So you've traveled thousands of miles to Tasmania and have your pick of the bottles. What's worth buying? I sat down at a bar—Lark's Cellar Door, to be specific, because they have everything—and tried some whisky. OK, almost every whisky. Sorry, mom. Then I went to many of the distilleries and tried a lot of stuff there, too.
Here are the ones that I think you should spend money on, but as usual with very minor guidance on taste because I'm not here to tell you how your taste buds should work.
Hellyers Road Single Malt Whisky: Peated (46.2%, 700ml, $103 AUD)
This is a solid dram, but it's not going to knock your socks off. It's very young, and it's supposedly made with English barley. So why are we recommending it? Mostly because it's $50 cheaper than anything else on this list. The average entry price for a bottle of Tasmanian Whisky is $150, which is a lot of money in either USD or AUD. The reason for the high price of most Australian Whisky is the excise—approximately $24 per 500ml bottle at 43%, about 10x what U.S. producers face. Combined with the extremely low production volumes, and high demand since some of the distilleries started winning awards, and you have an extremely pricey product. Which is where Hellyers Road comes in—because they produce much higher volumes at their milk farm in northern Tasmania, they are able to come close to meeting demand and offer their spirit up at a much lower price. So, if you are looking for the most affordable Tasmanian whisky that's still interesting to drink, go for the Hellyers Road Peated. Trust me... the peat helps.
Lark Single Malt Whisky Classic Cask (43%, 500ml, $150)
The distillery that started it all. And it's pretty tasty! Aged between five and six years in their signature Australian Fortified Wine casks (the distillery calls it Port, but the Portugese might have something to say about that), will net you a lot of spiciness and an oily, full-bodied mouthfeel owing to the distillery's use of a mixture of brewer's yeast, distiller's yeast, and wild fermentation over the course of seven days. The packaging is also the most distinct of all the Tasmanian Whiskies, making it the perfect ambassador from the island to your whisky shelf. You do have a whisky shelf if you're reading this website... right?
Cradle Mountain Malt Whisky (43%, 700ml, $152)
Around the same time that Bill Lark had the bright idea to lobby his representatives to change the law regarding still sizes, a small group of citizens were enlisted by the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture to discover if the locally grown Franklin barley was suitable for the production of whisky. The group was called The Small Concern Whisky Distillery (these guys must be the life of the party...) and obviously proved successful, creating the blueprint for the Tasmanian Whisky industry. The group itself had too many cooks in the kitchen, and ceased distilling operations shortly thereafter. The brand's website is a glorious throwback to late-1990s Geocities-era web design, a business frozen in time by becoming the first mothballed Tasmanian distillery.
Interestingly, they had produced a lot of whisky, and kept bottling it when they thought it was ready, over the last twenty years. This one is a 17-year-old, and it is the very last release. It is not very good whisky (perhaps to the chagrin of people who think that the older the whisky, the better), but that's like saying a Model T is not good at NASCAR races. It's a cool relic from the beginnings of Tasmanian Whisky history. Buy it if you can find it.
Belgrove Distillery 100% Rye Whisky Cask Strength (60%, 500ml, $230)
This is funky stuff. While everyone else on this island is making malt whisky, Peter Bignell, who is considered by his contemporaries to be an innovative genius, if a bit quirky, is producing rye at the greenest distillery in the world. Belgrove is powered by biodiesel derived from the recycled cooking oil from a nearby diner and almost every piece of equipment is hand made by Bignell himself from recycled parts.
This whisky is two years old, and packs a punch—both in spiciness, alcohol, and in the strong red fruits that Bignell has somehow been able to extract from the cask in a very short amount of time. It is certainly the most unique product that you will find on the island, and if you buy at Belgrove itself, consider the bottle purchase the cost of admission to the most intriguing distillery that you will ever visit.
Overeem Single Malt Whisky Cask Strength Sherry Cask (60%, 700ml, $220)
This is the best whisky that I tasted on Tasmania that came out of a bottle. (There were some very promising cask pulls from a number of distilleries, but I won't say which ones!)
Casey Overeem and his team make this spirit out of his garage, where he can run the still only twice a week because any more would violate residential power consumption laws. As such, supply is very, very low. It's aged for six years at a storage facility that is half underground. (If I told you where it was, I would have to... you know.) The whisky was supposed to be a retirement project for Overeem, but it got so popular that he sold the brand to Bill Lark to manage under his umbrella.
There's a regular strength version of Overeem that is also very good, but you'll want to wait for the cask strength because there's no sense in shipping water thousands of miles across the ocean.
Sullivan's Cove Single Malt Whisky French Oak Cask (47.5%, 700ml, $350)
This buying guide wouldn't be complete without touching on a very important bottle: Sullivan's Cove French Oak Cask, which won World's Best Single Malt at the 2012 World Whisky Awards, and automatically makes it the most recongizable and desireable bottle on this page. It is very good whisky, and it is aged longer than most other mainstream products on Tasmania, which brings a certain oaky familiarity to the whisky that you've come to expect from Scottish single malts that are rarely released younger than 10-12 years, and even a mature bourbon.
But I can't tell you how good the award winning whisky was. I can't taste it. Nobody can. There's no more of it. Therein lies the problem with Sullivan's Cove French Oak Cask—every release is single barrel. And there is significant quality variance, even by The Whisky Bible's standard of tasting. The one I tasted was pretty good (HH0379, aged 14 1/2 years), but was it $350 good? I don't know about that. The one you taste or get to buy may be completely different, so nothing I can tell you here matters, except: Sullivan's Cove American Oak Single Cask and Double Oak whiskies are also solid, and much more affordable. All I can say is, try them all out before you drop the $350, which is good advice for whisky at any price point. You may find that what you're really paying for is the gravitas that comes with that award....
Or screw it, you flew 10,000 miles to get here. Just buy the damn thing. All of them...