Make your own Tasmanian whisky

Graeme Phillips
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Slainté and Single Malt Whisky from Lark Distillery in Tasmania

Slainté and Single Malt Whisky from Lark Distillery in Tasmania [©Lark Distillery Pty Ltd]

Single Malt Whisky from Lark Distillery in Tasmania
Serious whisky! Single Malt Whisky from Lark Distillery in Tasmania

We’re in the Highlands, in Tasmania’s belly button at the geographical centre of the island. The BBQ is on and a couple of fillets of fresh lake trout, sprinkled with brown sugar and pepperberry liqueur, are being gently smoked over peat hand-cut from the bog behind us.

One of many such bogs found throughout Tasmania’s high country, it’s spongy and springy underfoot, like walking on a triple thickness of pile carpet. It was once a marsh where accumulated organic matter compacted and slowly decomposed over millions of years under and between Tasmania’s three glacial intrusions to become peat. No one knows how deep the peat is but Bill Lark, cutting into it with an authentic old Northumbrian peat shovel, reckons he’s got enough in the nine hectares he leases to last him 1000 or so years.

For it’s peat from this bog that he uses to smoke malted Tasmanian barley at his Mount Pleasant distillery near Cambridge in southern Tasmania to add an alluring sweet smokiness to his Lark Single Malt Whisky.

Back in its wild colonial days, Hobart Town boasted 16 distilleries, one in every twenty houses was a pub and opium was a legal additive to beer. Until 1839, when Governor Franklin banned distilling in the state following his wife’s complaint that she’d “.. rather have the grain fed to pigs than see it turn men into swine”.

The ban lasted 153 years until, in 1992, Bill and Lyn Lark succeeded in having it overturned and filled their first barrel with spirit from their first hobby-sized 75 litre still.

Since then, they have opened their popular whisky café in Davey Street in Hobart, developed a range of 11 different gin, vodka and whisky products, built a new distillery at Mount Pleasant, 20 minutes east of Hobart, assisted six other distilleries to set up round the island and commissioned a new 600-litre and an 1800-litre copper pot still, both designed and built locally.

They produce 250 barrels of whisky a year and export to Japan, Singapore, Scandinavia, New Zealand and, wait for it – England and Scotland. Their whisky has consistently rated 90+ in Jim Murray’s annual World Whisky Bible and, at the big International Whisky Live event in 2008, their cask-strength whisky came second to the 16 y.o Highland Park from Scotland and their Slainte whisky liqueur was the top-selling drop of the show.

They are now introducing what Bill calls “The ultimate Tasmanian malt whisky experience. A world of peat smoke and passion” - one, two and four-day tours where visitors can get hands-on experience of every element of the whisky-making process.

“It’s that real hands-on experience, only possible in a small distillery like ours, that sets our tours apart from those to the big, industrial Scottish distilleries where they’re pumping out millions of bottles a year”, he says.

The ingredients for whisky are simple – barley, water and optional peat. Making whisky is also simple, complicated only by the wonderfully archaic and poetic terms used – wort, mash tun, maltings, grist, foreshots, middle cuts and feints, lyne arm, low wine, worm and angels’ share culminating in barrels that, for some traditional but unfathomable reason, are still required by the tax authorities to be dated according to the ancient Julian Calender.

Not so ancient is the practice of ageing and maturing the distilled clear spirit in barrels, a practice which softens, mellows and colours the whisky and which started in Scotland only around 150 years ago. Ageing the spirit in small 100-litre barrels, as the Larks do, produces in around five years the same mellowing effects as 10 or 15 years in the much larger barrels commonly used in Scotland.

The Larks are in the process of building their own cooperage at the distillery where they will assemble smaller casks from large old port, sherry and bourbon oak barrels. As Bill says, once the cooperage is up and running, every stage of the whisky-making process will then be in place.

Depending on the length of the tour choosen, visitors will be able to cut and collect the peat in the Highlands, use it to smoke the malted barley, stir the mash to extract sugars from the barley starches, help ferment and distil the wash, cut the fores and feints and, the ultimate, take home the heart of the run (middle cut) in a 20-litre barrel assembled for them by the in-house cooper from port, sherry or bourbon American or French oak staves according to each visitor’s preference and personal selection.

The tours then finish with a comparative whisky tasting and, after the four-day tour, a piped haggis dinner at the Davey St café before you take your barrel home, stick it under the house and bring it out after five years or so as a guaranteed party stopper by offering guests a drop of your very own, hand-made Tasmanian whisky.

Regions

  • Midlands, Central and SW (TAS)

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