Fancy a vodka made from sheep whey or farm-grown potatoes, a chilli gin, a sassafras spirit, quince cider, apple brandy, vermouth or an absinthe?
Tasmania’s drinks list is top shelf and growing, fuelled by a spirit of experimentation among distillers, brewers and winemakers, and worldwide interest in unique botanicals in booze.
Fire in the belly
For southern winemaker hughes & hughes, necessity was the mother of invention. When its grapes were affected by smoke during the 2019 bushfires, the winery faced the prospect of tipping an entire season’s harvest down the sink. Instead, its owners thought outside the wine glass.
“It felt wrong to tip it down the drain, and I’m a bit of a negroni drinker, so we came up with a sweet vermouth,” says winery co-owner Matthew Hughes. “We thought, let’s make it and we’ll work out later what to do with it.” Brothers Matthew and Jonathan Hughes produced about 3500 bottles of Riveaux Road vermouth (named after the bushfire-affected area), which are sold mainly through their new Mewstone cellar door at Flowerpot, on the shore of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
“It seems to have garnered plenty of fans – it’s been one of our more popular items. We’re thinking that it’s going to run out of stock faster than we expected, so we might even make another one intentionally down the track,” Hughes says.
Cider and Sassafras
In the nearby Huon Valley, the traditional hub of Tasmania’s apple industry, the squeeze is on, with cider makers turning fruit into fantastic creations. Pagan Cider sits inside an orchard near Cygnet, producing small-batch quince, cherry and blueberry ciders, as well as more traditional apple and pear cider. Nearby, cider house Willie Smith’s is also home to the Charles Oates Distillery, making apple brandy from an alembic still, used in France for distilling cognac.
Continue south to Dover and one of Australia’s southernmost distilleries, the Bakehouse Distillery, turns one of Tasmania’s key rainforest tree species into the world’s first sassafras spirit. For owner and distiller Martin Wohlgemuth, it’s been a deliberate step off the well-trodden whisky and gin path for distillers.
“Everyone else is making those already; I’m glad I’m not in that game,” he laughs. “I probably could be a lot wealthier, but I really like to have something that’s very different.
“I’ve always been passionate about our rainforests. For me, finding myself in a rainforest is the equivalent of other people going to church.
“I used to brew some beer and I researched the early European brewing in Tasmania and realised that the first ales made by the invading colonials were bittered with the sassafras tree. It’s taken me 12 years to come up with a spirit I’m now really happy with.”
Other Tasmanian distillers are also experimenting with flavours and ideas. Hobart’s 7K Distillery produces a dry chilli gin, as well as – among others – a coffee liqueur and cherry aperitif.
Hartshorn Distillery, set on a sheep farm overlooking the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, makes vodka from sheep’s whey, a by-product created at on-site Grandvewe Cheese; in 2018, it was named the world’s best vodka. And Hellfire Bluff Distillery above Marion Bay distils one of Australia’s rare potato vodkas, using spuds from its own farm.
Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
Even the green fairy has taken flight in Tasmania, with absinthe recently added to local offerings. Local Absinthe is made by Jack Lark, the distiller at Battery Point Distillery and son of Bill Lark, the founder of Tasmania’s first whisky distillery.
The world’s most notorious spirit, once banned in the US and several European countries, came to Tasmanian stills after a conversation in 2020 between Lark junior and a mate.
“We got thinking that many distillers make a gin while their whisky is waiting [to mature], but we decided, why don’t we make an absinthe?” Lark recalls. “That should be a bit of fun; it’s such a unique and interesting product.
“There was a desire from local bars for a good absinthe to be used for cocktails and to have on the shelves as a fun, novelty product. It’s turned into quite a big project for us – we’re wanting to up production even more.
“I really get a kick out of doing something that’s a bit different.”
Mixers, too, haven’t been overlooked, with the Tasmanian Tonic Company crafting tonics specifically to match fine gins. Meanwhile, Tasmania Bitters is producing artisanal bitters for cut-above cocktails, with a range flavoured by the likes of pepperberries, quince, cherries, kombu and hops.