Whisky making is thriving again in Tasmania, where a clutch of boutique distillers is today producing some singular single malts.
There were many an eyebrow raised when, in 2014, Whisky Magazine’s annual World Whiskies Awards named little-known Tasmanian distiller Sullivans Cove as the producer of the world’s best single malt. For an island that until a generation ago banned the distillation of spirits, it was nothing less than a coup.
Australia’s smallest state was perhaps destined to find a place on the world whisky map. With fertile fields that yield high-quality barley and streams fed by cold, clear water from highland lakes, Tasmania is a distiller’s dream, as the first European colonists of Van Diemen’s Land (as it was then known) discovered in the early 1800s. As convict-based settlements established themselves on the island, so too did distilleries, at least 16 of them; indeed, alcohol proved such a balm in those rough-and-tumble days that soon there was one bar for every 14 people. But the intemperate times did not last. In 1838, Governor John Franklin, encouraged by his wife (“I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine,” she reportedly told him), outlawed whisky making.
Although Tasmania became somewhat more civilized over the years, the law against distilling spirits stood fast for a century and a half, until 1991, when whisky buff Bill Lark petitioned to have it overturned. Lark had been fly-fishing in the Central Highlands’ Great Lakes region when it dawned on him that Tasmania’s exceptionally pure water, peat-rich wetlands, and cool climate provide ideal conditions for making whisky. Lark set about to get Franklin’s ban overturned and, with the aid of an old copper still found at a flea market, he was soon operating Tasmania’s first distillery in 150 years.
There are now nine boutique distilleries scattered across the island, including Hobart’s Sullivans Cove and Lark, which produces around 16,000 proof liters a year (Scotland’s The Glenlivet, in comparison, churns out nearly six million liters annually). “The industry is about producing high-quality, hand-crafted, and artisanal products with flavours ingrained in the island,” says Bill McHenry of William McHenry and Sons, which, owing to its location on the Tasman Peninsula, considers itself the southernmost family-run distillery in the world. A former pharmaceuticals executive from Sydney, McHenry jokes that with a name like his, he didn’t have a choice in becoming a distiller. “When we started in 2008, it was a paddle upstream to get customers interested. But craft spirits were going gangbusters in America and we knew it was just a matter of time before Australians cottoned on.”
Cotton on they did. Although costing substantially more than Scottish or Japanese single malts (a 700 ml bottle of Lark will set you back about US$128), Tasmanian whiskys regularly sell out. And while most of that gets consumed on the island, one local distillery has its eyes on the world. Keith Batt purchased Nant, a 1,200-hectare estate in the Midlands town of Bothwell, in 2004, and set about restoring its heritage-listed stone buildings and 1823-built water mill, which today grinds the barley for Nant whisky. Batt now has plans to expand production to 600,000 bottles a year, most of which will head to Singapore and the U.K., where he will open Nant Whisky Bars (already in operation in Hobart, Melbourne, and Brisbane) later this year.
While that may be a mere trickle by Scottish standards, it’s definitely worth cheering.