Breakfast Dram With Bill Lark, Godfather of Tasmanian Whisky

Bill Lark is a legend in the Tasmanian Whisky industry. After lobbying for the legislative changes that allowed craft distillers to operate legally on Tasmania for the first time in 150 years, he started the Lark Distillery in 1992 and released his first commercial whisky in 1998. Almost twenty years later, Lark has his hands in most of the 14 distilleries now operating on Tasmania, whether it’s as an active investor or advisor. He has more than earned his title of "Godfather of Tasmanian Whisky". We sat down with him for some “breakfast whisky” to have a conversation about the past, present, and future of industry.

DRAMBOX: How did you get your start?

BILL LARK: I used to be a land surveyor. At the same time, my wife and I, along with three other families, built and ran a pub in Northern Tasmania. The whisky just came out of a pleasant day up in the Highlands drinking too much of it and thinking somebody should have a go at making it.

D: Before you there was no whisky production on Tasmania for some 150 some odd years.

153 years ago was the last time that whisky had been made legally in Tasmania.

D: Why did you decide to start a whisky distillery?

It was really just simply to see if Tasmania was capable of making a whisky that could stand alongside some of the best whiskies in the world. We knew that we had very good barley. Of course, our water is some of the very best in the world, and we thought that our climate was ideal for maturing whisky. I also knew that there were peat bogs up in the Highlands. It just seemed to me like we had everything going for us—so let’s just see if we could do it. We actually had no intention of starting a business or a commercial distillery. It was purely and simply to see if we could make a good whisky in Tasmania.

 Bill Lark standing next to several casks of "good whisky". (Photo: Gary He)

Bill Lark standing next to several casks of "good whisky". (Photo: Gary He)

D: Tasmania had a law on the books that prevented stills under a certain size from being used. How did you change the laws?

A lot of people face obstacles when they’re starting a business, and too many people give up. We were confronted with legislation that effectively didn’t allow us to start because there was no way that we were going to build an industrial-sized still—we just wanted to see if we could make whisky at that stage. But, I figured that there was nothing to lose by asking people for help. I had just happened to be walking past our Member of Parliament’s office in Hobart one day—and I didn’t know him—but I went in, introduced myself, sat down, and discovered that he liked whisky. I told him what the problem was with the legislation, and he got straight on the phone to our federal minister for customs and small business, who also liked whisky. He said, “Tell Bill Lark to go apply for his license. I will amend the legislation to allow small stills.” And he did.

D: That easy, huh?

That easy! People often ask me, “how hard did I have to fight to get the change?” And I often tell people, “I didn’t have to fight.” In fact, I would have had to fight to not get a license. I just found that people immediately responded to the idea of seeing if we could make good whisky in Tasmania and I found that I just got swept up in a wave of enthusiasm.

D: A lot of whiskeys are named after men, but women have had huge contributions to the whisky industry that often go unrecognized. Lark is named after the family. What role did your wife Lyn play in the early days, and how did that evolve over time?

 Lyn and Bill Lark. (Photo courtesy Lark Distillery)

Lyn and Bill Lark. (Photo courtesy Lark Distillery)

When I came back from that day in the Highlands with her father, who introduced me to whisky, I just mentioned to her, “I wonder why somebody hasn’t made whisky in Tasmania.” Lyn got very excited about that and the prospect of seeing if we could do it. Once we got a still and a license—I was still busy working in my survey practice—Lyn would play with the still and developed a real talent for botanical distilling. She was keen to making gin. During that process, she came across the native pepperberry and produced a product that we called Tasmanian Bush Liqueur, which we released in 1996 while we were waiting for the whisky to mature. So before the whisky was even ready, Lyn was playing around, and distilled this wonderful product that just took off and took us into the commercial world, so much so that we ended up opening up our first commercial premises in 1997. Of course, I was still surveying at that stage, so Lyn ran those premises for three years, doing all of the distillation, running the cellar door, and working with visitors.

From there, Lyn has gone on to develop a number of products for us, including a malt whisky liqueur. She’s been a very important part of this business. Of course, as the business grew, I became responsible for the production of the whisky, and Lyn kept up the production of other products. But she took on the role of financial manager, which all good businesses need. She has been tremendous. We were also lucky to have our daughter Kristy come to the distillery and become our head distiller for many years. She went on to become our general manager as well. She’s had a tremendous influence on this business. We should recognize the women in distilling more.

D: When you started in 1992, whisky certainly wasn’t the force that it is today. What was the market like back then and when did it really take off?

Quite rightly, Tasmanian Whisky was a bit of a novelty. People really weren’t sure. They would look at us and say, “you’re not making Tasmanian whisky are you?” Until they tried it—then they very quickly decided that they did like our whisky and that we were on the right track. Still, it was a difficult thing to market, and we always knew that it was going to be so we never tried to influence people. We just thought that if we just kept on our goal of making a quality malt whisky, became stable alongside some of the other top whiskies in the world, then eventually people would come to Lark, discover it, and enjoy it. And that’s what happened.

Our first commercial release of whisky was in 1998. We only ever had a few barrels, and we found straight away that we sold all of our whisky from our first half a dozen releases before it even got on the market. People had signed up to buy the whisky before it was even released. So that was very difficult for us, because even though we had made something and we had a few small releases, we didn’t have a chance to really get it out into the marketplace. That probably didn’t happen until the year 2000, which is when we started to have sufficient whisky to be able to have whisky on shelves.

The first commercial premises were out in Richmond. In 2000, we came to the current premises on the waterfront here in Hobart, which was a tremendous thing for us because it really put us in front of all the visitors to Tasmania, but more importantly to the locals of Tasmania. We found that we now had the ability to share with the locals a product that was becoming well known to visitors. They started to take ownership and pride in our product. Locals would bring visitors to us, and it grew from there. I can honestly say that we have never had a huge budget for marketing like the huge liquor companies. The product had to have people loving it, being proud of it, and spreading the word for us. That happened, and that explains the explosion of it—of the demand for Tasmanian whiskies—in the last 15 years. It has been phenomenal.

D: When Shinjiro Torii, the founder of Suntory, was creating the first Japanese Whisky, he would make sample boxes for tasters. He would sneak in a sample of Johnnie Walker and was not satisfied until his whisky was chosen over the Walker. Are there any regions or styles that influenced you or that you really wanted to beat?

Honestly, I never really wanted to beat any other whisky. I was tremendously fond of Scottish whiskies. I was always a bit nervous that the Scottish industry might look at us and think, you know, what are you doing trying to make whisky in Tasmania? I was very nervous about their reaction. But what I found out very early on was that the Scottish industry was very keen to see us make good whisky, and became very supportive and helpful along the way. All that I ever wanted to do was to show that one day our whisky might be able to stand up alongside theirs. The first recognition of that came in 2009 when we picked up an award in the World Whisky Awards for best whisky outside of Scotland and Ireland. A judge came up to me during a dinner in Scotland to congratulate me and say that we thoroughly deserved to win and to ask, “How the hell are you doing that? What are you doing in Tasmania to produce such rich oily malts?” For me, that was a wonderful moment—that the rest of the industry was recognizing us as being a truly significant whisky producer in the world market. That was wonderful. And it’s just gone on from there.

D: There are now 14 whisky distilleries on Tasmania. What are some of your favorites besides Lark?

I’m very proud of what Sullivan’s Cove is doing and I’m pleased to say that I actually had a hand in the old days with their whisky that is winning these top awards. I was the head distiller there for 18 months, and to see that distillery grow the way that it has fills me with a sense of pride. It’s wonderful. We’re producing a paddock to bottle rye whisky here in Tasmania. Peter Bignell is a fantastic, innovative chap, and he’s doing a great job (Editor's Note: Bignell is the master distiller and owner at Belgrove Distillery, which produces the paddock to bottle rye whisky being referenced.) The great thing is, all of our whiskies are using the same barley, but we’ve all developed our own style and character. Hellyers Road is a wonderful whisky. They’ve started doing some things like maturing their whisky and finishing it in Pinot Noir casks. It’s sensational whisky. And they have reached around the world, alongside Sullivan’s Cove. And Overeem, which has now become a part of the Lark family. It’s just terrific to see that we’re all struggling to meet demand for our whisky. It’s a great time to be in this industry.

 Sullivan's Cove French Oak Cask, winner of of the World Whisky Awards 2012 Best Single Malt in the World, was produced while Bill Lark was master distiller at Sullivan's Cove in the late 1990s. (Photo: Gary He)

Sullivan's Cove French Oak Cask, winner of of the World Whisky Awards 2012 Best Single Malt in the World, was produced while Bill Lark was master distiller at Sullivan's Cove in the late 1990s. (Photo: Gary He)

D: You and Patrick (Maguire, master distiller at Sullivan’s Cove) sometimes trash talk each other, right?

Patrick was one of my apprentice distillers at Sullivan’s Cove. When I was the head distiller there, he came aboard and learned my whisky production style. So it’s with some sort of friendly competitiveness, I suppose [laughing]

We all like to show each other that we got our whisky onto the market first, or that we won an award before they did, but it’s all very friendly banter.

D: Well, you both can sell every drop that you make, so it’s not really hurting either company, right?

Not in the least! In fact, we both share in our successes when we have them. We’re very supportive. The whole industry is very supportive of each other, we all share knowledge in the hope that we all produce good whisky and the industry will grow.

D: Lark’s limited editions, from what I can tell, have been a variety of cask experiments. What kind of funky stuff can we expect from Lark going forward?

One of Lark's experimental limited releases: aging for two years aboard the Spirit of Tasmania boat that shuttles between Melbourne and Devonport. (Photo: Gary He)

I’ve always enjoyed our style of whisky that came from wonderful ex-Australian Port barrels (Editor’s note: Australian Fortified Wine—they just call it port, but it’s all local), but along the way we’ve able to source some sherry casks, and we’ve been able to obtain some wonderful bourbon casks. It was a great experiment to see how our whisky would mature for its whole life in a bourbon barrel. And given that our whisky is peated—not as heavily as, say, an Ardbeg, but there is some peat—what we discovered was that the depth of character that you get from peated whisky coming out of a bourbon barrel produces a real cracker of a whisky. Our latest special release is from a bourbon cask. But the other wonderful funky thing that we do here is that we produce our own rum. We distill it from Australian molasses, and then mature it in our old whisky barrels. But when we’ve released our rum, we will then use that rum barrel to finish off one of our newer whiskies. We would have to be probably the only distillery in the world that can say we do a rum finished whisky in a barrel of rum that we made ourselves, which was matured in a whisky barrel. So when they come online, they’ll be really sought after and just delicious.

D: The Tasmanian Whisky industry is about 20 years old at this point. Where do you see it 10 or 20 years from now?

There’s certainly going to be growth in the number of distilleries here on Tasmania. We’re seeing that in the United States, and we’re starting to see it in the United Kingdom. I think from that, we’ll see an even greater awareness of our whisky in the world marketplace. That’s going to place a bigger demand on us. We’re all quite small. Hellyers Road is the exception—they’re a large distillery. But the rest of us, even Sullivan’s Cove, could be considered small distilleries. Every time I think about increasing production, I want to make sure we keep producing it the same way. But I know that it’ll never be enough. We’ll grow, but the market is growing and the demand is growing. That’ll be the challenge for us. But with the support of the Tasmanian Producers Association, we’ll be there to support new people in the industry. We’ll take care of them like the Scottish industry carried us and helped us to produce good whisky. So, I think the future looks fantastic.

D: You were recently inducted into the World Whisky Awards Hall of Fame. How did that feel, being recognized alongside some of the other giants in the industry?

The special cask bottled to commemorate Lark's induction into the World Whisky Awards Hall of Fame. 500mL bottles start at over $600 a piece. (Photo: Gary He)

I couldn’t believe it! To be inducted into a hall of fame alongside some of the amazing characters that are there already, people that I’ve looked up to and admired and taken inspiration from in the all the time that I’ve been making whisky, it was a tremendous moment, a very proud moment for myself. But I did take the opportunity, and I really meant it, on that night to say that I wouldn’t have even been considered for this if it hadn’t been for the way the Tasmanian industry has got behind it to produce good whisky. It’s really recognition of how well the Tasmanian Whisky industry has done. So for me, it was a moment of great pride and an amazing honor. But it was also a fantastic recognition again for Tasmanian whisky.

D: You come home from a long day of work. What are you drinking?

Whisky, of course! Usually when we finish the day, my wife will say, “You get the whisky, and I’ll get the chocolate.” At the end of the day, for me that would be one of our cask strength whiskies and a good dark chocolate. Earlier in the day—and I still think it’s my favorite whisky—our classic cask at 43%. That’s a whisky that, if you’re looking for a whisky at breakfast time, that’s the one you get.

 The author and Lark chatting over breakfast whisky. (Photo: Jane Overeem)

The author and Lark chatting over breakfast whisky. (Photo: Jane Overeem)