Isle of whisky

26 Jul 2018

Author: Ruby Lohman

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From prohibition to the world’s best in less than 30 years, Tasmanian whisky has claimed its place on the international stage thanks to small producers entirely devoted to their craft.
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The rugged island state of Tasmania is a dream location for making whisky: pristine waters, fertile soils, clean air and a cool climate. Colonists in the 1800s took full advantage, setting up spirit distilleries to meet their penchant for a drink or two.

But this heydey was short-lived: distillation was banned in 1938 by Governor John Franklin, who believed spirits were a bad influence, and the prohibition lasted up until 1990. 

Since the ban was lifted, Tasmania has seen something of a whisky boom. In less than a few decades its small distilleries have produced some of the world’s greatest whisky, putting Australia firmly on the whisky map alongside giants such as Scotland, Japan and the US. 

The island now has more than 25 whisky distilleries and counting, including Sullivans Cove, whose single malt whisky has twice been recognised as the best in the world. 

Sullivans Cove was established in 1994 by a small team that has now grown to 18. The boutique distillery punches well above its weight, with global demand far exceeding supply.

Taking the time

“Whisky is all about time,” says Head Distiller and former owner Patrick Maguire. 

Having worked in a pathology lab and as co-owner of a hotel before joining Sullivans Cove in 2003, Maguire combines a science background with his drive to create high-quality products. 

“Growing up here in Tasmania, you’re a long way from the rest of the world,” he says. “I like living here and I always thought I’d like to be a part of creating something that we could export to the rest of the world.”

With Sullivans Cove now exporting to Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the UK and the US, Maguire is living his dream. 

Whisky business: ingredients for success 

Maguire believes that making a critically acclaimed whisky comes down to sourcing the best Tasmanian ingredients, finding the right oak barrel to mature the spirit, then allowing it ample time. 

In 2014, Sullivans Cove won its first major accolade when its French Oak Single Cask was named the World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards. In 2018, its American Oak Single Cask won World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt. The same year, a bottle of American Oak Single Cask sold at auction in the UK for more than for $11,000; the highest priced Australian whisky ever sold.

These awards sent demand through the roof – but that hasn’t influenced Sullivans Cove’s slow, quality-driven approach. 

The amount the distiller produces in a year is less than that which some of the larger Scottish distilleries produce in a day.

“For [our team of distillers] it’s real hands-on stuff,” says Maguire. “They get to work the still personally, they get to fill barrels and roll them around, they get to taste the whiskies after they’ve matured.”

Artisanal whisky powered by biodiesel

This hands-on approach is shared by most Australian whisky makers, including Peter Bignell of Belgrove Distillery. 

He’s a sixth-generation Tasmanian farmer who grew rye corn for many years as stock feed before deciding, one year, to try to sell the grain. He couldn’t find a buyer due to a glut of grain that season, so he turned it into whisky instead. 

In 2010, he built a small distillery with a copper pot still in the farm’s old horse stables and began producing Australia’s first rye whisky. He’s expanded the distillery over the years and now has a team of four.  

Rye whisky, traditionally made in the US, tends to be spicier, drier and more complex than a malt Scotch whisky. Bignell uses 100 per cent rye (most American rye whiskies use a blend of rye, corn and malted barley) and follows a slightly different process to achieve a unique flavour. He also uses a direct flame-heated still which adds a smoky note.

“I love doing things differently from everybody else…and I get bored very easily,” he says. 

To keep himself amused, he currently makes 14 products including oat whisky, coffee liqueur and distilled ginger beer. He’s also making three different expressions of rye, including smoky peated rye whisky, which is extremely rare and was awarded ‘Liquid Gold’ by esteemed whisky critic Jim Murray in 2018. Bignell’s whiskies have won four Liquid Gold awards from Murray.

Cutting the carbon footprint

Belgrove Distillery has a miniscule carbon footprint, with Bignell firing his still using spent cooking oil from a roadhouse next to his farm. As far as he knows, it’s the only biodiesel-powered still in the world. 

Cooling water comes from his dam and waste water is either recycled or used for irrigation. Brewing and diluting water is harvested from the roofs of the farm sheds. The spent grain mash is fed to the sheep with Bignell occasionally burning the manure that follows, rather than the usual peat, to make a smoky whisky.  

“That’s recycling right to the limit, really,” he laughs. 

Although rye whisky has a much smaller market than malt, Belgrove’s rye is finding favour among domestic customers and a small but growing international audience. Germany is its main export market, with France just around the corner and some interest from Japan.  

The steady yet unhurried growth of Belgrove Distillery and Sullivans Cove reflects Tasmania’s distinctive approach to whisky making – one that has consolidated Australia’s standing in world whisky.

Read more about Belgrove Distillery and Sullivans Cove.