Tasmanian whisky cleans up again at World Whisky Awards

When it comes to the world of whisky, Tasmania is rapidly defining itself as a global leader.

At the World Whisky Awards held overnight in London, the Sullivans Cove distillery was named Craft Distiller of the Year, and for the third consecutive year was also pronounced Australia's best single malt whisky.

In addition, local legend Bill Lark – the man behind another leading Tasmanian whisky producer, Lark Distillery – was inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame for his services to the industry.

The latest round of recognition follows last year's defining victory, when Sullivans Cove's French Oak variety was named the world's best single malt. This year, that title went to a distiller from Taiwan, Kavalan Vinho Barrique.

Being named the world's top craft distiller is a handy consolation prize, says Sullivans Cove marketing manager Bert Cason. "It's pretty awesome when you consider the many thousands of craft distillers across the globe," he says.

Finely crafted

Visitors to the distillery might be sorely disappointed if they are expecting a bucolic experience to match the quality of the whisky. A staff of 10 produces the coveted drop from a concrete shed in an industrial estate close to Hobart's airport. Neighbours include an auto-scrapyard, a metal fabricator, and a manufacturer of electrical cables.

"There's absolutely nothing romantic about it," admits the distillery's founder Patrick Maguire. "There are no pretty little creeks, or rustic stone buildings. But it's what comes out of the place that is important."

The Lark Distillery, five minutes up the road from Sullivans Cove, is similarly functional, operating out of a tin shed plonked in a paddock beside a winery. It was founder Bill Lark who in 1992 resurrected the Tasmanian distillery industry after it had been dormant since the early 1900s.

"That's a major gong for Tasmanian and Australian whisky," says Maguire in tribute to his neighbour's induction into the Hall of Fame.

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Legendary Lark

At one time more than a century ago there had been eight distilleries in the Hobart area. Lark lobbied to have laws amended to allow the legal distilling of spirits to recommence. With his wife Lyn, Lark began experimenting with making whisky at their kitchen table. His friend Maguire would go around and lend a hand, which is how he became interested in the craft himself.

"We go back a hell of a long way," says Maguire. "We may be business rivals but we're also great mates. I'll go to their bar and tell them their whisky is s--t, and they'll laugh at me and tell me that mine is, too. We like taking the piss out of each other."

Both men were instrumental in establishing the Tasmanian Whisky Producers' Association almost five years ago. Maguire was the first president.

Tasmanian tigers 

There are now about 10 whisky distilleries operating in Tasmania including Overeem, Hellyers Road, Heartwood, Redlands, Belgrove, Trapper's Hut, and William McHenry and Sons.

The burgeoning industry is even attracting 'whisky tourists', keen to take one of the many whisky tours on offer.

So what's the secret? How is this small island creating some of the most celebrated whisky on the planet?

Executive Style caught up with Bill Lark while he was in London to receive his award to ask him.

"We're using a traditional brewing barley locally grown in Tasmania," says Lark. "It doesn't give us the same high yield of alcohol as a distilling barley used in other parts of the world, but what it does is bring to our whisky a richness of malt and flavour."

Lark also says the climate is conducive to whisky production.

"We enjoy great seasonal variation and diurnal changes in temperatures which really aids the maturation process, and as any distiller will tell you, 60 per cent of the character of any whisky comes from the time it spends in the barrel.

"I'd also like to think some of the success is owed to the dedication of those who are making whisky in Tasmania, and are very passionate about producing a high quality product."