There's more to Tasmania than apples, argues David Leser as he travels from one whisky distillery to another in the scenic state.
Brett Steel was 21 when he was introduced to his first single-malt whisky. It was down in London’s West End and Steel’s friend wanted to know what he was drinking. “A Scotch and Coke,” replied Steel. “No way,” his friend said and, instead, bought Steel a 10-year-old Ardbeg from the famous distillery on the Scottish isle of Islay. “I was smacked across the face with this peaty, smoky whisky and from that point on I was hooked,” says Steel.
That was 13 years ago and that waft of peat smoke at the back of Steel’s palate transformed not just the story of his life but also the story of Tasmanian whisky.
In his black jeans, leather jacket, scuffed boots and granny sunglasses, Steel looks like a cross between John Lennon in his rocker days and Bruce Springsteen on any old day. With the blessing of Bill Lark, the so-called “godfather” of the Australian whisky industry, Steel launched his Drink Tasmania Premium Tours in 2014, using Lark Distillery in Hobart as base camp.
Which is why at 10am on a nippy, grey Wednesday morning I am sampling my first whisky of the day in preparation for a guided tour of three of Tasmania’s 17 distilleries.
If you think that’s a lot of distilleries for one island state, you’d be right. It’s one of the reasons Tasmanian whisky has become world-renowned. There are, in fact, an astonishing five Tasmanian distilleries – Lark, Overeem, Nant, Belgrove and Sullivans Cove – whose whiskies have, at various stages, been placed in the top two per cent of the spirit worldwide by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, the international authority on whisky.
Our first stop takes us north-east across the Derwent River to Cambridge, where the Sullivans Cove distillery took the whisky world by storm two years ago by winning the London-based World Whiskies Awards’ first prize for single-malt whisky.
It’s not even midday but I am duty-bound to see what the fuss is all about. Nose to whisky first. Pick up early aromas. Pause. Sip. Take in flavour profiles. Feel that French oak at the back of the palate.
Thank goodness Steel is driving because no sooner have we left Sullivans Cove than we’re heading to Lark in the Coal River Valley to hear distiller Chris Thomson expound both the scientific rigours of whisky making and the philosophy of whisky drinking.
“Whisky isn’t a commodity,” he observes. “It’s an experience. When your child is born or you get married or someone you love dies or you’re having an important birthday, you often crack a whisky. So as whisky producers we are inviting you into the most important part of your life.”
It’s not my birthday, nor am I getting married but I crack a Lark single malt before being spirited north to Shene Estate & Distillery in the Southern Midlands, where the engaging Myfanwy Kernke regales us with the rich 200-year history of her family’s sprawling property.
That’s before a superb lunch in the stables of antipasto, meats, salads and Ashgrove cheddar and a tour of the distillery where Tasmania’s only triple-distilled Irish-style whisky is made – by distiller Damian Mackey.
By the end of the day, Brett Steel is stone-cold sober and I’ve had the time of my life, although I’m still waiting for him to start singing Born to Run.
SEE ALSO: Your Guide to Tasmania's Huon Valley