Malt of the Earth: Tasmania's Lords of Terroir

Many factors contribute to the taste of a dram of whisky. Marketing departments often focus on the two most influential ones: mashbill and cask. But the people actually making the whisky know that a third is just as important: The entire natural environment, including climate, water, soil, air. Terroir. 

The geographic isolation of the Australian continent helps to create a very pure environment for the production of whisky. But Tasmania, entirely engulfed by the Southern Ocean and judged to have the cleanest air in the world owing to the Roaring Forties winds that carry clean air thousands of miles across the ocean to the island, is even more of a unique staging area for distilling.

While all Tasmanian producers benefit from the island's distinct features, three in particular truly tap into the landscape to create spirits that reflect the isolation and, yes, craft aspect of making whisky in such a remote location.

These are Tasmania's lords of terroir. 

43° South — McHenry Distillery

 Bill McHenry, the owner and master distiller of McHenry DIstillery, has a single 500 liter still that he uses for both the wash and spirit runs. In order to do all of the wash runs in a timely manner, he sets up a cot in his distillery and runs the still overnight, waking up every hour to make sure everything is still running properly. (Photo: Gary He)

Bill McHenry, the owner and master distiller of McHenry DIstillery, has a single 500 liter still that he uses for both the wash and spirit runs. In order to do all of the wash runs in a timely manner, he sets up a cot in his distillery and runs the still overnight, waking up every hour to make sure everything is still running properly. (Photo: Gary He)

At 43 degrees south, the McHenry Distillery is close to being, but not quite, the southernmost producer of whisky on the planet—that distinction belongs to a couple of upstarts on New Zealand. Tucked into the side of a mountain on the tip of Tasmania, far away from any significant gathering of civilization, however, it is certainly the southernmost distillery in Australia, and one of the most remote in the world. 

Bill McHenry seems a bit sluggish when I meet him, perhaps the result of having slept on a cot in his distillery the night before and waking up every hour to make sure that the wash run was going smoothly. With a single 500-liter still powering his whisky production, his distilling run for 2000 liters of wash takes place over two days—straight. Those are the breaks with being a small business owner, but McHenry will take this life over his previous one any day.

Having spent most of his career as a marketing director for Pfizer in the United States, McHenry moved his family back to Australia 10 years ago to take a role at a technology startup. Sadly, this wasn't the life that he envisioned—he spent most of his time with lawyers shuttling between Perth and Sydney as the company's finances fell into disarray. Completely distracted by spiraling business prospects, McHenry ended up in a car accident and had an awakening. "It just dawned on me that I was doing everything wrong with life," he said of that day.

At a gathering of friends a few weeks later, he brought up this dilemma to his neighbor Graham, who quipped, "It's obvious to me what you should be doing, Bill. With a last name like McHenry, you should be learning bagpipes and making whisky." This was no joke to McHenry, however, who saw everything as a sign that he should drastically change his life. Thus the planning began for the creation of his distillery on Tasmania. 

"I could not imagine making whiskey anywhere else in Australia," McHenry says. "This is the place to be. It's the environment. It's the water. It just fits."

 (Photo: Gary He)

(Photo: Gary He)

According to McHenry, the climate on the southern tip of Tasmania is ideally suited for making and aging whisky, with an average humidity of 72% year round. On any given day, temperatures will by 3-4% colder than in Hobart, the cultural center of Tasmania up the coast, and humidity will be 40% higher. "My neighbor is the Southern Ocean," says McHenry, pointing over a hill on his property. His neighbor is also 13 other Tasmanian whisky producers, which form a bit of a support group for his latest project. "The comaraderie between distilleries is very strong," McHenry says. "Shared learning is important for startups like myself." 

To that point, his first whisky product, called Three Capes, was actually produced at Sullivan's Cove Distillery near Hobart, which included spirit distilled by Bill Lark, the godfather of the Tasmanian whisky industry. That stock is almost sold out at this point. "When I was buying from them, they had a surplus," McHenry says with a bit of a chuckle. "But then they win World's Best Whisky and, whoops, there goes the surplus." He's now producing his own single malt whisky with mash from Moo Brew north of Hobart, aged for three years in ex-Maker's Mark bourbon barrels and finished for a year in ex-Australian fortified wine casks. The first release is slated for December. In the meantime, the distillery's gin products provide a cash flow.

Few people in the world will ever taste the first release of this distillery's single malt, but I did. It's promising whisky, and I think that the product will get better with time as McHenry adjusts his feint cuts and ages his product a little longer, which will certainly happen by the time bottles hit the open market. In the meantime, McHenry says that he's focusing on developing the property and continuing to draw on the terroir to make his product stand out.

"It's a competitive industry, so we really have to figure out what's unique to us. And what we have is this landscape. We've got to leverage that."

The Craftsman — Belgrove Distillery

 Peter Bignell, owner and master distiller at Belgrove Distillery, is a master craftsma, building his own still and malter by hand. Don't get him started on charring barrels... (Photo: Gary He)

Peter Bignell, owner and master distiller at Belgrove Distillery, is a master craftsma, building his own still and malter by hand. Don't get him started on charring barrels... (Photo: Gary He)

If you drive 30 miles north from Hobart on National Highway 1, you'll encounter a gas station and an attached diner called Mood Food just north of Kempton. Make sure to stop in and have a bite to eat before rounding the corner to Belgrove Distillery.

Congratulations, you've just helped to make Tasmania's next batch of whisky.

Owner and master distiller Peter Bignell is described by his peers as quirky, innovative, and a genius. He is also extremely crafty, and it is through his talents that Belgrove is the only distillery in the world powered solely by biodiesel derived from discarded cooking oil from the nearby diner—Mood Food. It is also the first distillery on Tasmania that can claim a paddock-to-bottle production cycle, making it perhaps the greenest and lowest carbon footprint whisky producer in the world.

"Every drop of whisky that I've ever made was from grain that was grown here," Bignell says.

A sheep and cattle farmer by trade, Bignell has been growing rye for over 40 years so that the animals could feed on the grass.  "Every few years, I would close a paddock up, let it get up in seed so I could harvest it just to plant it back, so I didn’t have to buy seed," Bignell says. "Then one year I harvested the grain and had too much seed for what I needed. And it’s obvious, isn’t it?"

"Turn it into whisky!"

 Belgrove Distillery. (Photo: Gary He)

Belgrove Distillery. (Photo: Gary He)

Before Bignell could make any whisky, he needed to get a license. "I had to put in a business plan for the tax office. Basically, it was 'suck it and see'," Bignell says, using an Australian idiom for trying something that you've never done before on a whim to see if it can be successful. As such, Bignell tried to do everything on the cheap and with recycled parts whenever possible. The distillery is housed entirely in an old stablehouse—except for the "malting machine" sitting in his front yard that is actually a modifed clothes dryer that spins extremely slowly to rotate the grain over the course of two days. The still was hand made by Bignell, and is fired using a diesel burner that is fed with cooking oil using a "pump" that is actually a modified Mixmaster hand mixer. The heat is unevenly distributed, but that is kind of the point—to give it character. "You want a little charring on the bottom of the still," Bignell says. "It's the difference between cooking a fish with a steamer and cooking it on a grill."

The distillery produces a lot of different stuff—pretty much anything Bignell dreams to put inside the still. (When I showed up, he was in the process of cleaning out the remains of an Apricot brandy experiment gone horribly wrong.) The most notable products, however, are the white rye and aged rye (2 years), with some other limited edition mainstays like a peated rye and an oat whisky. The distillery can currently fill one barrel a week, and will eventually be able to do three once a dedicated wash still is installed. Bignell has no plans—or desire—to expand beyond that. 

Precision and consistency is not in the equation with each production run, and it doesn't have to be. After all, he's just spending his excess grain. "Every now and then we get a good batch, and sometimes we can’t," Bignell says. "I don’t know what’s going on.“ Judging by the high quality of his whisky, Bignell may know more about what's going on than he lets on, even though production tools are strewn all over and spider webs line almost every inch of his distillery. 

"I visited a distillery in Scotland and was told that the people who work there were not allowed to knock the spider webs down," Bignell says. "Because they have that terroir, you know? That local yeast and bacteria that gets the wild fermentations starting. They’re not allowed to knock them down."

"And that suits me. Because I’m too lazy to knock the spider webs down, too." 

The Estate — Redlands Distillery

 The road to Redlands Estate Distillery is lined with good... trees. (Photo: Gary He)

The road to Redlands Estate Distillery is lined with good... trees. (Photo: Gary He)

There's a lot of buzz around Redlands Estate Distillery these days, and for good reason. Their first single malt whisky was released in August 2015 and consisted of only 21 bottles. All of the bottles sold at auction, some fetching several thousand dollars. Fewer than 70 people worldwide have tasted the whisky, since most of it will now sit on shelves as collectors items. By all accounts, this is the distillery that Bill Lark, the godfather of Tasmanian Whisky who constructed the first modern distillery on the island in 1992, would build if he had to start from scratch. In fact, he owns a third of it.

"[Redlands Estate owner] Peter Hope and Bill Lark had the discussion—that everything that was needed to make whiskey in one place could be done here at Redlands," says Robbie Gilligan, distiller, business manager, and brand ambassor at Redlands Estate Distillery. "So they set about creating the distillery that came to life about two and a half years ago."

 (Photo: Gary He)

(Photo: Gary He)

The estate itself is steeped in history. The land was originally granted in 1818 to George Frederick Read, who is rumored to be the son of King George IV (This has never been confirmed, so it could just be a fun bit of marketing.) Either way, Read was under the employ of the all-powerful East India Company out of Sydney, and became a noted merchant, landowner and director of the Bank of Van Diemen's Land. Using convict labor, Read built up Redlands by constructing the first handmade irrigation channels in Australia and all of the buildings currently being used in the production of whisky.

The estate eventually fell into disrepair, and in 1998 was purchased and rennovated by Peter and Elizabeth Hope, owners of a Tasmanian pharmacy chain with business aspirations that span continents. They would soon be slinging a different kind of medicine—in 2012, the first 20 liter pinot noir barrels were filled with Redlands Estate Distillery new make, produced with barley that was grown, malted, gristed, mashed, and distilled on site.

There are only about a hundred barrels of various ages in the bond store, and the plan is to release a barrel a month until supply catches up in a few years. Don't expect to see a bottle on the open market anytime soon, unless your timing is really good upon arriving in Tasmania.

"Our priority is to get it out there and get as many people to try it as possible. You have so many people asking us where can they get it. Unfortunately there just haven’t been many barrels put down," says GIlligan. "We're looking to increase awareness in the brand, and show that we're a legitimate quality distillery."

"There’s nothing that’d make me more proud than my mom being able to buy a bottle of our whiskey in Glasgow."