On the whisky trail in Tasmania

May 28, 2018

If you are a whisky drinker in the know, then you would be aware that Tasmania produces whisky. Actually, you would know that the island’s limited release whiskies have been gaining acclaim and grabbing global awards in recent years, including the 2018 award for the world’s best single cask single malt whisky. As an avid whisky drinker, I knew I had to find out for myself what all the fuss over Tasmanian whisky was about.

 

When exactly did Tasmania start making whisky, I hear you ask?

 

Well, to fully understand its whisky industry, one needs a quick look back at history. In the 1800’s by all accounts Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was known then, was a pretty horrid place to be. The name alone conjures up all kinds of terrors and the British were certainly delivering on that front as they set about at pace establishing the place as a prisoner station. Amid all of this ‘development’ distilleries were doing a roaring trade.

 

In a bid to curb what the then authorities deemed ‘over consumption’ the Distillation Prohibition Act was passed in 1839. The regulation was challenged and overturned only as recently as 1992 by Bill Lark and since then the Tasmanian whisky industry has been on the up and up. Never underestimate the passion and dedication of a whisky lover! Lark is often referred to as the godfather of Tasmanian whisky, together with his family he went on to establish Lark Distilleries. 

 

Is new world whisky production different?

 

But just how different is this new world whisky versus the more easily recognised tipple from established whisky nations, like Scotland for example?  A handful of things are all that’s needed to produce whisky – water, barley, stills and oak casks. With its unspoilt landscape and fertile land, Tasmania has quality water and barley. The factors that differentiate it and contribute to its taste are: the malted barley which is farmed here for the beer production market. This type of barley means the whisky fermentation process is longer (about 7 days versus 3-4 elsewhere), maturation is also shorter due to the climate and generally done in small oak barrels. Most Tasmanian distilleries also use the same type of copper stills designed and made by Peter Bailly.

Peat is not used in Tasmanian whisky production but charring of the oak barrels which come from the wine industry is therefore key to imparting some smokiness to the flavour.

 

This is boutique whisky making: Tasmanian producers make such small batches the product is easily taken up by the Australian market and is difficult to source elsewhere. Hell, it’s even difficult to buy product at the source! Many of the distilleries we visited had enough stock for tastings but not for purchase. To supplement their income many are also producing other liquors like gin, which is going through its own world-wide resurgence in popularity.

 

 Does it taste any good?

 

In a nondescript part of town, close to Hobart International Airport, is where you will find one of Australia’s most recognisable whisky brands, Sullivans Cove. Inside the cellar door, the clever use of whisky related paraphernalia is inviting. The tasteful décor soon makes you forget the office park location.

 

The whisky tasting starts with a recap of their history, distillation process, future plans and other interesting bits of information, like the fact that Sullivans Cove uses a unique still especially made for them.  The pot shaped still, called Myrtle is a different shape to what other local producers use. This means Sullivans Cove whiskies have a markedly different flavour profile compared to many others on the island.

 

Double Cask, American Oak and French Oak where the whiskies on offer for the tasting. Personally, I felt these whiskies tasted superior to most others in Tasmania. Complex flavours, light with a smooth finish and oh-so drinkable, it’s my favourite Tasmanian whisky. The flavour combinations leave you with little doubt that Sullivans Cove lives up to its tag line: “Distilled with conviction!” Which is also a great NOD to the country’s convict history.

 

The distillery can rightfully boast being home to the world’s best whisky. It was recently awarded the World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt Whisky at the 2018 World Whisky Awards. Started in 1994, Sullivans Cove is no stranger to recognition. Its collected a clutch of awards, including being the first Aussie whisky to earn a Liquid Gold Award from the holiest of whisky holy grail’s Jim Murray – the Yoda of Whisky!

 

Nosing, tasting, warming

 

To explore Tasmania’s other southern distilleries, we opted for a whisky tour which included visits to Nant, Redlands and Shene distilleries. The tour ended with a tasting at the Lark distillery’s cellar door in Hobart. An intimate tour of no more than five people, we started our tasting tour at 8am in Hobart with a “breakfast whisky” from Overeem, a single malt matured in a sherry cask. On the nose and taste you’ll find amongst others cinnamon, vanilla and fruit – it certainly is a better start to the day than bacon and eggs. Overeem has a lovely story: it’s a family run distillery outside Hobart that started as a hobby. Today the Overeem family still run their ‘production plant’ out of their home. 

 

Being driven between the distilleries was a relaxing affair and provided an opportunity to take in the pretty surrounds. The tour highlight for me, was the visit to historic Shene Estate and Distillery. A private tour around the grounds led by head distiller Damian Mackey reveals the real passion and commitment being poured into the restoration and rejuvenation of this estate.

 

In a barn, complete with vaulted ceiling, hay bales and a sparkly chandelier it was time to taste some of Shene’s treats. First up was Poltergeist, the estate’s awarded gin. I’m not sure if it was the romance of the place but I really, really enjoyed the drink. I’m not a gin fan and generally avoid it. My taste buds were dazzled by the sheer elegance of Poltergeist. Not sure that word can even be used to describe gin, but that’s how it felt in my mouth. 

 

Damian Mackey’s Irish style whisky, which is triple distilled, is a triumph! Offering the perfect combination of sweet and spice. Sadly, there was none available for purchase. As I took my last sip, I couldn’t help but recall the words of Mark Twain “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

 

The Verdict:

 

Not everything I sampled was to my liking and I was somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t purchase the ones I really enjoyed. But experiencing the beautiful land and history of southern Tasmania through the lens of whisky production was epic! Meeting distillery owners and master distillers in person is an honour. The tour was a very personal experience – far from the madding crowds and tourism one associates with Scotland, here you can get up and personal with whisky.

 

Searching for platypus, being dwarfed by giant fern trees and entertained by a hungry echidna. More in my next blog post on Tasmania.

 

NOTE:

All my travels are self-funded.

My whisky tour itinerary was designed by 

Drink Tasmania: https://www.drinktasmania.com.au/

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