Tasmanian whisky: the world can't get enough

Last updated 05:00 03/05/2014
Bill Lark Tasmania whisky

KEEPING THE CRAFT: Bill Lark says Tasmanian distillers need to continue to aim for quality, over quantity.

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Tasmanian whisky, it seems safe to say, is on the way up.

The coveted award recently won by Hobart-based Sullivans Cove naming it the world's best single malt might make that sound like an understatement.

But spend any time around Tasmania's numerous distilleries and you quickly learn that, far from getting carried away with the numerous successes they've had, they are instead intently focused on further establishing themselves in both the Australian and fiercely competitive global whisky markets.

For Bill Lark, founder and owner of the Lark Distillery - and a key figure in the establishment of the Tasmanian whisky industry as a whole - it's vital that he and his fellow distillers continue to embrace the careful whisky-making techniques that have brought them such rich accolades, rather than rush into mass production.

"Even though the demand is there, the challenge for all of us is to continue to make it the way we are making it. We don't want to grow production to the point where we lose track of how to make handcrafted whiskies," Lark says.

While international awards create interest and fuel serious demand for Tassie whisky, the traditional small-scale techniques used and long maturation times mean output will be tiny by global standards for some time to come.

For Sullivans Cove, annual production currently stands at 18,000 bottles per year - little more than a drop in the ocean by global whisky standards.

"Even though we'd like to produce three to four times more 'new make' spirit, for us it's still going to be 10-14 years before we get the benefit of that," says Patrick Maguire, manager and part-owner of Sullivans Cove.

Happily for the rest of Australia, limited supply doesn't mean we'll miss out in the rush to service large single malt markets in Europe and North America.

As Sullivans Cove head of marketing Bert Cason explains, demand has reached such a peak that the distillery is now selling its whisky via an allocation model.

"We've looked at what every market did over 2012 and 2013 and based on the proportion they've taken in those two years, we allocate them a certain amount of our whisky," Cason says, adding that strong domestic sales during this time frame mean Australians will continue to get their fair share.

Bill Lark believes that while exports are crucial, domestic sales remain the biggest growth market for the industry. Even so, international success is still widely sought.

For a small distillery such as William McHenry and Sons, which produces approximately 200 litres of 'new make' spirit a week, the business model revolves around the key pillars of small volume and high quality creating demand.

"Having small volumes of high quality does mean we can manage our prices to suit the costs, which are very high," William McHenry says.

He believes Australia's early winemakers have already illuminated the path to success. "When they were exporting they were exporting the best. We've got to do the same thing and always only ever send the very best of the product. Any black mark will only make it harder."

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While many Tasmanian whisky distilleries slowly and progressively build their reputations, one producer is implementing a more audacious plan to make its mark on the international whisky scene.

The Nant Distillery, founded and owned by Brisbane businessman Keith Batt, is pursuing a plan of establishing 70 whisky bars around the world over the next five years.

"Basically what we are doing is building our own retail platform to sell our own products," Batt says.

Harnessing a growing interest in connoisseurship and handcrafted products, Batt believes the planned bars - which he describes as 'cellar doors' - will provide a portal to the Nant distillery, and an opportunity to tell the world about Tasmania and its high-quality produce.

"That's why we just can't put it on a shelf in a bottle shop, we do need to be able to tell our story," Batt says.

With Nant planning to triple its production to approximately 300,000 litres annually by the end of this year, Batt believes he has found the volume that will fuel his expansion plans while maintaining the quality of his whisky.

"It's probably not boutique, that's probably not the right word, but it's still small-scale and very much a handcrafted product," he says.

"The smallest distillery in Scotland, Edradour, produces 250,000 litres per year so we're still considered to be on a very small scale compared to the big distilleries in Scotland."

Batt has already established four bars in Australia, with a fifth set to open in Sydney in the coming months. Plans are also under way to open Nant's first overseas bars in London later this year, which he hopes to follow with premises in Singapore and the US - most likely in New York.

"We're basically investigating from Mexico to Prague to Berlin, so we're certainly doing our location strategy."

Jeremy Loadman travelled to Tasmania with the assistance of Tourism Tasmania and was a guest of Tasmanian Whisky Tours.

- The Age

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