As far as distillery histories go, Hellyers Road’s is one of the most charming. The distillery was established in 1999 by a group of whisky-mad dairy farming families from the wild and windswept northwest of Tasmania, and today remains firmly and very proudly in the hands of these same families. The story actually begins way back in 1956 when the previous generation gathered to talk business. Faced with the typical challenges of dairy farming, these hard-working generational men and women of the land wanted greater control over the pricing and distribution of their milk. The discussions culminated in the sensible conclusion that strength lies in unity, and the formation of the Betta Milk Cooperative, now Tasmania’s leading milk producer.
All was well (as well as it can be with dairy farming of course) until 1994 when Australia’s Dairy Industry was deregulated. Faced with the new challenges and uncertainty presented by the open market, the Betta Milk families did what all good farmers do and diversified. Except instead of following conventional wisdom and going into things like cropping or meat they took a massive leap of faith left-field and made single malt whisky… and it’s paying off in spades.
Located in prime dairy farming country on the North West Tasmanian coast, Hellyers Road Distillery was named after Henry Hellyer, a legendary surveyor from the Van Diemen’s Land Company who made his name mapping northern Tasmania. His greatest achievement, other than having a distillery named after him of course, was digging out the Old Surrey Road – an enormous job with a handful of men and only the most basic tools. And you’ve guessed it, Hellyers Road Distillery is located on Hellyer’s very own Old Surrey Road.
The first spirit flowed through the Hellyers Road stills 22 years ago on January 29, 1999 and seven years later in 2006 the first whisky was bottled. A lot changes in 14 years and as far a good punt goes, the decision to make whisky has been as good as gold because today the Tasmanian whisky industry couldn’t possibly be in a better place.
But it wasn’t always so rosy. Back in 1838 Tasmania was home to no fewer than 16 legal distilleries and countless illegal ones, and with a growing population of thirsty locals the industry boomed. At least it did up until the point Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Tasmanian Governor John Franklin, said “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs, than it be used to turn men into swine”. Needless to say, Tasmania ended up with a lot of happy pigs and no shortage of bacon, but sadly no more local whisky after Lady Jane had her way and laws were introduced that forced the closure of all Tasmanian distilleries at the time.
The drought was broken in 1991 when a chap by the name of Bill Lark went trout fishing in Tasmania’s Highlands with his father-in-law, Max. Enjoying a dram in a park in Bothwell, Bill questioned why nobody was making whisky in Tasmania – after all, not only is the climate perfect, but there’s also an abundance of crystal-clear water, locally grown barley and peat bogs. It just seemed logical. So, Bill being Bill set out to have a go, but upon applying for a license discovered Lady Jane’s law was still in place. Undaunted he contacted his local MP, the law was abolished, and Lark Distillery was formed in 1992, paving the way for the Australian whisky industry as we know it. Hot on the heels of Lark came Small Concern Distillery (1992), Sullivans Cove (1994) and Hellyers Road.
Together these distilleries forged ahead and were joined along the way by others including Nant, Overeem, Belgrove and McHenry, and in recent years Old Kempton, Shene, Spring Bay, Fannys Bay, Adams, Launceston and Killara to name only a few of the sixty or so (that’s more than Speyside!) distilleries that make Tasmania the whisky isle of the South.
Tasmania has become a whisky region in itself, the name being used in the same breath as the long-established Scotch regions like Speyside and Islay, and there’s been no shortage of awards either – with Sullivans Cove, Belgrove, Lark, Overeem, Nant and of course Hellyers Road all achieving international accolades.
Today Hellyers Road Distillery is not only Australia’s biggest selling local whisky but can be found all across Europe, as well as Japan, China and the United States. In 2017 it was named Tasmania’s Exporter of the Year.
Of course, as a fledgling industry, the recognition that comes from winning major international awards is a massive boost and Hellyers Road is no stranger to the podium. Awards include being named Australia’s Best Whisky in 2010 by the Malt Whisky Society of Australia, Best New World at Whisky Live Paris in 2013 while the Slightly Peated scooped up both Gold and Champion Single Malt status at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards, a Gold at the 2018 World Whisky Awards and most recently winning Best Australian Single Cask at the World Whisky Awards in 2020.
Topping it all off, Visitor Centre manager Sharon Dean was named a ‘World Whisky Icon’ for her outstanding work at the distillery. One of the original team members, Sharon has seen the distillery’s Visitor Centre grow from a few thousand visitors a year to becoming one of Tasmania’s most popular tourism destinations with over 40,000 visitors a year, many making the pilgrimage from overseas to visit the home of their favourite malt.
In 2019 the Betta Milk Cooperative sold the milk side of the company off, to be able to completely focus on and expand the Hellyers Road Single Malt brand.
One of the biggest distilleries in Australia, Hellyers Road has been at the centrepiece of Australian whisky since the first spirit was laid down in 1999. With a capacity of 120,000L when they first started, they were able to hit the ground running and put down a constant stream of casks in those early years. Their trademark fruity notes and rich malt characteristics are two of the many reasons Hellyers Road is the biggest selling Australian whisky.
Using predominantly Tasmanian barley, malted just down the road at the local malting house at Joe White, they import a very small amount of peated barley from Scotland to help with the production of their peated products.
Hellyers Road Distillery boasts not only the biggest stills in Australia, but their stills are also actually bigger than any currently in Scotland. The size of these stills helps give Hellyers Road a unique and distinctive flavour profile that works extremely well in the heavily charred ex bourbon casks they use to mature their whisky in for the better part of its life. With less reflux in their massive still, the spirit has been designed to spend a longer time in cask than most of Australian whiskies. As a result of this, Hellyers Road sits on the largest aged stock of whisky in the country.
The majority of this stock makes up the presence of their core range expressions - Original, Pinot Noir Finish, Peated, Twin Oak and Slightly Peated, the 12 Year Old Slightly Peated and their flagships the 12 & 15 Year Old Original. They’ve also established a connoisseur following with the release of their Single Cask Master Series which showcases Hellyers Road at the height of their capabilities. Then of course we have our three 16yr old Limited Editions made exclusively for The Whisky Club.