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Following the Tasmanian distillery trail

Ask anyone about Tasmanian booze and the first thing most people would think of is whisky. Whilst whisky distilling is going great guns in the southern state, we found on a recent trip that there’s plenty of other fine spirits being produced there. Here’s our pick of a varied bunch that showcases the breadth and depth of the Tasmanian spirits industry – if you’re visiting the fair isle and looking to pop into a few distilleries, why not try seeking some of these out?

The Godfather of all (whisky) tours - Lark Distillery

Going to Hobart and not visiting Lark distillery is like going to Scotland and not drinking any whisky. Widely credited with kick-starting the Australian craft distilling movement, Bill Lark’s eponymous distillery is located a 15 minutes drive out of the city at Frogmore Creek. The original site in Argyle St (if you don’t count Bill’s backyard that is) is now their bar and cellar door as well as the meeting point for their daily tours. Lasting about 3 hours in total, the tour has been designed to appeal to those new to whisky and aficionados alike, with our guide Ben dishing out technical and anecdotal nuggets of information in equal measure.  It’s a hands on tour alright - you’ll be taken right into the heart of the distillery floor and shown the different processes involved with making whisky, including tasting the wort and liquid at different stages of fermentation and distillation. Back at the cellar door, sink into one of the comfy couches and indulge in the bar’s impressive selection of whiskies, which includes several exclusive Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings courtesy of its status as the Society’s only partner bar in the state. Tours run daily and start from $75 a head but due to their popularity, advance bookings are highly recommended here.

Fun fact: As arguably Tasmania’s most well known distillery (outside of Tasmania Distillery, producer of Sullivans Cove), some might be surprised to learn that Lark is not it’s largest. That honour belongs to Hellyers Road but only in size, not output as Hellyers doesn’t operate 7 days a week. Even with a daily run however, did you know that Lark only produces in a year roughly the same amount as Glenlivet loses to evaporation in about 9 days?

Scenic and historic - Shene Estate

Driving up to Shene Estate about 30 minutes north of Hobart, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were living out a Jane Austen novel – as far as distilleries go in Australia this is one that oozes history, charm and character like chocolate flowing from a lava cake. Damien and Madeleine Mackey were experimenting with making whisky and gin in their own backyard for some years when the opportunity came up to combine forces with the Kernke family, who bought the estate in 2007. Housing a farming acreage, historic homestead as well as a few outhouses, the old hayshed on the property was converted in 2015 to a working distillery now churning out the award winning Poltergeist gin and Mackey whisky.

The distillery floor is an impressive sight; its modern stainless steel drums and copper stills a direct contrast to the ye old world history that surrounds it.  At the time of our visit, plans were afoot to add two more stills to aid the triple distillation process of the whisky but the attention to detail hasn’t been lost in the modernisation of the space, with the Mackeys even going to the trouble of sourcing specially split timber for the outer structure to keep in line with the original look.

The barn and stables next to it have also been lovingly restored and are now a popular events space whilst also being a place for Madeleine to host gin tasters as part of the distillery tour.  Distillery tours and gin tasting tours are available on the weekends by appointment here

A stately affair - Redlands Distillery

Don’t be fooled by the suburban houses as you drive down the quiet street looking for Dysart House, the new home to Redlands Distillery. Located about 40 minutes north of Hobart, the 19th century ex-travellers inn is a majestic looking structure that stands in direct contrast to the other brick and weatherboard homes around it. The ground floor of the main house forms the cellar door and café whilst the old stables now house the distillery and bonded warehouse. At the time of our visit, building works were shortly to commence on a new distillery building that would enable them to have their own mash tun (their mash is currently produced to spec by a local brewery) and a much bigger still. Having planted their first crop of barley since moving into Dysart House last year, Redlands is also due to resume its status as Australia’s only paddock to bottle single malt whisky distillery.

Tours run three times daily and start with a video in a makeshift cinema room that utilises seats salvaged from the old Theatre Royal in Hobart, before finishing with an informal tasting in what used to be the formal dining room of the house, itself worth admiring for its architecture and design.  Whilst their lavender malt and apple spirits are really quite good, the real prize however, for any whisky buff visiting is scoring a bottle of their whisky, which is currently released in intervals at such limited quantities, it’s only available to buy onsite (we’re talking 20-30 odd bottles at a time kind of limited) Don’t want to share? Join a growing club of other enthusiasts and invest in a 20litre barrel of your own. 

EVENT ALERT: For one night only, we joined forces with Redlands Distillery to bring the cellar door experience to some very lucky Sydneysiders. Check out what went down here and if you want to be the first to know about such events in the future, make sure you sign up to our mailing list!

 

The DIY master - Belgrove Distillery

Fondly referred to as the “mad scientist” by one of the other distillers on our tour, a visit to Peter Bignell’s Belgrove distillery is a lesson in the fine art of recycling. So what looks like junk is in fact repurposed everyday items that have been given a new lease of life, from the old tumble dryer functioning as Peter’s malting machine through to the Kenwood Mix Master acting as a back up power tool to fire the still. As Australia’s only paddock to bottle distillery producing rye whisky, Peter encapsulates the mantra of making the most of what’s around him to produce some very fine rye spirit, with the occasional foray into less mainstream stuff like his Apple Hatchet (effectively an apple brandy) grappa and the Black Rye (a rye whisky coffee liqueur).

Belgrove Distillery Wholly Shit cask

The unassuming air to the man belies a constant experimental nature so you never quite know what special bottlings might be available to taste on your tour – on our visit, we spotted a barrel aptly called Wholly Shit, which held maturing whisky made using rye grains smoked with sheep dung. Will it be released? You’ll have to schedule a visit in 2 years time to find out. There’s no set tour times as such so if you want to visit, be sure you email ahead via the link here.

Pro tip: Shene, Redlands and Belgrove are pretty much located in a straight line along off the same highway.

The cheesy option - Hartshorn Distillery

Located about a 45 minute drive south of Hobart and on the way to Bruny Island, take a detour to Grandvewe Cheeses, which is also the home to Hartshorn Distillery. The word “distillery” is putting it mildly as the entire operation is located in what is effectively the small basement garage of the property housing the cellar door. Head distiller Ryan’s family has been in the cheese making business for years and it was whilst working in marketing for them that he decided he needed a challenge and took up distilling. Entirely self taught, Ryan’s decision to use a by-product of cheese making called whey (80% of whey in Australia goes to waste) resulted in a year of experiments as he struggled to find the right yeast and formula that would turn whey into a compound suitable to distil. The result is a vodka that challenges your perception of the spirit being a neutral flavourless beast (check out how it fared in our vodka evening here). The perfectionist attention to detail doesn’t stop there – preparing the 80 odd bottles for each batch takes about a week in itself because Ryan hand paints and writes the label on every bottle. Whisky drinkers might identify with the American Oaked expression, which sees Hartshorn’s flagship vodka steeped with American wood staves for a few months before being bottled.

The distillery itself is not (yet) open to the public but the cellar door is a picturesque pitstop and a must for cheese lovers (tip: the sapphire blue cheese with pinot paste is phenomenal). All expressions of Hartshorn vodka and liqueurs plus Grandvewe cheeses are available to taste and Ryan himself is often there to guide you through the range. Opening hours and information on visiting are available here

Off the beaten track - Wilmot Hills Distillery

Of all the distilleries we visited on this list, Wilmot Hills Distillery has to be the most “remote”. Two diversions due to closed flooded roads, a landslide blocked lane and many winding tracks later, we found ourselves at the distillery and cellar door, which is really a (very organised) shed located behind John and Ruth Cole’s home out in Wilmot, about 1 hour 45 minutes drive west of Launceston. Having made wine for 25 years, John decided a sea change was in order and turned his hand to distilling instead. Wanting to make use of the cider apples growing nearby, he built a still designed to make apple brandy. Although he does make a gin (the Motorcycle gin incorporates the more unusual lemon blossom whilst the Spectrum gin uses locally grown elderflower), the rest of Wilmot’s spirits range veer towards the less mainstream. Think grappa and absinthe, including what we believe to be Australia’s first red absinthe, which was inspired by a cocktail named Death in the Afternoon. With his shock of fuzzy white hair and gentle manner, there’s a certain Einstein-esque air to John; an impression that was further born out when he showed us round his laboratory, with its specially commissioned glass paraphernalia that wouldn’t look out of place in a science facility.  There’s no fancy tour or scripted marketing blurbs here but John will happily talk the geeky spirits talk with you if you are an enthusiast. Plus if you’re after something more unusual, this is the place for it though you should stock up at the cellar door because you’d be hard pressed to find this stuff elsewhere. Tastings are $5 per 15ml nip and the cellar door is open every day except Wednesday, though it’s best to check the link here for updates before you head out. 

Take it sloe - Nonesuch Distillery

Like most distillers in Australia, distilling was not in Rex Burdon’s heritage. Frustrated over the lack of good sloe gins on the commercial market, Rex set out to make his own (as you do). Instead of seeking advice from more established distillers however, Rex sought guidance from the good women of various country associations, whose sloe gins were the very ones that kick-started his thirst for the spirit.  The result? Some rather unorthodox methods that defy the distilling norm – think tricks like storing the sloe infused gin in plastic drums and rolling them around like you would kick a football in order to mix the sloe (stirring the gin runs the risk of crushing some of the sloe berries, which gives off an astringent note). The finished sloe gin is something that strikes the right balance between sweet and tart, and avoids the syrupy mess of some of its commercial compatriots.

Nonesuch sloe gin and malt

The limited availability of Tasmanian sloe berries combined with the distillery's current capacity means Rex only pumps out about 4000 bottles of his flagship product annually. The sloe malt (sloe berries infused in new make malt spirit) is even more limited, with only hundreds produced each year, so it is a rarity to find them on any retail shelf outside of Tasmania. If you’re heading to Hobart airport from the eastern coast of Tasmania, the distillery is a great little pit stop along the way. Otherwise, coming from Hobart it’s a quick half hour drive. The cellar door is open on weekends and full day gin/whisky distillery experience tours are also available on the second and fourth Mondays of each month. Further information on visiting and tours are available here.

Post script

If driving around isn't your thing, check out Drink Tasmania, which offers public and private tours of various distilleries close to Hobart. Otherwise, if you plan on calling in any of the distilleries, we recommend checking on their website or contacting them in advance to confirm visiting times, as all are working distilleries (with quite a few being effectively one man operations).

Thank you to all the distillers we visited for their hospitality and being so generous with their time! We travelled to Tasmania on our own accord - all opinions entirely that of our own.