Tasmanian Whisky: The Devil's In The Details

There are few major whisky production centers in the world, and they can be counted on one hand: Scotland, Ireland, United States, Canada, and Japan. Now get ready to start counting on your other hand.

The current spike of interest in whisky has created winners in other, less traditional regions: Amrut in India and Kavalan in Taiwan come to mind. But those are lone standouts in areas that are more than happy to just drink imported whisky like Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniels. There is, however, one exception.

With fourteen licensed distilleries and two major award winners that have international distribution, including Best Whisky in the World winner Sullivan’s Cove, Tasmania is at the precipice of becoming the sixth major whisky production center. Geographic isolation helps when producing a distinct style of whisky, and even within Tasmania there are extreme variances. Belgrove produces a rye. Redlands produces a paddock-to-bottle single malt. And let’s not forget about Lark, the first legal distillery on the island in 150 years, which ages most of its products in 100-liter port casks as a distillery signature.

 Chris Thompson, master distiller at Lark Distillery, samples from a bond store of port casks, the brand's signature barrel. (Photo: Gary He)

Chris Thompson, master distiller at Lark Distillery, samples from a bond store of port casks, the brand's signature barrel. (Photo: Gary He)

There’s just one issue: supply. The Tasmanian Whisky industry is only twenty years old, and came to life concurrently with probably the biggest spike in whisky interest in history. Producers can hardly keep product on the shelf long enough, even at the distilleries themselves, to prove that they’ve made any. “I posted a picture of a bottling that we just did on social media,” said Jane Overeem, director of marketing at Lark Distillery. “And within minutes I was flooded with messages trying to reserve bottles.” The bottling run was 60 units, and two of them were sold to journalists accompanying Overeem. (*wink*)

Virtually every distillery on the island can be considered small-scale production, with the exception of Hellyers Road in the north, which runs out of a milk farm and can sustain much higher production volumes. So they can never meet demand, even on their own island, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future. Redlands is sold out. Overeem is sold out. Lark has switched to hundreds of 20 liter barrels that will only take two and a half years to come of age, but that’ll only meet demand from three years ago. As such, it is likely that by the time the producers can meet demand in the Australian market and then find widespread international distribution, whisky interest will be on the decline.

The good news is that the Tasmanian Whisky is way ahead of the curve. It took Japanese Whisky almost 80 years to get recognized as some of the best whisky in the world, something that Tasmanian producers accomplished in the first 20. And consumer tastes are cyclical anyway—by the time consumers abandon and then inevitably come back to whisky, a generation will have passed and Tasmanian Whisky’s chaff will have been separated from the wheat (no pun intended… but maybe someone should produce a wheat whisky down there.) It’ll be an absolute powerhouse in the next round.

Here’s the best news of all: you can try Tasmanian Whisky right now. And it’s very, very good. Sullivan’s Cove and Lark are both available in the United States, albeit in small allocations. Both have won numerous awards, and Sullivan’s Cove French Oak was rated the best whisky in the world two years ago. Visiting Australia will net you a few more labels—Belgrove, Overeem, Hellyers Road, and Nant were spotted at whisky bars in Melbourne and Sydney. But your best bet is a visit to the island itself: Lark Cellar Door in Hobart, where most distillery tours originate, has one of the finest whisky collections on the planet for you to compare and contrast, and bottles for sale. You can even try experimental releases from various Tasmanian distilleries or even one from a defunct distillery (Cradle Mountain, I’m looking at you.) Or just visit the distilleries themselves—some of the characters building the nascent industry may very well become household names like Beam or Walker in a few decades.

It’s an exciting time for Tasmanian Whisky. But now that I’m counting the number of major whisky producing regions with two hands, how am I going to pick up this dram?

(Oh yeah—sorry that there’s nothing in this piece about details. Almost puns make for ok headlines, though.)