The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
SPONSORED BY: The Water of Life A Whisky Film
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A Trip Down Under
We’ve talked about Scotland a fair amount in this monthly column, for obvious reasons. We’ve touched on Ireland a few times and even took a journey to Japan. If you’re subscribed to The Barrel Report (Whiskey Network’s weekly newsletter), you’ll have seen the tidbit about Lark Distilling Company’s latest single malt release. Well, it’s about time we took a trip Down Under and take a look at the whisky being produced there
Australia has been producing whisky since the early 1800s -- distillation was legalized by the government at the end of 1820, and the first distillery opened in 1822. Tasmania was ripe for the distillation practices, as it was seen as a “bread basket” for nearby Victoria. Barley grown for bread, however, is also readily made into whisky, so throught the intrepid Tasmanians who eagerly took to whisky distilling. This initial foray into whisky production was short lived, however, thanks to Lady Jane Franklin who, in 1938, is quoted as saying, “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine.“ She used her influence to convince her husband, Governor John Franklin, to outlaw distilling in Tasmania.
Taking a look at Australia’s whisky--making history, the timeline can be broken down into three sections: 1863--1929, 1930--1980, and 1992 to the present.
1863 --1920: The Colonial Malt Whisky Period
In 1862, the Victorian Distillation Act was passed and the next year saw large scale distillation bubble to life, with the first distillery opening in Tasmania. Warrenheip Distillery came shortly thereafter and was opened in 1863 in Ballarat, Victoria by a Mr. John Dunn and became Australia’s second largest distillery, and the first one to be dedicated to malt whisky production.
1930 --1980: The Blended Whisky Period
The next note--worthy era in Australian whisky production was when large British distilling companies set up shop Down Under, using imported materials from the UK. Diageo (then known as the Distillers Company of Edinburgh) opened Corio distillery which replaced Warrenheip as the largest producer of whisky in Oz. After WW2, Gilby’s of London (the second largest distiller in the WORLD at the time) opened a distillery in Melbourne while also acquiring Milne Distillery in Adelaide.
Between these companies (DC of Edinburgh and Gilby’s of London), almost all of Australia’s whisky production was controlled by two international organizations. Economic policies at the time gave both companies a 40% price advantage over imported Scotch whisky, and in order to control the low--end whisky market in--country, they made the conscious decision to produce low--quality whisky; a choice which led to a plummeting reputation for Australian whisky as a whole.
Greed doesn’t always win, however. In 1960, those protectionist tariffs on imported whisky were dissolved, making the higher quality imported whisky much more attractive; not to mention, affordable. Australian whisky sales dropped and eventually both major distilleries closed up shop around 1980.
1992 -- Present
Welcome to the early ‘90s. Whisky distillation had ground to a halt but that was about to change. Bill Lark was enjoying a fishing trip and a bottle of whisky with his father--in--law, Max, when he raised the question, “I wonder why there isn’t anyone making malt whisky in Tasmania?” After all, malt whisky production began in Tasmania (which is roughly the same size as Scotland); and the climate, with its wide diurnal range and seasonal variation, was ideal for aging whisky. After making inquiries about acquiring a distillation license, Lark came across an antiquated law (the Distillation Act of 1901) that stated a distillery’s primary wash still had to be greater than 2,700 litres, thereby effectively preventing any small--scale distilling operations. Lark lobbied for the government to overturn this archaic law and eventually the law was changed. Lark’s primary wash still is 1,800 litres, and they are one of the largest independent distillers in Australia today.
Bill Lark is known as the “Grandfather of Australian Craft Whisky” and for good reason. He was the major driving force in overturning the still--size law, is responsible for opening the first distillery in Tasmania since the 1830s, and his dedication to producing quality single malt in Tasmania hasn’t wavered since they opened their doors in 1992 and released their first commercial whisky in 1998.
Lark Distillery is intent on breaking barriers and providing a roadmap for other distilleries. They have become the first certified carbon--neutral distillery in Australia under the Australian Government’s Climate Active Program, which means that all activities associated with running Oz’s first modern distillery have no net negative impact on the climate. The Climate Active Program is one of the world’s most recognized and rigorous carbon neutral programs, and Lark’s Managing Director, Mark Bainbridge, had this to say: “The achievement of this milestone truly represents the best of Lark in terms of our pioneering spirit, the brand values and community contribution. We are committed to improving our work practices to ensure we take as little from the earth as we possibly can during a time of unprecedented concern for the future of our planet and I would urgently encourage all participants in the alcohol industry to participate and become certified Climate Active.”
A Family Legacy
Distilling runs in the Lark family. Kristy Booth--Lark (Bill’s daughter) is the owner and operator of Killara Distillery, a boutique operation producing premium hand crafted single malt and other spirits. Kristy has over 18 years of experience in the industry and naturally got her start at Lark Distillery, with their copper pot still inescapable as it sat outside her bedroom. After serving as Lark’s Head Distiller and General Manager, she struck out on her own with Killara -- named in honour of her parents' work and paying homage to the street where the first modern distillery was registered over 150 years after the last Hobart distillery closed its doors. Killara utilizes a 600 litre copper pot still and all products are made and bottled by hand, ensuring superior quality in every drop. Booth--Lark’s products are in high demand and difficult to get your hands on -- but well worth it. She is also a strong advocate for female distillers and those working throughout the industry.
Whisky & Wine
Australia has taken much from the Scottish playbook of single malt production. But one aspect in which they differ is their ready access to premium wine barrels. Australia is renowned for wine -- particularly high--end Shiraz, and while other countries may finish whisky in a wine cask, Australian single malt producers often start with one. It’s not just Lark that collaborates with a winery -- it’s a common practice across the country. Starward Distillery founder, David Vitale, has been adamant that his whisky showcase the flavors Australian wine barrels have on the finished product. Whether it be casks once holding fortified wine, ones 70+yrs old, or those fresh from the winery, wine plays an important role in whisky maturation Down Under. These casks give a much different profile compared to European Sherry or Port casks -- if you’re looking for a distinctly Aussie flavour profile, this is a big part of it. Sullivans Cove produces single cask single malt whisky, and in 2014, their Sullivans Cove French Oak was named World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards -- it was matured in an old Australian Tawny (Port) barrel and is the only Australian whisky to win World’s Best.
Today, there are over 293 licensed distilleries in Australia, 50 of which have products already on the market. While pricy and potentially more difficult to find Stateside, they are well worth checking out if you have the chance!