Bill ‘The Godfather’ Lark
The most important thing to understand about whisky in Tasmania is that there may not even be a whisky industry in Tassie if it wasn’t for Bill. His story is of a man who knew nothing about making whisky and who was determined to overturn a total whisky ban.
Bill’s dream of producing Tasmanian malt whisky was born on a fly fishing trip in the highlands of Tasmania when Bill’s father in-law Max produced a wonderful bottle of single malt. As they enjoyed the drink, Bill said to Max, “I wonder why there isn’t anyone making malt whisky in Tasmania?” It was at this point that Bill had what he calls, an epiphany. It might have been the whisky talking, as Lark noted Tasmania had all the right ingredients to make great whisky – good barley, clean, clear water, peat bogs in the highlands, and he had a hunch that the climate was right for making whisky.
Being adventurous at heart he thought he would try making it himself. The only thing standing in his way was a whisky ban that had been in place since 1839 in the form of the Distillation Prohibition Act. Tired of the drunken and disordered conditions of Hobart Town, the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, is credited with saying “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine.” Her husband took decisive action and closed all legal distilleries. In 1992 Bill and his wife Lynn, challenged and overturned the whisky ban, making Lark Distillery the first licensed distillery in Tasmania since 1839.
In 2015, Bill was inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame making him only the seventh person outside of Scotland and Ireland to receive the honour. Not a bad effort, Bill.
These days, the next generation is weaving magic in the distillery, with head distiller Chris Thomson and Head Blender Nathan Reeves taking things forward. Every winter, around the time of Dark Mofo, the team conjure up drinks to warm the cockles on chilly nights. Take a seat at Lark whisky bar on the Hobart waterfront and let them walk you through the menu with a tasting.
Robbie ‘Scotsman’ Gilligan
In a small town off the main road between Hobart to Launceston that can easily be missed, turn off to a grand coaching inn, built in 1842 by convict embezzler turned-innkeeper, William Ellis. Now home to Old Kempton Distillery, in its day the inn was one of the finest between Hobart and Launceston – a place where weary travellers and their horses could rest overnight.
The convict brick stables, once home to 22 horses, now houses Redlands’ Tasmanian-made copper still. Despite the stately inn, resident Scotsman Robbie Gilligan delivers whisky in small batches, and keeping him quiet about this product is a hard task. He’s deeply passionate about tradition, so every ingredient and step of Kempton’s whisky making is done on-site, from collecting water to growing grain and bottling the final drop. The spirit then rests for two and a half years in the bond store. Robbie’s other great joy in making whisky is in the sharing – book your spot on a behind-the-scenes tour (1.30pm daily) and learn of their paddock-to-plate ways. The very last step is for the distiller to date and sign the bottle. If you’re curious about the history of your bottle, Old Kempton can tell you the day the barley was planted, harvested, steeped and floor malted, and the variety of water and yeast used and the barrel history.
If a tour inspires dreams of distilling, ‘Become a Master’ on a whisky distilling course designed for people thinking of opening their own distillery. During the course, unlock the secrets to the brewing, distilling and barrelling processes as you work one-on-one with the distiller.
Peter ‘the Whisky Scientist’ Bignell
Scoring liquid gold in the Whisky Bible more than once, Peter Bignell came to whisky-making by a strange agricultural accident. Back in 2008, his farm in Kempton yielded a bumper crop of rye – one of the best Peter had experienced in his 40-odd years of growing grain. Faced with all that extra rye, Peter did the obvious thing – he bought a welder, got some lessons off a mate, built his own still and started making whisky. It wasn’t long before Peter’s bespoke rye distillery (the first in Australia) was thriving.
Everything at Belgrove Distillery is done a little differently. He has the only biofuel-powered distillery in the world, run with used cooking oil from the roadhouse next to his farm. Peter is most proud of the fact that he does everything himself, from sowing the seed, harvesting, malting and smoking the grain in his old clothes dryer, grinding out the sugar and enzymes in an old meat mincer, mashing, fermenting, charring the barrels and distilling, right down to hand-writing the bottle labels. And, once all the sugar has been extracted from the grain, Peter uses the leftover mash to feed his sheep. It’s all a bit of a mad science on the farm – living off the land, upcycling, and zero waste – and you can learn more about it on a guided tour with Drink Tasmania.
Peter recommends taking whisky in small sips with other whisky lovers. If you’re travelling upriver on the Mona ferry ask for a Nip of Courage, Belgrove’s special dram. It will be a colourful start to your trip down the rabbit hole that is the Museum of Old and New Art – Mona.
Bill ‘Water Source’ McHenry
It all started over a comical suggestion by a neighbour, “With a name like yours you should be playing the bagpipes and making whisky”.
On a family holiday to Tasmania, Bill became interested in its whisky potential. After learning that its native whisky-makers were enjoying success, the decision to move south and start a distillery of his own was made that much easier. Soon after that, Bill started making whisky (the bagpipes are still on the cards). How times have changed; once a former executive in Sydney, now at the end of a day’s work you’ll find him tucked away in his little ‘bothy’ on the hill, in front of the fire with his own whisky in hand.
William McHenry & Sons is Australia’s most southern distillery – and perhaps its most beautiful. On arriving at the distillery, just beyond the Port Arthur Historic Site, expect to be met with a warm handshake from Bill and the cold nose of Daisy the distillery Labrador. The site takes in views across to Hobart, Mt. Wellington and down to the Hartz range. The distillery’s position also offers perfect conditions for crafting whisky with several natural, year-round springs that provide the distillery with pure water.
If you don’t make it to Port Arthur, you can pick up a bottle of Bill’s whisky at his distillery market stall, each Saturday at Salamanca Market (drop by stall 245).
Cam ‘Salty Dog’ Brett
The water used in Cam Brett’s distillery has a different story to tell. The distillery is less than 500 metres from Spring Bay, a place well known for its delicious seafood. It’s this same salty flavour infused into the whisky that makes this signature drop unique.
Each afternoon sea mist drifts up the valley and falls on the roof of the distillery. The sea salt is then washed by rain into stainless steel rainwater tanks. It then makes its way through a charcoal filtration system to remove contaminants, except a small amount of sea salt remains. This sea salt influenced rainwater is beautifully soft and sweet. The water that emerges is used for cutting back the spirit to its desired bottling strength. This is what makes Spring Bay single malt special. Spring Bay is also a perfect place to mature whisky, and for that whisky to take on the briny characteristics of its home.
You can visit Spring Bay Distillery by appointment. Drive up the east coast, book a cosy stay with ocean views, visit Brett and later pull out your own bottle of whisky and settle in for a long conversation by a roaring fire.
What makes a good whisky?
Any whisky maker will tell you it’s all about the quality of the ingredients and Tasmanian distillers have everything they need at their fingertips. Pure air, rich peaty soil and unmatched water quality. Even the water has a unique story to tell before it reaches the still. Travelling on the winds of the Roaring 40s it cascades from mountain tops, runs through wild rainforests and is scented by wild natives and heather as it flows.
Follow a trail of whisky makers, explore it, question it, turn it inside out and take some home. Come and meet our distillers and taste their remarkable drops.
Drink Tasmania’s Brett Steel takes groups of whisky lovers on bespoke tours behind the cellar door where they can meet the maker, and with new distilleries popping up all the time he’ll be sure to have new spots for his guests to visit for years to come.
There’s also a growing whisky bar trend throughout Tasmania. You can sit down for a dram at the Tasmanian House of Whisky on Bruny Island, the Salamanca whisky bar, Society, in Hobart, Lark Bar on Hobart’s waterfront, Henry’s Bar and Restaurant in Launceston, or store your own bottle of whisky in ‘the keep’ at The Glasshouse on Hobart’s waterfront.
Tasmanian Whisky Week (13–19 August 2018)
Lock in the dates for Tasmanian Whisky Week 2018 (Monday 13 – Sunday 19 August) for events held in Tasmanian distilleries, bars, barns, stables, restaurants and hotels. Distilleries will open their doors to host behind-the-scenes tours to meet the distillers in person, provide access to unreleased whiskies, and offer dining opportunities where distilleries (both old and new) will recount the successes, challenges and events that have shaped who they are today. Book early, Tasmanian Whisky Week promises to be a feast of memorable Tasmanian whisky events that will stay with you long after the final dram.