In the 1800s, prospectors descended on Tasmania hoping to pan for gold. If the gold rush of yore has since died out, it’s only because the punters have moved on to something more certain in the island state: Good whiskey.
You wouldn’t know it, but Tasmania is home to one of the most awarded whiskeys in the world outside of Scotland and Japan. What would make that feat even more worth celebrating? Despite the fact that Tasmania was one of the earliest regions to begin producing wine in Australia, distilling spirits in the state only became legal in 1991; Where the prohibition on distilling spirits in the US lasted just over a decade, Tasmania’s went on for more than 150 years.
Tasmania has Bill Lark to thank for changing that. Lark, better known as the godfather of Tasmanian whiskey, had been fly-fishing in the 1990s when something hit him: Tasmania had a wealth of good barley fields. It had peat bogs, too. That made the state the perfect staging ground for great whiskey.
To wit, Tasmania has a lot more in common with Islay than it does with Sydney, surrounded as it is by water, lush greenery, and thriving wildlife (not forgetting the endemic Tasmanian devil).
And so Lark lobbied against the century-old prohibition, and became Tasmania’s first licensed distillery in 1992.
Tasmania now has the largest number of whiskey distilleries in Australia, coming in at around three dozen and counting. Most, if not all of them, are small producers. Even Sullivan’s Cove—Tasmania’s second oldest distillery, and Australia’s most decorated—bottles each of their 18,000 bottles produced a year by hand.
At the World Whiskey Awards in 2014, Sullivan’s Cove became the first distillery beyond Scotland and Japan to be awarded the coveted title of World’s Best Single Malt. Then came the tidal wave of orders; The value of a bottle from the winning barrel catapulted from A$140 to over a thousand dollars overnight.
Sullivan’s Cove followed up on their 2014 success by being the only distillery in the world to win the World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt award twice, first with its American Oak Single Cask in 2018, and then with their French Oak Single Cask the next year.
Jim Murray, preeminent whiskey critic and author of the aptly titled Whisky Bible, has professed his adoration for Tasmanian whiskeys many a time. He even gave Belgrove Distillery—one of the few in the world that grows its own ingredients and puts the whole lot together on site—a glowing rating of ‘Liquid Gold’ for its 100 per cent rye whiskey. That put it in the top two per cent of the world’s whiskies.
Depending on your view of spirit critics, you might take his words with a (cereal) grain. Still, there’s no smoke without fire—especially when production numbers at local distilleries are beginning to mushroom ten-fold to meet global demand.
The industry has indeed come a long way. Where once European connoisseurs would walk right past their booths at international gatherings, they now come to them.
Whiskey-fever seems to be fast catching on with the locals as well. Tasmania even has its own annual Whiskey Week that consumes the island in a week-long, peat-induced fervour.
The fourth Tasmanian Whiskey Week runs from now till August 18, and stretches from the capital of Hobart to the state’s verdant estates up north. There are spirit showcases that bring distillers and connoisseurs together, auctions of rare whiskeys from around the world, and of course, tastings of some of Tasmania’s award-winning whiskies.
Some of the highlights of the rare whiskey auction include the rare 1950 Speymalt Macallan 59 year old, held for a reserve of A$17,000, as well as the first bottle of the Tasmanian Collection Blend, a specially-made blend whose proceeds will go to local children’s charity, Variety.
Tasmania’s 25-year-old whiskey scene may still be in its infancy—there is a running joke amongst Tassie distillers that they make less whiskey a year than is spilled in Scotland—but with connoisseurs both at home and abroad perking up to the goldmine that is Tasmanian whiskey, the industry’s spirits are staying high.