For anyone with a passing interest in whisky, Tasmania has become a magnetic destination. And last month, whisky fans from Australia and beyond were attracted to the fourth iteration of Tasmanian Whisky Week – a seven day celebration of the flourishing industry.
The inaugural event in 2016 was a humble beginning: little more than seven distilleries had whisky available. But this year, the recent growth of the industry was palpable, and the event was a fascinating microcosm of where Tasmanian whisky is now, and where it might be heading.
Throughout the week, you were spoilt for whisky revelry, with 35 distilleries now operating in Tasmania (most making whisky) and another 15 in planning and construction. For attendees, there were bus tours, masterclasses, boilermaker events and boat cruises. You could even sit ringside at the World Whisky Rumble and watch Scotland, Japan, the US and Australia slug it out for the champion whisky belt.
The new north
Because most of you wise folk are now familiar with established southern Tasmanian whisky brands like Lark, Overeem and Sullivans Cove, I decided to start my week in Launceston to explore the emerging distilleries of the north.
The Hellyers Road Distillery was once the sole flag bearer for the region since its founding in 1999. But other northern whisky producers like Launceston Distillery, Fannys Bay, Adams, Corra Linn and Ironhouse now have whisky on the market, and several other distilleries in the region will soon join them.
At Adams Distillery, a new direction is brewing. After recent expansions, the distillery now has the capacity to produce over a million litres of spirit a year, 10 to 15 times more than most of Tassie's small-scale pioneers.
"For us, it's basically go big or go home," says Adam Saunders, one of the two Adams who founded the distillery. Their single malt is similarly huge: thick, textural and jam-packed with character from the Australian tawny, apera and other wine casks its matured in. The hallmarks of the classic Tasmanian style pioneered by Bill and Lyn Lark are present, but there's progression here, too, with different malts and maturation methods adding some distinctive flavours.
Head south from Launceston and you can find a number of up-and-coming whisky producers. Shene Estate, Old Kempton, Belgrove and Killara form a neat cluster north of Hobart.
Exciting things are happening at Shene, with a significant increase in production and an enviable barrel program aided by a new onsite cooperage. And every whisky I try from Old Kempton and Killara gets more nuanced and intriguing.
As for Peter Bignell and his Belgrove Distillery, you simply run out of superlatives. Bignell's dense and earthy paddock-to-bottle rye whiskies can be polarising, but no-one walks away from a Belgrove tour short of stunned by Peter's ingenuity and approach.
Long term investments
Another addition to this year's festivities was the rare whisky auction. Nearly two dozen hard-to-find Tasmanian whiskies went under the hammer, with most fetching prices that would've seemed unthinkable just three years ago.
Mark Nicholson, an admired industry figure, and the auction's master of ceremonies, told the buzzing crowd that exotic cars and single malt whisky are currently the most lucrative investments in the luxury asset space, referring to recent reports that some rare whiskies had returned 600 per cent over the last ten years.
But despite all the success, there's some trepidation. Speak to the old hands of the industry and they'll reference the speed bumps: the botched barrel schemes, the boardroom brawls and the limited quantity of mature Tasmanian whisky available. Many also wonder if Tasmania can viably support upwards of 50 distilleries.
Confidence is catching
But at the Tasmanian Spirits Showcase, two packed out sessions demonstrated why there's so much confidence in the future of Tasmanian whisky. I met people from Townsville, Singapore and Beijing who'd attended events throughout the week, and spoke to Sydneysiders and Melbournians who'd flown in just for a taste of the whiskies on offer at the showcase.
"We're now planning three years ahead and making sure that things are going to get bigger and better," says Emma Gilligan, the executive officer of the Tasmanian Whisky and Spirits Association.
"But we don't want to lose what makes Tasmanian whisky so beautiful – that access to distillers and distilleries and giving people a personalised experience. If we make it too big and it becomes impersonal, then it doesn't reflect who we are. We're proud of the fact that you can meet the makers at so many of the events."
It's a rare thing down there. Meeting the industry's founders, drinking the whisky, hearing the stories – it gets into your bloodstream. It's complicated, compelling, delicious, no-one knows what's going to happen next, and no-one interested in whisky should take their eyes off this remarkable success story.
Check out the gallery above for 10 up-and-coming Tasmanian whiskies to try.
Luke McCarthy visited Tasmania with assistance from Tourism Tasmania.