belgrove

And so it remained until 1992, when whisky aficionado Bill Lark successfully challenged the still size regulation and was granted the first distilling licence in Tasmania for 154 years.

While Lark, fondly referred to as “the godfather of Tasmanian whisky”, sold Lark distillery in 2013, his lore and legacy permeate the industry. Today there are around 50 distilleries in Tasmania.

Distillery dynasty

“I grew up with a still outside my bedroom door, so it was kind of inevitable,” laughs Kristy Booth-Lark. She’s not speaking figuratively about the still – Lark’s original distillery was at their suburban family home. Today, Booth-Lark has followed in her father’s footsteps with her own distillery, Killara, on 10 hectares near the historic town of Richmond.

Her two whiskies are aged in either used shiraz or ex-tawny port barrels, but with a passion for “paddock to bottle” distilling, she’s planted a copse of oak trees on the property with the intention to use the wood to make her own barrels.

One the few female distillery owner-operators in the world, Booth-Lark was recently awarded distiller of the year in the Australian Whisky awards, while her single malt whisky scored gold with 95 points in the world whisky category at the 2021 International Wine and Spirits Competition.

She concedes that while production in Tasmania is still tiny (at approximately 0.01% of world production), its product is enthusiastically embraced by the whisky-loving cognoscenti far beyond the island’s shores.

“Not so much in quantity, for sure, but certainly in quality, the Tasmania whisky industry is right up there, punching above our weight,” she says.

‘Shock and disbelief’

Most distillers would concur that 2014, when Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove won best single malt whisky in the world at the World Whiskies awards, was a watershed year for the Australian industry.

“We were the first non-Scottish or Japanese whisky to win and I think at that time there was a bit of shock and disbelief,” says Sullivans Cove managing director Adam Sable.

“Not just that we were a whisky from the other side of the world, but that our industry is so tiny compared with what’s produced in most of the other countries.”

Sable says Tasmania has excellent conditions to produce and mature whisky. “In terms of our raw ingredients, there’s the great barley we grow and the purity of the water, but also the climate – cool winters and warm summers – but not too extreme. That’s very conducive to maturation in barrels.”

The lack of tradition on the island, he argues, is a positive as it means there is freedom to innovate and experiment.

Tasmania’s Sullivans Cove won best single malt whisky in the world at the World Whiskies awards in 2014.
Sullivans Cove won best single malt whisky in the world at the World Whiskies awards in 2014. Photograph: Natalie Mendham

US-based international spirits judge and whisky master Steve Beal is a fan of Tasmanian whisky and concurs with Sable.

“When we think of ‘terroir’ we often tag it to a specific geographical area, climate and geological landscape. That certainly describes Tasmania, which makes for plenty of discussion. But terroir also includes style, technique, technology and personality,” Beal says. “Tasmanian whisky, from its very early days, has been peppered with personalities and a get-on-with-it innovative spirit and the whiskies have always reflected those unique qualities in their flavours and aromas.”

Sheep dung, fryer fat and a ‘MacGyvered’ malter

That innovative spirit is evident at Belgrove distillery near Kempton, north of Hobart.

Home to the world’s only biofuelled still, everything on the property runs on what is basically used deep-fryer fat from the local roadhouse.

Until recently, Belgrove was the only rye-based whisky distillery in Australia. Owner Peter Bignell grows his own rye (and occasionally, barley) organically, ploughing the carbon-rich stalks back into the earth.

His malter, which stands in a wooden-fenced sheep pen, has been “MacGyvered” from an industrial clothes dryer, hooked up with a mister that sprays the grains with water as they tumble to encourage them to turn the starch into sugar necessary for the distilling process.

Peat for smoking is sourced from his brother’s farm. “Though sometimes I use sheep dung,” Bignell says, picking a piece from the ground and lighting it to demonstrate.

“While peat can take hundreds of years to form in a highly acidic, low-oxygen environment, dung gets that in a sheep’s stomach, but it only takes a couple of days.”

Bignell uses water harvested from the farm building roofs, built his own copper pot stills and the spent rye mash from the distilling process is fed back to the sheep.

Whisky barrels at Sullivans Cove.
Whisky barrels at Sullivans Cove. Photograph: Natalie Mendham/Natalie Mendham photography

It may well sound a little loose, but his whisky is very highly regarded, having won accolades from luminaries such as Jim Murray in his seminal Whisky Bible. Even chef Gordon Ramsay is a fan, having paid Belgrove a visit for season two of his program Uncharted.

“Gordon heard about me and wanted to come and film. So I made him shovel sheep shit and then we made whisky together,” Bignell laughs.

Ramsay’s timing couldn’t have been better.

“This was at the beginning of Covid and the bars and clubs I supplied had just shut down. Then Gordon’s program aired and suddenly online sales started coming in from all around the world,” Bignell says.

While it might seem like it’s been an “overnight success”, Tasmanian’s now-flourishing whisky industry has been maturing for a good 200 years. But like the drink itself, perhaps it’s worth the wait.

Get drinking

Belgrove and Killara distilleries are open by appointment only. Sullivan’s Cove is open daily for prebooked tastings and tours.

Tasmanian Whisky Week (8-14 August 2022) is the perfect time to discover Tasmanian whisky, with masterclasses, tastings, dinners and other events.

Tasmanian Whisky Trail and Spirits Trail features 50 distilleries all over Tasmania.

Natascha Mirosch

The GuardianTramp

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