“Just throw the rest on the ground,” he says with abandon. She looks at him, then to the concrete floor with surprised horror. After all, the classic dry is an international medal winner – silver at San Francisco’s World Spirit Competition. But Master Distiller Bill McHenry insists. He wants the New Zealander to taste his smooth Navy Strength gin.
This convivial exchange is typical of our entire day with Brett Steel, owner of Tasmanian Whisky Tours. In these parts, we don’t just taste from a teenage sales staffer, but are handed a world-class drop by the maker. The same man takes us up a bush track in his ute and shows us his natural springs.
Our day begins in a suitable location, at Bill Lark’s cellar door, heralded as the Godfather of Australian whisky. As we sit beside a copper still that Bill had commissioned for his basement, we hear how he had the 1901 Distillation Act amended. Governor Franklin outlawed distilling for Van Diemen's Land in 1839- this was changed once Australia federated. It’s a fitting tale as Bill’s Classic Cask Single Malt Whisky is poured. He considers it a ‘breakfast whisky,’ a nice touch as we sink into deep red couches at 9am while morning commuters hum past the window up Davey Street.
Brett’s passion for whisky is evident. He shares tales dating back to Ireland’s distilling in 1608 then fast forwards to Tasmania’s early settler days where thick stone walls were required by law to rise 10 feet around Tasmanian distilleries. Today, the commitment to small batch, hand bottled whiskies is the reason why 11 distilleries now thrive on this island, and more are rumoured to open.
Bill was on a fly fishing trip in the central highlands when his idea dawned. Looking out to barley fields, freshwater flowing from the Clyde River and peat bogs just up the road, it occurred to him Tasmania possessed a world-class recipe for whisky. He hung up his surveyor hat and has been perfecting this recipe ever since.
We drop into Wursthaus Kitchen to collect a gourmet picnic before heading over to Sullivan’s Cove Distillery in Cambridge. The moment we enter, we’re hit with thick wafts of whisky. Around 800 barrels of aroma in fact. But not just any barrels. Sullivan’s Cove French Oak Cask was named the world’s best single malt in London’s World Whiskies Award for 2014.
We’re taken into the belly of the distillery, where bottles are individually labelled and sealed and 20-litre casks sit patiently for their owners – lucky recipients who have their own personal batch of Sullivan’s Cove goodness. The tastings are poured into Glencairn crystal whisky glasses, Scottish crystal ware that is supplied to the royal family. No surprises that our New Zealander whispers, “utterly beautiful” as she noses her single malt and sips what is described as, “Christmas cake in a glass.”
Our next stop is William McHenry’s distillery, just beyond Port Arthur Historic Site. As we cross the Dog Line at Eaglehawk Neck, intended to keep convicts at bay on the Tasman Peninsula, Brett shares stories of escapees never confirmed. Did convicts really sneak onto trade boats and make it back to England? Today that mystery is blanketed in misty rain. We’ll never know. It’s something to ponder over warm coffees at Port Arthur Lavender while a huddle of locals knit by the fire.
We’re met with warm handshakes, two ‘Bill’s’ and Daisy the distillery Labrador on arrival at McHenry’s. Bill McHenry bundles us into his ute and drives straight up the hill to show us his secret water source while there’s a break in the rain. Down a damp forest track, he crouches with our three crystal glasses. This spring has been there eons and is the reason Bill chose this site for his distillery; it’s the DNA for all his spirits.
Five natural springs onsite bubble up through ancient dolerite, delivering the smoothest water I have ever sipped. Tipping the glass, it cascades down your throat like velvet. They call the alcohol that evaporates from casks during maturation the ‘angel share’ but it seems Bill has more than his share of angel water to compensate. This water is heavenly.
Back down the hill we huddle in for a sit down lunch of gourmet meats and salads with crusty sourdough. Daisy looks on with anticipation but retreats to her ‘barrel kennel’ in obedience. We get a sense of how passionate Bill is about his spirits when he casually points across to a make-shift bed. This pull-out ensemble is where he lies regularly when he has to monitor the still; no matter how wintry the conditions. As we sit around the coolish dining table, I’m enchanted by his devoted ways.
Next stop is the Bond Store, which doubles as the McHenry Gin Lab, a place where Bill runs gin making glasses of a Friday. Little wonder small batches of women get giggly sipping their handmade martinis by late afternoon.
Almost by accident, Bill has become a leader in craft gin making. His sloe gin is so popular, that he and fellow Bill have spent countless hours foraging for sloe berries along hedge rows in northern Tasmania to keep up with demand. Has it been worth it? The awards are telling- Australia’s southern-most distillery has collected many for its Classic Dry, Old English Sloe Gin and Navy Strength 100 proof. Yet, Bill remains humble and generous with his time for us. He even shares a pre-release drop of his upcoming single malt whisky.
Bangor Oyster and Wine Shed is the final stop for the day – where there is no sign of whisky. But that’s okay, because Brett has one of the world’s only 100 per cent rye whisky tucked under his arm. We’re told Peter Bignell’s Belgrove whisky goes beautifully with plump Pacific oysters.
It’s a fitting finish to the day, as we’re told stories of how Abel Tasman set foot on this very land, planting the Dutch flag. Bangor has paddock to plate all figured out. The wine tasting happens overlooking the very vines from which they came, and Tom Gray’s oysters are farmed in the bay just outside the far window. It doesn’t get any closer. But they’re not done yet. Out comes freshly cooked abalone in two gorgeous shells.
We’re delivered back to Hobart in time for our New Zealand friends to head out for dinner at nearby Franks. They have only metres to walk from Lark Distillery. It’s pleasing to hear this one-day taster will soon be a weekend experience. From July to November, Brett will be hosting Whisky Weekends beginning with whiskies from swanky Glass House’s bond store on Thursday evening. The weekend includes paddock-to-bottle tastings at Redlands Estate and a Posh Pit cruise to MONA for a cellar door experience. What better place to launch these whisky weekends than with politicians at Parliament House in Canberra next week.
For tours visit: tasmanianwhiskytours.com.au.
*You'll find information on the three day weekends on Brett's website.
Words & images: Alice Hansen
Your launch pad for exploring Tasmania like a local.