In the late 1830s, an unimpressed Lady Jane Franklin took aim at Tasmania’s wild whisky ways.
With legal and illegal stills dotting the settlement, Lady Jane, wife of the Van Diemen's Land governor Sir John Franklin, saw too much spirit resulting from the spirits.
“I would prefer barley be fed to pigs than it be used to turn men into swine,” she said, prompting her husband to outlaw the distilling of spirits in 1839.
For more than 150 years, the ban remained in place. It was only in the early 1990s that one man – a Hobart surveyor named Bill Lark – set out to find the answer to an offhand question he’d asked on a fishing trip in the Central Highlands.
“I said to my father-in-law, ‘I wonder why somebody isn’t making whisky in Tasmania’,” Lark recalls.
In 1992 he succeeded in having the prohibition overturned and set out on what he thought would be the lonely business of becoming the state’s only distiller.
Three decades on, Tasmania has more than 70 distilleries, with a host of whisky makers inspired by Lark’s success and an abundance of pure – and purely Tasmanian – ingredients: the world’s cleanest air, some of its cleanest water, and prime grain-growing conditions.
“If you’d said to me 30 years ago that there’d be that many distilleries, I’d have said, ‘mate, you’re mad’,” says Lark. “I’ve been excited and willing it to happen, but I could never have dreamed it would happen like this.”
Combine those environmental factors with passionate distillers, and the result is the toast of the whisky world. Cambridge-based Sullivans Cove Distillery was awarded world’s best single malt in 2014 and world’s best single cask single malt in 2018 and 2019, while Hellyers Road Distillery in Burnie produced best Australian single malt at the World Whisky Awards in 2021.
Lark Distillery continues to be a leader in whisky production, with the stills and cellar door moving to grand new premises on a 19th-century estate in Pontville, a 30min drive north of Hobart, in 2022. It also operates an urban cellar door on Hobart’s waterfront and runs The Still, a bar stocking more than 150 Tasmanian whiskies, in central Hobart.
Elsewhere, distilleries have become a vital piece of the Tasmanian travel landscape (many of the distilleries are open only by appointment, so plan ahead). Along the east coast, look for Waubs Harbour Distillery, set inside a former oyster hatchery in Bicheno; Ironhouse Distillery, on the coast near Falmouth; Spring Bay Distillery, on a beach south of Orford; and McHenry Distillery, on the slopes of a hill above Port Arthur.
Tasmania’s Midlands and Central Highlands are like a piece of Scotland transplanted to the Southern Hemisphere, and are home to distillery cellar doors such as Old Kempton, Adams, Callington Mill and Belgrove, Australia’s first rye distillery.
In the north, Hellyers Road Distillery has a fascinating story, having been created by local dairy farmers, while Launceston Distillery sits inside an airport hangar – the oldest airport building in the state – at Launceston airport. Look also for Alchymia Distillery at Table Cape, and Western Tiers Distillery in Westbury, started by still makers turned whisky makers.
In and around Hobart, find tours and tastings at Sullivans Cove Distillery, 7K Distillery and upstream at Lawrenny Estate Distillery, set on a property established by cattle tycoon Edward Lord, once the largest stock owner and richest person in Tasmania, in the early 1800s.
Even Tasmania’s outer islands have fallen under the whisky spell. Bruny Island House of Whisky is a perfect first, or last, port of call for travellers to Bruny Island. Stocking a wide range of Tasmanian whiskies, including its own Trapper’s Hut single malt, the house is just 3km from the ferry dock. On the Bass Strait islands, call ahead to tour and taste at Furneaux Distillery, on the shores of Flinders Island, and at King Island Distillery, Tasmania’s northernmost whisky maker.