I heard them before I saw them: a man and a woman splayed out on the grass, giggling. Stepping past them, I headed into Lark Distillery with Hamish, my then-boyfriend. Amid burnished wooden beams, we shared a flight of cask-strength Tasmanian whiskey. An hour later, we emerged into the bright sunlight, blinking. Suddenly, I understood how that grassy couple must have felt.
That was January 2012. Hamish is now my husband, and each year we make a pilgrimage to Hobart, Tasmania — to visit family, lie in hammocks and taste whiskey.
That’s right, taste whiskey. Nine distilleries are in operation, with another three on the way. Where some people wine-tour, we whiskey-tour. And although Tasmania (or Tassie, as the Aussies call it) is better associated with a spinning cartoon character, it’s also prime whiskeymaking territory, with pristine water, four temperate seasons to help the whiskey age in barrels and a strain of barley (called Franklin) that results in a rich fattiness that has come to be the calling card of the state’s spirit.
And so, on our trip earlier this year, we zigged up and down the triangular state in search of distilleries.
First up: Hellyers Road Distillery. We drive north from our home base in Hobart — population 217,000, set on the water, and speckled with sandstone. As we head inland, Hobart’s coastal lushness morphs into rolling grain fields. By the time we reach the Midlands highway, the view is saturated with every imaginable shade of gold.
Three hours later, we’re in downtown Launceston. It’s Tasmania’s second-most populous city and makes Hobart look like a metropolis. Launceston does have its small-city/large-town charms though, notably James Boag’s brewery. We skip its tour, opting to wander through the converted house, whose upstairs levels are lined with photographs and tidbits about the state’s brewing history.
We spend the night with friends just outside the city, in a modern house set precariously on a cliff. Their back yard is a tangle of ghostly eucalyptus-tree trunks that stretch into a leafy canopy. While Hamish catches up with his buddies, I spot kangaroos and feral goats from the cantilevered balcony.
The next morning, we head up Highway 1 to the northwest corner of the island, the color palate shifting from gold to green. We hug the northern coastline: the turgid waters of Bass Strait to our right, small, furry mountains on our left. The sky is the color of a bruise. Just before the gritty port city of Burnie, we head inland along a road that seems to have been chiseled out of rocky mountains. And just when I think we’ll be lost in the storm, we see the stainless steel tanks of the Betta Milk Co-operative; just beyond it, the sign for Hellyers Road Distillery.
We arrive with just enough time for lunch. From the high-ceilinged fishbowl of the dining room, we watch a herd of cows trundle for cover as a sheet of rain rolls over Emu Valley. When it’s time for what turns out to be a private tour, our guide Alicia opens the doors to the distillery’s Whisky Walk. The thick smell of whiskey greets us. “We keep the doors closed so it doesn’t waft out,” she says with a grin.
In a room set with interpretive panels and fat-bellied barrels, Alicia explains the myriad steps that go into making malt whiskey, and how a milk cooperative decided to diversify its business through whiskey. Next, we head upstairs, warm and dry while the storm rages outside, rain crackling on the windows of the stairwell.
From the second floor of the center, we survey the distilling room, a cacophony of remote-controlled, stainless-steel tanks connected by pipes. Alicia asks whether I’d like to bottle my own whiskey to take home. I place a bottle just under the nozzle of a 220-liter cask. I turn the lever and whiskey burbles out, golden and fragrant. Alicia corks the bottle and mimes how to dip the bottleneck into a slow cooker of carmine sealing wax, then quickly upend and turn it. Easy enough, except when I try it, the wax doesn’t cooperate. Instead of evenly coating the cork and neck, it skulks down the bottle in garish dribbles. I hope a second dip will smooth out the edges. It doesn’t.
While my bottle-sealing skills could use improvement, the whiskeys are solid — ones I’d happily quaff after a good meal. Not normally one for creamy liqueurs, I’m surprised at how much I enjoy the whiskey creams. Apparently, dairy and distillery are a more natural pairing than I thought.
A farm with history
A few days later, we make our way to Redlands Estate, a 45-minute drive northwest of Hobart. Passing through the city’s blue-collar suburbs, we split from the main highway to take a winding paved road. “It’s just before the Salmon Ponds,” my mother-in-law said before we left: one of those navigational cues that assumes you know where you’re going in the first place.
So, just before the Salmon Ponds, we turn when we see a sign for Redlands Estate. The family car goes ba-bump-ba-bump as we pass over a couple of cattle grates. It’s deceptively quiet until we adjust to the sounds of the 220-acre farm: wind rustling the poplars, native hens tittering in the distance and the trickle of the Plenty River running through the back of the property.
We approach the sandstone whiskey shed, which provides welcome shade from the fierce sun. Inside, there’s a small tasting bar, an espresso machine and a faded wooden cupboard with a single boule of artisan bread.
“How ya going?” asks Anthony, a solidly built man in his 40s who, despite the heat, is wearing jeans and a long-sleeved, collared shirt buttoned to the neck. When I ask about a tour, he dons a hat and waves us through the other side of the shed.
Dating to 1819, Redlands is one of Tasmania’s oldest working farms, and one that features prominently in the state’s notorious history with convicts. Anthony leads us through the small brick cottages that used to house the estate’s own bakery, butcher shop and grocery store — and up to 400 convict workers. At its peak, he tells us, Redlands had more inhabitants than most neighboring towns.
Next, Anthony leads us into a small barn and into a mostly empty room, save for a few forlorn barrels and two wide, green, flat-edged shovels. This was a sheep-shearing room, and a row of wooden stalls lines the walls where the fleeces were piled. Today, it’s the malting floor. Where other Tasmanian distilleries start with malted barley from Cascade Brewery in Hobart, Redlands grows and malts its own barley.
By the time we return to the whiskey stable, the bread is gone, and we’re eager to start tasting — but all of Redlands’ whiskey is still maturing in barrels. Instead, Anthony pours us other distilleries’ drams: Lark, Overeem and Sullivans Cove. In the Tasmanian whiskey world, they are allies, not competitors.
Bull in the whiskey shop
We’re running late for our tour of Nant Distillery. Hurtling up the Midland Highway, we veer west at Melton Mowbray and pull up just in time for the 11 a.m. tour. The grounds are immaculate, from the restored brick buildings to the grass, a shade of green typically reserved for golf courses. Ducking into one building, we are confronted by the massive wheels of a two-story wooden mill. Built in 1823 by convicts and restored in 2004, Nant’s water-powered mill is the only operative one left in Australia.
Our guide walks us through gleaming, oversized machinery, explaining that the distillery’s “whiskey Oompas” turn malted barley into grist, then run it through its normal paces: ferment, distill, age, bottle. Someone asks what the distillery does with the spent grist. “We feed it to Hamish,” is the reply. That is, the distillery’s highland bull.
After the tour, we head to the subterranean tasting cellar. Everyone except me ducks under the low arch — a questionable benefit of being petite. My husband sips, then tips the rest of each dram into mine — a decided advantage of having him drive. On our way out, we spot the other Hamish: enormous and woolly with elongated horns, twisted at the ends. I swear that beneath his boofy brown fringe, he’s staring at us while we drive away.
The prize winner
The best-known whiskey within Tasmania is from Lark Distillery, whose founder, Bill Lark, is considered the godfather of Australian whiskey. But Sullivans Cove is the most lauded outside the state — in fact, Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask was awarded best single malt at the 2014 World Whiskies Awards.
Even better, it’s close to Hobart. Heading east, we cross the Derwent River and take the Tasman Highway. Twenty minutes later, we rock up to Tasmania Distillery, which produces the Sullivans Cove whiskey brand. But there’s not much to see — just a nondescript warehouse in an industrial park. And a tour means following distiller Trent Bowring between strips of electrical tape on the concrete floor.
Trent can’t be much more than 30, though his ironic mix-tape T-shirt ages him down a few years. First, he points out the immense all-copper still that dominates the front half of the warehouse. As we walk further into the warehouse, he explains that the spirit is distilled twice, then aged in French oak barrels from Penfolds winery in South Australia, or in ex-bourbon barrels from Jim Beam.
We loop around the warehouse, an organized chaos of plastic vats in the back, and pallets of whiskey ready for shipment along one wall. Circling back to the front of the warehouse where two men are hand-labeling a table lined with bottles, Trent sets two glasses on a barrel that doubles as tasting table.
We begin with the white-labeled bottle, containing a blend of whiskey from both American and French oak. It tastes like vanilla and rum raisin. Next, the black label contains American barreled whiskey: lighter in color, with notes of malt, spice, pepper and burnt sugar. Finally, the blue label contains the French barreled whiskey. This is the award winner: rich with spices, Christmas cake and brown sugar.
I clink my glass against Hamish’s and take in the scene. No interpretive center, no whiskey shed, no tasting cellar. Just us, a dude in a T-shirt and a dram of the world’s best whiskey.
More from Travel:
The Henry Jones Art Hotel
25 Hunter St., Hobart
Converted-jam-factory-turned-posh-hotel fitted with modern art. Rooms from $320 .
Zero Davey Boutique Apartment Hotel
15 Hunter St., Hobart
Waterfront apartments with kitchenettes; for a quieter night, ask for a room off Davey Street. Rooms from $245.
Elizabeth Street Pier, Hobart
Popular fish and chips restaurant with Tasmanian wine and beer. Mains start at about $10.
Nant Estate Restaurant
254 Nant Lane, Bothwell
Modern interpretations of Tasmanian flavors. Appetizers start at about $10, mains at $26. Thursday to Monday, noon to 3 p.m. Reservations recommended.
Hellyers Road Distillery
153 Old Surrey Rd., Burnie
Daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tours at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. for $15 per person; walk-ins welcome.
254 Nant Lane, Bothwell
Daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and start at $13; reservations recommended.
759 Glenora Rd., Plenty
Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tours at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Your best value is the distillery and estate tour, $30.
14 Davey St., Hobart
Daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; open later on Fridays and Saturdays for live music. Half-, full- and two-day tours from $65.
(with Sullivans Cove)
1/14 Lamb Pl., Cambridge
Drop in for a tour during business hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $22 per person.