How Tasmania Quietly Became Australia’s Gin Capital
Go behind the scenery and discover some of Tasmania’s best-kept secrets.
Just 25 years ago, craft distilling didn’t even exist in Tasmania – it was illegal. Before 1992, a piece of federal legislation meant the only folk who could open distilleries were those backed by massive commercial operations. Enter Bill Lark, a pub owner and part-time surveyor with a desire to make his own spirits.
“I just wanted to get a small still and make whisky without spending millions of dollars,” he says. “People didn’t even think about boutique wineries or breweries back then, let alone boutique distilleries so no one had thought to change the act.”
One day, he says, he was walking past the office of his local member and he thought, ‘why not ask him to change the legislation?’.
“I didn’t know him so I introduced myself, told him the problem and discovered he liked whisky. He got straight on the phone to Barry Jones in Canberra, the minister for customs and small business at the time.”
It turns out Barry also liked whisky and the legislation was changed before Bill could write a formal letter.
Bill was the first to dive into the game, setting up Lark Distillery on Hobart’s waterfront in 1992. The distillery, which has now won multiple international awards, still has the letters from Barry Jones posted on the wall. Tours aren’t currently running at the distillery but a cellar door provides daily tastings and takeaways (including a large selection of non-Lark Distillery whiskies), and on Friday nights the team hold $10 Boilermaker nights where the distillery pairs their wares with local food trucks and live music.
The next two decades saw many entrepreneurs – some with big pockets and others without – follow Lark’s same steps.
“By 2012, when the craft distilling really ramped up, Tasmania was really attracting a lot of interest worldwide for its whiskies,” Lark says.
There was a burgeoning Tasmanian whisky scene but a whole lot of Tasmanian distillers without any money.
“All these people were waiting for their whisky to mature, so we started making gin,” Bill says.
It wasn’t just an opportunistic grab at some pocket money, like elements of the whisky movement before it. Tasmanian’s gin industry was started by a group of enthusiasts who wanted to make drinks that they’d like to drink.
One of the early innovators was Nonesuch, a small distillery hidden within picturesque farmland on the Tasman Peninsula just 90 minutes from Hobart. There they produce classic dry gin and sloe gin, a red liquor made by infusing gin with drupes (a plum-like English fruit). If you call ahead before you visit there’s a good chance you’ll be treated to an impromptu tour and lesson in small batch distilling by the owners or head distiller.
At Lark, the gin experiment started with Bill’s partner Lynn who, looking simply for a good drink herself, started toying with native Tasmanian pepper berry infusions. “She did it primarily for her own satisfaction, she said ‘if you’re going to make whisky I want to make gin’,” says Bill.
That’s since evolved into Forty Spotted Gin, an award-winning range of native-herb led spirits.
Sullivan’s Cove, perhaps Tasmania’s most acclaimed distillery, had a similar idea with their Hobart No.4.
“I didn’t want to make just another copy of a London dry gin, there are plenty of those to choose from,” says Patrick Maguire, the head distiller.
“Along with juniper, we use four native botanicals – pepper berry, lemon myrtle, wattle seed and anise myrtle.”
Together they make a zesty and peppery gin with an earthy and aniseed-like undertone.
The flavour combination gives it place and character but it’s actually another process that makes Maguire’s creation truly unique. Sullivan’s Cove is one of the few distilleries that makes gin from unaged barley wash made from fresh Tasmania grain.
“It’s a genuine pot stilled single malt gin, we use the same to make our whisky,” he says.
Usually that would be against gin code, as the base alcohol needs to a neutral flavour to provide a simple stage on which the botanicals can perform, but Maguire is no conservative. He puts the barley wash through a charcoal filter, a process that saps part of the barley flavour but, as is his plan, not all of it.
“We do it in a way so there’s a trace of the barley flavour. It’s almost a neutral spirit but it retains all the viscosity and character of the spirit.” Go for a tour at the distillery near Hobart Airport and you’ll see the entire process, plus the secrets behind their whisky that in 2016 won best on Earth. Of course, you’ll get to taste it all too.
Sullivan’s Cove, Lark and Nonesuch are just a snapshot. In the last five years Tassie’s gin scene has exploded. There are now more than 100 different Tasmanian gins from more than 25 distilleries with many more set to open in the next few years.
Southern Wild Distillery in the island’s North West uses a Tasmanian handcrafted copper still that introduces botanicals in three different stages. With it they produce three gins inspired by Tasmania’s three landscapes – meadows, mountains and oceans.
The head distiller, George Burgess, is a former perfume industry maestro. He’s as good at describing and contextualising the complexity of his gins, as he is at making them. Burgess regularly entertains impromptu guests with all the details but to make sure you meet the master, best to call ahead and let the distillery know you’re keen to see, taste, smell and hear the story.
Further South, along the Heritage Highway just outside Hobart, Shene Estate & Distillery produce both a London style dry gin and an ‘unfiltered’ expression of more powerful botanicals from within an impressively restored colonial property. Family-run tours of the estate can provide both a history of the mid-19th century sandstone manor or a more technical insight into Shene’s distilling process.
Patrick Maguire, from Sullivan’s Cove, says more distilleries are opening in Launceston and small towns like Ross and Longford, all of which are looking incredibly promising.
“Pretty much everybody I know producing a spirit in Tasmania is doing it with the right attitude and doing a fantastic job,” he says.
“There’ll be distilleries popping up all over the place in Tasmania. You won’t be able to drive 50km without coming across a distillery. So, you’ll never go short of a drink, which is a good thing.”
Create your own Tassie story here.
(Lead image: Dasher + Fisher Gin. Photo: Southern Wild Distillery)
Published 24 August, 2017