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World Whisky Masters Lark Distillery

By Dominic Roskrow

Twenty years might be a mere drop in the great whisky barrel of life, but for the early pioneers of Australian whisky it must seem like a lifetime.

Next year Bill Lark, one of the lynchpins of an Australian whisky revolution, will lift a glass to two decades of Lark distilling. And he’ll do so in the knowledge that he is at the forefront of a whisky movement which could well be the third biggest in the world a few years hence.

Next year Bill Lark will lift a glass to two decades of Lark distilling

Today there are eight distilleries on Tasmania – more than in Ireland, Japan or Canada – and just as many on the Australian mainland. Many of them aren’t bottling yet, but a steady stream of new make distillates and works in progress has convinced me that there is much for the whisky enthusiast to get excited about.

The World Whisky Review travelled to Australia last month, and elsewhere in this issue we publish part one of an in-depth report on Australian whisky. Suffice to say that at its best Australian whisky is world class, in addition to some encouraging single malt whisky the country’s producing Irish-style, American-style sour mash corn whiskey and even rye whiskies.

Part one of our report focuses on Tasmania. The island boasts what is probably the best known Australian whisky in Sullivan’s Cove, now bottling as an 11 year old and a distillery which has had indifferent spells and has been through a couple of reinventions but is firing now. It picked up an impressive three gold medals in the World Whisky Masters.

And Tasmania is the home of Bill Lark, who was instrumental in overturning a 150 year ban on distilling and seems to pop up in just about every Tasmanian distillery story somewhere.

Whisky has a long history in Tasmania. Previously know as Van Dieman’s Land, the island was a penal colony in the earliest part of the 19th century and one of the skills that prisoners excelled at was distilling. So much so that by the 1830s the island’s governor felt that drunkenness was out of control and outlawed distilling.

That ban stayed in place until Bill Lark challenged and overturned it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today Bill Lark is a world ambassador for Lark whisky in particular and for Tasmanian and Australian whisky in general. Meanwhile he has a young distilling team producing single malt on Tasmanian farmland close to Hobart, and a pretty waterside ‘celar door’ property complete with bar and shop.

But for world whisky fans the exciting news is that Lark has reached America and is being distributed from Scotland and Paris in to Europe.

Meanwhile Bill, who is quite prepared to speak his mind and bang the drum for Antipodean whisky, is challenging our preconceptions about what constitutes good whisky. He challenges for instance, Scottish definitions of premium whisky. How can 12 years be a guide to premium quality, he argues, when there is no consideration of the size of cask the spirit is matured in, no reference to temperature, humidity and general climactic considerations?

That’s a debate the World Whiskies Review will be returning to time and again. For now, though, the whisky speaks for itself. It’s not cheap, but its fresh, fruity and clean characteristics prove beyond doubt that Australian whisky can compete with the world’s very best whiskies.

Random Irrelevant Fact

Robert Hughes’ excellent book on the history of Australia, The Fatal Shore, tells a bizarre story about a group of convicts who escaped from prison on Tasmania in the hope of finding a boat and sailing back to England. The men got lost in Tasmania’s dense forests, and over the coming weeks were forced to live off the flesh of members of the group as they died from hunger and exhaustion. Only one survived but when he was recaptured the authorities refused to believe his horrific story of cannibalism because they thought he was covering for the other prisoners, who they thought were still free in the forests. The prisoner was sent back to prison and escaped for a second time, this time with one other man. And when the authorities caught him with human hands and feet in his pocket, they realised his original story had been true.