The origins of Tasmanian whisky are downright criminal.
Originally called Van Dieman’s Land after the first European to land on its shores in 1642 named it after governor-general Anthony Van Diemen of the Dutch East India Company, the island was slowly settled by convicts and their guards over the course of the next century and a half. While most inhabitants were on the island to develop an agricultural industry, criminals left to their own devices with geographical isolation tend to find some rather colorful hobbies.
Illicit distilling quickly became popular in Tasmania.
Most whisky production centered around Hobart Town in the south and Launceston in the north, and was so rampant that the governor asked locals to stop because grain was needed for food. They did not, and instead moved their illegal distilling operations further inland to avoid detection. The first legal distillery was started in 1822 by Thomas Haigh Midwood in Hobart Town, and was quickly joined by three others in the area. In all, there were 16 legally licensed distilleries (and many more illicit ones) on the island during the early phase of Tasmanian whisky’s history.
In 1824, Peter Degraves arrived onto Tasmania. Among other things, Degraves is known for founding the Cascade Brewing Company, which came into being in 1832 and still operates today. Hobart Town, known for being a very drunken colonial port with a regular influx of convicted and yet-to-be convicted criminals, was a perfect place to introduce an alcoholic product. Unfortunately for Degraves, scoundrels prefer the hard stuff, and passed on his beer. Luckily for him, Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur preferred brewing and steeply increased the excise on locally produced spirits, forcing many of the distilleries to close.
Arthur’s successor John Franklin had no preference one way or another about the whisky trade, but his wife Lady Jane Franklin was teetotaler who was disgusted by the state of affairs in the very inebriated colony. “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine,” the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife is credited with saying. It was hoped that a ban on distillation might improve conditions in the colony. In 1839, he enacted the Distillation Prohibition Act, causing the two last remaining legal distilleries to close.
Distilling ceased on Tasmania. At least, it did on paper.
The story of Lark Distillery founder Bill Lark and the reintroduction of legal whisky production to Tasmania in 1992 is the stuff of legend at this point, but the most informative part of the tale is rarely told. On the day that customs officers came to Hobart to issue the first distilling license in 153 years, Bill Lark demonstrated the small still for them and they all sat around to taste some new make whisky.
“So I don’t know if you’re worried about it or not, but you must realize that there are hundreds of stills out there in the community,” said Lark, hinting that a culture of illicit distilling existed on Tasmania.
“No, there’s not, Bill,” said one of the customs officers.
“C’mon, I think you’re being a bit naïve,” said Lark. “We’ve got to have at least a hundred.”
“No, Bill,” said the customs officer in response.
Bill Lark was silent when asked to point me in the direction of any illicit stills “out there in the community”. But maybe there aren’t any. As of press time there were 14 legally operating distilleries on Tasmania, with several more planned. Lark, Sullivan’s Cove, and Overeem are all internationally recognized brands with top awards to show for their flagship products. More than 23 years after the introduction of legal distilling on Tasmania, there seems to be plenty of selection on the market for any discerning whisky drinker without having to resort to criminal means.
“You can own a still of up to 5 liters, but you just can’t use it,” says Lark, adding that perhaps the still could make for a nice display piece in a home.
“I think you’d be naïve to think that people wouldn’t use it.”