The Whisky Tasting Club

Dom’s diary, Wednesday October 5, afternoon

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I’ve 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 agreed 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. An in-depth look at the distilleries will appear in The World Whisky Review, published through connosr.com on October 21.

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

Firstly, 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 malts and ryes.

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…

 

 

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