Whisky Connosr

Australian whisky special prt 1

By Dominic Roskrow

The clock says it's 6.45am and as I open my eyes I am confronted by three bottles of New Zealand whisky. I have no idea where I am and how I got here. I have no idea where the bottles came from. I conclude I am in New Zealand but I don't know why.

Then it starts to come back to me. I have a 7am meeting about New Zealand whisky with a Tasmanian. I am in Hobart, just 24 hours in to an Australian trip. I flew to Australia with chart topping Leicester rock band Kasabian, and I've just completed a 55 hour sleepless alcohol-fueled binge. How very rock and roll, I conclude.

"I've just completed a 55 hour sleepless alcohol-fueled binge. How very rock and roll, I conclude"

Hobart, Tasmania,Australia. I have always been fascinated by Tasmania. There's something untamed and slightly threatening about it, and its history as a uncompromising penal colony combined with its savage beauty has always appealed to me.

And then there was Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore and the true story of a group of convicts who escaped from prison there, got lost in the island's vast emptiness, and survived by eating each other. Melbourne shanty rock band Weddings, Parties, Anything retold the story in garish detail back in the 80s, and that was me hooked.

When Tasmania became the focus for Australian whisky it took on an even greater significance. This trip, then, had more than a whiff of fantasy fulfillment about it.

Tasmania is big - about 200 miles by 300 miles, and the flight from Sydney takes about 90 minutes. A good part of it entails flying over the island to Hobart in the south.

From the air it looks exactly as it's meant to - untamed, brooding, uncompromising, a mix of forest, mountain, and dirty brown lakes. Even in bright sunshine its greenness is subdued. I learn later that heavy rain and flooding in recent weeks has stirred up the mud beds and clouded the island's waters. But I'm not sure how much more welcoming it would be even at its most settled.

It makes for an impressive arrival, part Scotland, part Ireland, part Central America, and by the time I disembark and meet Bill Lark in arrivals I'm already immersed in its mystery and beauty.

There are now eight whisky distilleries operating on Tasmania, and Bill Lark has at least some involvement in every one of them. His distillery, Lark, will be 20 years old next year, and it was he who overturned a century old Prohibition Act and made it possible to distill here again.

I only have 24 hours and he knows it, so we don't bother to check in at the hotel, and head off in to whisky country immediately. In the coming hours we manage to visit five distilleries, taste lots of whisky and maturing spirit, and catch up with a number of whisky- linked Tasmanians over dinner.

Sullivan's Cove

What do the words Sullivan's Cove bring to mind? Craggy shores, rough seas, wild coastline perhaps? The reality is very different - one of Australia's biggest distilleries has its base in a lock up garage on a faceless industrial estate.

Sullivan's Cove has had a chequered past and there are three distinct periods in its history. The early bottlings were poor, the ones from five years back average. But one, under the guidance of Patrick Maguire, the distillery's whisky is up there with Australia's very best. Maguire has wisely focused on the liquid and not the environs for his distillery, so the 'temporary' home is nothing to look at. But that will change in time and symbolically, when we visit Maguire is overseas on business.

Whisky to try: Sullivan's Cove 10 year old and probably 11 Year Old, though at the time of writing my sample of the latter STILL hadn't turned up.

Lark Distllery

The Lark Distllery effectively operates of two sites. The first is the distillery itself, built in to farm buildings out in the rolling richly green fields close to Hobart. This is wine making territory, and it's stunning.

The distillery itself is a boutique DIY dinky version of a Scottish distillery, with a distinctive pot still operation with the stills made by a mainland Australian distiller.

Everything is done manually here and all spirit is tasted before cuts are made. I'm shown the difference between spirit running off in real time and what the total heart of the run tastes. The difference is immense. Bill and his more risk taking youthful distillery team have healthy arguments about cut times and you suspect the whisky long term will benefit.

If you don't agree with the experts then Lark allows cask purchasers to make the cut themselves and create their own version of Lark. The spirit is matured in a range of casks but in recent years there has been a drift towards quarter sizes casks made from wood that previously contained port. Bill shows me casks which previously contained 100 year old Para port. You can't question the distillery's commitment to quality. Oh, and Lark has its own malt drying operation. It's about the size of a bee hive or oven, and has small trays of barley being smoked over local peat. How small scale can you go?

Whisky to try: either the standard or cask strength current port cask malts, casks 202 or 205.

Belgrove Distillery

Not far away, in an old stables,is one of the newest Tasmanian distilleries, and arguably the world's greenest.

Peter Bignell is a farmer but spends part of the year traveling the world working for various companies as an ice or sand sculptor. He's hired for world events as entertainment.

But in his spare time he's started making 100 per cent rye whiskey. He built the distilling equipment himself, uses old cooking oil as heating fuel, uses all locally sourced products and has bottled a new make spirit at 40% which is both different to anything else on offer and quite stunning.

It would be unfair to pass judgement on the maturing spirit because it's only a few months old and at that adolescent unbalanced stage. But I'm prepared to say it's going to be extraordinary and it's adding an exciting twist to the Tasmanian saga.

Is it the greenest distillery on earth? Go to www.belgrovedistillery.com.au for the full story.

Whisky to try: none yet, but Belgrove Rye Spirit is a delight.

Nant Distillery

When it comes to pretty distilleries you'd struggle to beat Nant. A drive in to the wilderness of Tasmania, off the road and in to woodland with pretty running streams, Nant is another purpose-built boutique distillery, and stunning. This is the distillery that a team of businessmen are hoping to recreate at Kingsbarns in Fife. I hope it happens.

The buildings were reclaimed from nature, including an aggressive tiger snake, and the distillery itself contains the same sort of stills as Lark and both stainless steel and wooden wash backs. And the property is built with visitors in mind. There's a bar area with terrace overlooking the beautiful scenery, conference and tasting rooms where music and dining events can be held, and even some accommodation.

Everything is modern here, including the packaging of the whisky, which is bottled both as a sherry finish and - there's a theme here - in port. This clearly very young whisky but it's not offensive and is very drinkable. Light and sweet, too, particularly the sherry one, almost feminine. One to watch.

Whisky to try: Nant port finish.

Old Hobart Distillery

Lark's other site is the 'cellar door' in the harbour area in downtown Hobart. There's a bar, shop, and tasting area downstairs and admin areas up. They serve tasty very quaffable Tasmanian beer here. Be warned: they drink like true Aussies in Tasmania, they're immensely hospitable, and it can and does get messy...

The following morning before I head back to Sydney Bill Lark takes me to Old Hobart distillery, which is actually another boutique distillery in outbuildings of a coastal town a few miles from Hobart. This is the distillery of Peter Overeem, and here he' s on the point of bottling his first release in two forms and at four and a half years old.

Here the same boutique operation is employed, the same attention to detail, the same use of quality casks, and the same stylish and modern bottles. Peter fills me the first bottle straight from the cask - a wonderful way to end my trip.

Whisky to try: either of the Overeem single malts

Round-up

Even on such a lightening visit a few things strike me about whisky down under.

Firstly, there isn't one style here. A new distillery just installing equipment intends to do triple distilled whisky style whiskey, there' s rye, and at Hellyer's Road, which I didn’t visit. They make a grassy, winey Lowland style malt.

But that said although each of the distilleries has its own character and style, a distinctive Tasmanian theme runs though them all. A number of them share the same distilling equipment, made for them by an Australian company - small, boutique stills but made to the highest standard. They are experimenting and dabbling with whisky, but not alarmingly so. They are thorough, knowledgeable and passionate. And best of all, the whisky is advancing in leaps and bounds. With Lark leading the way, there are making some great whiskies.

One convert to the Tasmanian cause is Brian Ritchie, an American musician who played with college cult band The Violent Femmes for nigh on 30 years and now has a band with former members of Midnight Oil. We meet for a drink in Sydney, where he is launching a new music and art show.

"I have enjoyed whisky for many years and like the Islay whiskies, especially Lagavulin but also Laphroaig and Ardbeg," he says. "When I first went to Tasmania I didn't really get the whisky but it's improved so much. You can see it belongs to the malt whisky category but it's different, full flavoured and unique. There's something very new and special there."

Indeed there is. And with that I bring to a close my Hobart experience and turn my attention to Laphroaig in Sydney...