In March this year, Sullivans Cove triumphed again – winning the prize for World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt, for its 16-years-old American Oak. Founder Patrick Maguire, who travelled more than 10,000 miles to attend the award ceremony in London, said, “It’s a big thing for us. I wish I’d been there in 2014 but back then we didn’t expect anything – but I’ve been every year since. This award is saying to people: 'This isn’t a one off. These people can produce really good whisky.’ I’m also really pleased that the American Oak has won this because it has already been my favourite.”
To say the whisky industry in Tasmania is expanding is an understatement. In 2014 there were 12 distilleries, by 2017 there were 23. According to the latest figures there are now 36.
An island state roughly the size of mainland Scotland, but with a population the size of Edinburgh, Tasmania is ideal whisky country. About an hour’s flight from Melbourne, the state has a cool fresh climate and outstandingly clear water.
Drive across the country north to south on the Highland Lakes Road and you could almost be in Scotland. There are pale green mountains, thick forests and great stretches of inland water. You may even notice Scottish sounding place names and tartan street signs. But look closer and the trees are eucalyptus rather than pine and you may have to slow down as a kangaroo or a wallaby hops across the highway.
Hobart, state capital of Tasmania, is a stunningly beautiful city set beside a wide bright blue estuary and at the foot of Mount Wellington. The traditional starting point for Antarctic explorers, it has a museum dedicated to Captain Scott in the harbour.
It was here that the godfather of Tasmanian Whisky, Bill Lark, founded the first Australian distillery 26 years ago. Lark lobbied for a change in the law, making it possible for micro distilleries to operate. His good friend Casey Overeem followed soon afterwards, founding the Old Hobart Distillery at his home in Blackman’s Bay.
To begin with Tasmanian whisky was a craft industry founded by dedicated amateurs – but the success of the original distillers, whose efforts proved surprisingly promising, brought new investors and new blood to the industry.
Sullivans Cove, which was founded in 1994, making it the second oldest distillery in the state, relocated from Hobart to the beautiful Coal River Valley, a noted wine-producing region just outside the city.
After winning the award for the world’s best single malt the distillery tripled in size. To cope with the scores of visitors turning up on the doorstep the owners have added a stylish tasting room, with soft leather sofas and low tables made of old casks.
Patrick Maguire, a former pathologist who is one of three original founders, now works as a brand ambassador, but can often be found on the shop floor. “I like rolling the barrels and working the still, but I also like the travel.”
Sullivans Cove was sold in 2016 to a group of investors led by Adam Sable, a whisky loving Melbourne lawyer. The injection of money allowed the company to increase production, although it is currently still only using one still.
“We are at full production, which for us is 90,000 litres a year. This is a drop in the ocean compared to most distillers around the world.”
Maguire believes Tasmanian whisky is shaped by the environment. “Our meteorologists tell us we have got the cleanest air in the world. There is nothing between us and Antarctica.”
Sullivans Cove is not chill filtered and is also completely without added colour. The mash comes from the Cascade brewery in Tasmania. Unlike other Tasmanian distillers, which use 100 litre casks, Sullivans Cove is laid down in traditional 200 litre casks.
One of the key factors in whisky making on this scale is that it is possible to choose exactly when to move each batch of whisky from the cask to the bottle. Age statements on Sullivans Cove bottles are hand written, the distillers will choose the precise moment when a cask is bottled, and whether it should be taken out after eight years or 12 years, or left to become a 16-years-old.
The Tasmanian whisky industry is nothing if not hands on. When I visit the Lark distillery, near to Sullivans Cove in the Coal River Valley Bill Lark is there himself, making the cut for a special cask to mark the 25-year anniversary of whisky in Tasmania.
“To celebrate our 25th year I get to come back and do the distilling. The last time I did a split run was 10 years ago,” says Lark, who is surrounded by a throng of specially invited guests and is brimming with delight.
The story of how Bill Lark founded the Tasmanian whisky industry is the stuff of legend. Lark, a successful businessman, was sipping whisky with his father-in-law on a fishing trip, when he wondered why nobody produced whisky in Tasmania. He discovered the state was covered by the 1901 Distillery Act, drafted in line with the UK law of the time. Basically, in a bid to stamp out illicit stills, anything apart from distilleries running a large-scale industrial process were ruled out.
“Just by chance I was walking through Hobart when I came across Duncan Kerr who was the member of Parliament. I introduced myself and he got straight on the phone to the custom service minister Barry Jones. Barry Joseph said – go back and apply for a licence.”
Within three months Bill Lark had the first licenced distillery in Tasmania since 1839. A framed letter written by Barry Jones still hangs on the wall of the Lark Bar in Hobart.
Inspired by tales from old Scottish distillers, Lark pioneered the idea of using smaller 100 litre casks, which mature quicker. He also accidentally founded another new industry – building stills.
“We started with a 20 litre still at our house in Kingsbarn. When we needed a bigger still we went to see Peter Bailly, a boilermaker in Hobart. I asked him to make me an 1800 litre still and told him I wanted it to look like a Macallan still. Peter Bailly of Knapp Lewer has now made 75 stills, so we now have a still making business here in Tasmania.”
Robbie Gilligan, President of the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association believes the squat shape of what is known as a Bailly still, is another of the factors that has helped make Tasmanian whisky so special.
“People ask how it compares to Scotch and I tell them you really can’t compare it. Our whiskies are taking on an Australian character. We are using casks from Australian wines and fortified wines and lots of us use the Bailly still, which gives a rich, oily spirit.
Gilligan, a Scot who calls himself a Taswegian, is the ambassador for what is now known as Old Kempton Distillery, previously known as Redlands. Originally based at Redlands Estate, the former home of George Read, the exiled illegitimate son of George IV, the distillery moved in 2016 to Dysart House, a beautiful Georgian property in Kempton, off the Highland Lakes Road.
The owner of Dysart House, Sydney property owner John Ibrahim, became so interested in what the distillers were doing with the property he became an investor in the business.
A Victorian coaching inn built in 1842 in Georgian style, Dysart House was formerly a school for young ladies and a private house. In its present incarnation it has a restaurant and an elegant tasting room, decorated in rich regency colours. The Bailly still occupies the old stables next to the house, but Old Kempton has just received planning permission for a new purpose built distillery. Ultimately the plan is to grow barley on the adjacent land and produce Tasmania’s first single estate whisky.
Welcoming visitors, resplendent in his kilt, and telling the story of the distillery and the Tasmanian whisky industry is a big part of Robbie Gilligan’s role. “Whisky making and tourism go hand in hand in Tasmania,” he says – not least because most of the newer micro distillers rely on a stream of visitors to keep cash flowing before they have whisky to sell.
The exponential growth of the industry as well as the unexpected flurry of awards has also brought new investors, in particular Australian Whisky Holdings, a Sydney-based finance company which now has a share of many of the larger producers.
Overeem was bought by Lark in 2014. Australian Whisky Holdings now owns 48 per cent of Lark and Overeem but failed in March 2017 in a bid to take over a majority share of the company. It has also bought Nant, one of the first producers of whisky in Tasmania.
At the Lark Bar in Hobart, Brett Steel, who runs Tasmanian Whisky Tours and who is one of the founders of Tasmanian Whisky Week, reflects on the way the industry has transformed.
Steel now regularly welcomes visitors from mainland Australia, the United States, Canada and Japan. Buses regularly tour the distilleries, taking tourists to visit each ‘cellar door’, which is the Australian expression for a tasting room. Because demand is so high and supplies are limited, the choice of whiskies is sometimes restricted.
“When we first started up there was a surprise element to it but now a lot of people who visit have tasted Tasmanian whisky before. We have seen a lot of investment which has brought changes – but there is also less whisky available, which can be a problem.”
As well as Lark, Old Kempton and Nant, whisky tourists can also visit William McHenry and sons in picturesque Port Arthur, which advertises itself as the most southernmost distillery in the world.
Fanny’s Bay, in the north of the island, released its first whisky in 2017. Bill Lark’s daughter Kristy, who was previously involved in a distillery in New South Wales has now moved back to Tasmania to open the Killara Distillery, near Hobart.
A must stop on the Tasmanian whisky trail is the Belgrove Estate, where the irrepressible Peter Bignell, part artist, part scientist, is making ‘liquid gold’ in a still he built himself, fired by chip oil and using the parts of a tumble dryer.
The growth of the whisky industry in Tasmania is a story driven by enthusiasts and fired by passion. According to the latest figures from the Tasmanian Whisky Producers’ Association, capacity is currently at 200,000 litres a year.
Not surprisingly demand continues to outstrip supply. Sullivans Cove, which currently produces 90,000 litres a year, retails for around $300 a bottle, but the award winning editions have resold for thousands on auction sites. The distillers are currently holding onto a reserve stock of their newly awarded 16 year old American Oak.
The astonishing rise of the craft whisky industry is also part of a bigger picture of an island state in transition. Once derided for its lack of sophistication, Tasmania has now become a hipster destination, renowned for its superb wine, wonderful cheeses and superb whisky.
Gilligan says the excitement currently flowing through the industry is intoxicating. “I’ve never, ever experienced anything like this in my life. When I started in 2014 I was making cold calls. In March of that year I noticed people were contacting me rather than me contacting them. Now my phone doesn’t stop ringing.”
As well as developing its international reputation he believes Tasmanian whisky is still developing in terms of character. Whisky makers in the state are currently experimenting with a variety of different casks and are still discovering the effect of age on the whisky already laid down.
“We have this amazing luxury of being able to control our own spirit. We can experiment. It is very hands on at every step. It’s old school, things are not done by computer. You can look at a bottle and go: ‘I made that whisky.’”