Visiting the distilleries of Tasmania

As recently as 15 years ago, the term “Australian whisky industry” used to be a cute little phrase that vaguely referred to the activities of a few hobby-distillers, whose products were more curiosities than serious globally-acclaimed malts.

Today, nothing could be further from the truth: A swag of international awards; coopers and coppersmiths suddenly in constant work; an industry that supports visitor centres and regular tours; impressive investment in new stills and bondstores; and well-aged stock on the shelves of major chain liquor outlets.

Travelling to these distilleries and visiting them is not necessarily an easy task, particularly taking into account the rural likes of Limeburners in Albany, or Blackgate in Mendooran.  However, with the bulk of the action taking place in Tasmania, a quick trip to Hobart and its surrounds allows the whisky tourist to see quickly and in no uncertain terms that the Australian whisky industry is a force to be reckoned with.  So for those wanting a snapshot of the main Tasmanian distilleries, or for those thinking of touring the Apple Isle and paying our friends a visit, here’s your guide to the main players amongst Tasmania’s whisky scene:

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Lark Distillery

It’s no accident this tour starts with Lark.  For it was Bill Lark who lobbied the Tasmanian government to change Tasmania’s distillation laws and who re-introduced legal, small-scale distilling in 1992 after a 150 year drought.   The Lark “Cellar Door” and its sensational whisky bar is conveniently located in the heart of Hobart at 14 Davey Street, just near the Salamanca Market.  These days, however, the distillery itself is located in Cambridge, about a 20 minute drive out of Hobart’s CBD.  The distillery is located just behind the Frogmore Creek Winery which, by the way, is a sensational venue to dine for lunch.

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Infusing peat into the malted barley

On arriving at the distillery, one of the first things that greets you is a piece of kit that sets Lark apart from most other Australian distilleries:  The peating oven.  In reality, it’s a humble fish smoker, but it is here that Lark imparts peatsmoke into its barley, allowing it to create a peated whisky unlike any other Australian malt.  The peating levels are said to be around 8ppm.

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The Lark Distillery production shed.

Lark is also one of the few distilleries to do its own mashing and to brew its own wash on site.  In fact, they do the mashing and brewing for two distilleries here – Lark also creates the wash for Overeem, although Overeem uses a different yeast and brewing regime.

The mashtun, fermenters and stills are sized and designed so that each production run results in just the right amount of spirit to fill a 100L cask.  (The same principle is utilised at Overeem, Nant and Redlands – no coincidence, as Bill Lark consulted and played a role in assisting these distilleries when they were setting up).  For those keen on the nerdy details, the wash still at Lark is one of the few stills in Tasmania to employ an old-school worm tub.

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The casks favoured at Lark are ex-Port barrels (accounting for roughly 70% of their cask inventory), although bourbon and sherry casks are also used.   Whilst single-cask bottlings are available, the main portfolio features vatted casks, thus allowing a more homogenised and consistent “house style” to be created.  Most stock is bottled at around six years old.

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Inside one of the Lark bondstores.

Tours are informative, entertaining, and you see the very real and hands-on process.  A visit to the bond store (a short 20m stroll across the courtyard) also allows you to admire the many casks slumbering.  The standard tour is $75 and runs for two hours, including tastings.  Note that all tours commence at the Cellar Door in the city, so don’t head straight to the distillery first!

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Hellyers Road

Established in 1999, Hellyers Road is one of the older distilleries in Tasmania, and – in terms of production capacity – is also the largest.   The distillery is located in Burnie (153 Old Surrey Road), right up in the state’s north-west, and is about a two hour drive from Launceston, or four hours from Hobart.  Some serious money has been invested in the visitor centre, and the café that looks out across the valley is surely one of the more scenic and relaxing places to unwind.   After the long drive, the food and coffee is a nice touch.

Hellyers Road has their wash made for them by Cascade Brewery, using local Tasmanian Gairdner variety barley.  (Franklin barley was used up until 2003).  The distillery’s volume and longevity in production gives them the luxury of being able to produce a series of vatted or “homogenised” bottlings, rather than single cask releases.  There are five expressions in the core range, namely the Original, the Pinot Noir Cask Finish, the Slightly Peated, the Peated, and the Port Cask Matured 10yo.  The Original range is available in an NAS release, as well as a 10yo and 12yo release, which – in any distillery, much less an Australian one – is an impressive portfolio.  For the peated releases, the peated malt is actually imported directly from Scotland.  For those with a sweet tooth, an excellent liqueur cream (similar in style to Baileys) is also made.

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The impressive portfolio of Hellyers Road offerings.

Being set up by a milk and dairy company, stainless steel vats and equipment was nothing new to the owners, and the production floor is almost a tribute to stainless steel cylinders.  This also extends to the stills themselves, and the only copper utilised at the distillery is for the lyne arm to the wash still, and then the lyne arm and condenser off the spirit still.  As a result of minimal contact with copper, the spirit produced has a more meaty, sulphury nature, resulting in a flavour profile that is unique amongst the Tasmanian distilleries.

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The stainless steel spirit still, with a copper lyne arm and condenser. The wash still is just visible to the right of picture.

The tours here are the most structured and “official” and – it must be said – appear to have been modelled and are presented in much the same way as those conducted at the distilleries in Scotland.   They are also, I’m sorry to say, the most sterile and least engaging.  The guides are friendly and informative, but the visitor centre’s structural format and layout means you view the distillery and warehouse from small viewing windows, rather than being amongst the kit or truly getting a sense of scale or process on the production floor.  On the positive side, those undertaking the formal tour ($17.50 per person) have the chance to taste from one of two specially-selected “Director’s Choice” casks, and to bottle your own whisky straight from the cask.

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Visitors on the tour can bottle their own whisky straight from the cask.

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Tasmania Distillery (aka Sullivans Cove)

Sullivans Cove should need no introduction, having had one of its barrels awarded best whisky in the world back in 2014.  However, its story is longer and more interesting than the fame of a single barrel.  One of the older distilleries in Tasmania, it started producing back in 1995.  The initial releases were far from impressive (I say this from unfortunate and bitter tasting experience), although this was evidently due more to the wood the early spirit was matured in, rather than the distillate itself.   The distillery was sold in 1999, and a new group assumed production, albeit sporadically.   Financial stability continued to elude the distillery and it closed again in 2003.  Patrick Maguire, the head distiller at that time, had faith in the distillery, and he formed a new ownership group in 2004 to purchase the distillery and take it forward.

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The Sullivans Cove visitor centre, still house, and warehouse, all in the one building!

The distillery continues to have its wash made by one of the local breweries (chiefly Cascade Brewery and Moo Brew), and so only the distillation occurs on site.  The distillery only has the one still, (an old brandy still, complete with an onion bulb in the neck, and a worm tub condensor), although there are plans to invest in a second still to assist in increasing production.

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The mighty Sullivans Cove still.

The core range consists of the American Oak, the Double Cask (made up of 40% French Oak and 60% American Oak), and the now very-much-in-demand French Oak expressions.   All bottlings are generally single-cask or small-batch releases, and with the distillery’s relatively longer history and thus well-matured stock, Sullivans Cove bottlings are amongst the oldest for those seeking age statements of 10 years or more.

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An impressive collection of barrels quietly slumbering at Tasmania Distillery

Recent successes and worldwide acclaim have brought revenue and investment, and today the distillery is a hive of busy activity.  The distillery is now in its third venue, occupying a large warehouse/factory facility at 10 Lamb Place, Cambridge.  (About a five minute drive from the Lark Distillery).  The distillery runs excellent tours from Monday to Friday, and a wonderfully furnished and comfortable tasting room completes an enjoyable visit.  The tour is $30 and includes a tasting at the end.  Tours are on the hour, but best to book ahead.

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Overeem

The Overeem story goes back many years, with Casey Overeem experimenting with distillation and mucking around with Bill Lark for years before finally establishing his own commercial distillery in 2007 – at his house, no less!   With a genuinely domestic setup (which is limited in capacity purely by the power supply to the house!), production was small, slow, and steady, with just 14 casks filled in the first year of production.   Today, the distillery is producing up to three casks per week.

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The very suburban Overeem distillery.

The wash is made at Lark Distillery and brought to the house, where two very shiny copper stills complete a traditional double distillation.   The casks are matured off-site in a cool, concrete-walled basement on an industrial estate – a far cry from the lightweight tin sheds being utilised by some other distilleries.  This is thus a very different (and more consistent) maturation environment and regime, resulting in whisky that has been massaged to perfect maturation, rather than vigorously worked through more extreme high and low variances of temperature, as occurs elsewhere.

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Inside Overeem’s “backyard shed” distillery. (The stills are about to be re-located to the Lark facility).

The spirit is filled into ex-port and ex-sherry casks from the Australian wine industry (both French oak), as well as American oak ex-bourbon barrels from the USA.  The whiskies are typically matured for five to five-and-a-half years, and are bottled as single cask releases.  They are available at both 43% and 60% ABV, and the casks are critically assessed by a tasting panel to establish which casks will be bottled at 43% and which ones merit the higher cask-strength release.  The quality of the spirit at Overeem is first-class, and the distillery has a huge fan base – so much so, that new releases have been known to crash the website and sell out immediately.

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Overeem casks peacefully sleeping.

As a business, Overeem was effectively acquired by Lark, which was itself the subject of a buy-out and new corporate ownership re-structure that occurred in 2013/14.  Whilst Overeem retains its own branding and separate production, the stills and all production will re-locate to the Lark Distillery facility in Cambridge in November, 2016.  Casey can now get his shed back again!

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Nant

Established as a distillery in 2008 (although the Estate dates to circa 1821), Nant has been in the news for the last 12 months, mostly for all the wrong reasons.  Attention was focussed on the business dealings of its founder and the integrity of its barrel investment scheme, which deflected attention from the fact that the distillery actually makes very good whisky.  The peripheral issues seem to have been slightly quelled in the last month, with news breaking in October that the distillery had been sold to the same group of investors that are currently behind the Lark and Overeem distilleries.   But beyond all these changes, one thing that is a never-changing constant is the beauty and visual appeal of the distillery.

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The refurbished mill building, now serving as the mash house.

The distillery is on the site of an old wheat mill, and the original water-powered mill and building have been restored to create the production area.  $5M was spent restoring the estate, and $0.5M to build the distillery.  The mashing and brewing occurs on site here, and the wash undergoes a traditional double distillation using two separate stills.   (The distinction is made, as a number of distilleries in Tasmania still run both distillations through the one, single still).  The stills were apparently modelled on those in use at Balvenie distillery in Scotland.

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The Nant range consists of the so-called “Classic Collection”, which presents four different expressions, namely the Sherry Cask, the Bourbon Cask, the Port Cask, and the Pinot Noir Cask.   A range of Limited edition releases are also available.

A new and beautifully appointed café-style tasting area has been built off to the side of the stillhouse, and tours conclude with the opportunity to taste a selection from the Nant range.   The distillery is in Bothwell (at 254 Nant Lane) just over an hour’s drive from Hobart, and the simple tour is $15, or $35 for the tour and a tasting flight of three Nant whiskies.

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Belgrove Distillery

Established in 2010, Belgrove Distillery is essentially a working farm and is not equipped with a visitor centre.  That said, maestro Peter Bignell is a warm and engaging host, and you should contact him in advance to request an appointment if you plan to visit.  The distillery is off the Midland Highway in Kempton.

It’s been said and written by others before, but it bears repeating:  This is no ordinary distillery.  Peter has assembled and made his own distillery, fashioning all sorts of second hand items or handmade kit into whisky-producing equipment.  Belgrove’s grain of choice is rye, and its rye whiskies are gathering serious praise and acclaim from all corners of the globe.  Other grains and distillates have also been produced as Peter experiments and tinkers.  It is – in the true sense – a paddock to bottle product, with everything taking place on the Belgrove Estate.

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The Belgrove production building

The distillery claims to be the greenest and most energy-efficient whisky plant in the world, and this readily becomes apparent.  The grain is malted and dried in an old, re-purposed industrial clothes dryer!  The heat and power needed for production is bio-diesel and comes from burning recycled cooking oil. The heat regulator is a re-purposed Kambrook Mixmaster!   Peter turns many modern distilling practices on their head, such as leaving 80% of his grain unmalted (“Why spend time and money malting all the grain if you don’t have to?”) and encouraging local, wild yeasts to play their role as a fermentation agent.  These wild yeasts lead to the production of esters in the wash and the resulting fruity notes in his spirit.   “We don’t want to be sterile,” he insists.  Depending on the grain being used and the time of year, fermentation can vary anywhere between five and 15 days.

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Another unique practice at Belgrove concerns the foreshots.  Distillers around the world typically collect all of the foreshots and then put it back in with the next charge of the spirit still.  However, of the average 20 litres of foreshots that comes off at Belgrove, Peter takes the first two to three litres (which is almost entirely methanol) and removes it entirely from the system.  (It is not wasted, however – it is subsequently burned as fuel to power other components of the distillery).  Why? It’s hard to argue with Peter’s logic:  Whisky is matured in casks, and the wood needs time to remove and counter the volatiles in the spirit.   If you remove the worst and most undesirable volatiles from the system (i.e. the first 2-3 litres he takes off each spirit run), then your casks don’t have to deal with this and the maturation process is both accelerated and improved.

No amount of photos or text here will do Peter’s wizardry justice – you’ve simply got to see it.  And if rye whisky isn’t your thing, there’s an impressive collection of other spirits that will tempt and tantalise your tastebuds.  The Black Rye Coffee Liqueur is – simply put – sublime.

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Redlands Distillery

Redlands drew praise and admiration when it kicked off in 2013 as a “paddock to bottle” distillery that actually utilised a floor maltings.  The barley was locally sourced and malted on a traditional malting floor, before being mashed, brewed, distilled, matured, and bottled all on the one site.   However, this proved to be an economical and physical drain on the distilling team, and with finances struggling, ownership and investment in the distillery was re-structured.  The sale of the estate by the land owner at Plenty forced a re-location, and Redlands re-established itself in Main Street, Kempton at the historic Dysart House, about an hour’s drive from the original site.  It is now no longer the Redlands “estate”, but the name remains.

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The stables building, with Dysart House beyond.

The distillery is now located in the old stables of Dysart House, a spectacular colonial inn, and surely now one of Australia’s more charming distilleries to visit.   The wash is prepared by one of three local craft breweries (Hobart Brewing Co, Captain Bligh, and Moo Brew) and brought to site for distilling.  The current production is churning through 5,000 litres of wash per week.  Until very recently, there was just the one 900 litre still, although a second, smaller still was acquired in September 2016.  The stillhouse currently occupies one end of the stables, but – like so many distilleries in Tasmania right now – further investment and building programs are planned:  A new purpose-built distillery and bondstore will be built in the small field immediately adjacent to the stables, and there are plans to again farm barley on site and return to the concept of “paddock to bottle”.

The new make spirit here is stunningly good, and whilst the matured whisky is still relatively young, its quality is undeniable.  A large amount of stock has been filled into smaller 20L casks, mostly for private investors.  One particular 20L cask that was sampled, currently at just over two years old and still in the barrel, was truly spectacular.

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Tours of the distillery are hosted by the wonderfully engaging and friendly staff, and – if you’ve time for a meal or snack from the kitchen – the food is delicious.  Tours are run three times daily at 11am, 1pm, and 2pm.  The tour starts with a wonderfully informative and incredibly professional video that was shot and produced by Jack Lark – a surname you might recognise.  The Cellar Door sells the distillery’s products and other local goodies.

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Shene (aka Mackey)

The Shene Estate & Distillery is still relatively unknown, as the distillery is new and early production runs are still too young to be legally released as whisky.  However, the distilling force behind the distillery is Damian Mackey, formerly of the Mackey Distillery in Hobart, and Shene is simply the next evolution in Damian’s distilling journey.   The distillery and the estate itself is stunning – a magnificent colonial property dating back to 1821 that incorporates the original stables and barn buildings.

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The old stables building on the Shene estate

The distillery itself is housed in a new, purpose-built building behind the barn.  Mashing and brewing is carried out on site, although the distillery’s main point of difference here is that the spirit is triple distilled.  At present, this is being carried out in a single still, although there are already expansion plans to order new stills so that the wash, intermediate, and spirit distillations can all be carried out in their own purpose-ready stills.  Gin is also being made at the distillery, released under the name of Poltergeist.  The whisky, once ready for release, will continue to be sold under the Mackey label.

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The Shene Estate is located at 76 Shene Road, Pontville, roughly a half-hour drive north of Hobart.  Tours ($25) are available of the estate and the distillery on weekends only, by appointment.  For an extra $10, you can also supplement your tour with a gin tasting in the beautifully restored barn building.

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Of course, the above list is non-exhaustive and other distilleries – such as the McHenry Distillery near Port Arthur – are also worth seeking out.  Having spent a week in Tasmania and speaking with the producers, it is evident that the industry is buoyant, enthusiastic, and flourishing.  There is thus no greater tribute to Australia’s early distilling pioneers.

Whisky & Wisdom visited the above distilleries in October, 2016.  All information is correct at time of publishing. 

[Update] Whilst not a distillery, the other major label out of Tasmania is Heartwood.  The Heartwood whiskies are HUGE and in another class and category altogether.  Whisky & Wisdom has a feature article on Heartwood here.

 

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Author: AD

I'm a whisky host, writer, presenter, educator, taster, critic & all-round malt tragic! Also Director & Cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @whiskyandwisdom and also on Twitter @SMWS_Australia

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