Bill Lark paved the way for the modern Australian whisky industry when he questioned why nobody was making malt whisky in Tasmania. From there, history was made, and Lark Distillery was born. Want to make sure you won’t miss the next exclusive Lark whisky? Join the club today.
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The story of Lark Distillery is, in essence, so much more than that of just the distillery itself – it forms the genesis of the modern Australian whisky industry as we know it.
Back in the 1800s, the powers-that-be saw Tasmania as being somewhat of a “breadbasket” for the rest of the colonies - its perfect farmlands ideal for growing barley - but why bake bread when you can make whisky, right? The Sorell Distillery on the banks of the Hobart Rivulet was the first to open in 1822, closely followed by an ever growing number of distilleries keen to peddle their wares to the booming population (many of whom had come over as convicts) who, let’s just say, enjoyed a drink or three. It wasn’t long before there were at least 16 legal distilleries (and who knows how many illegal ones) in operation in Tasmania.
As the story goes, in 1838 the wife of Tasmanian Governor John Franklin and resident killjoy Lady Jane Franklin stated “I would prefer barley be fed to pigs, than it be used to turn men into swine”. And with that, in an effort to maintain domestic peace and harmony, the Guv immediately outlawed the distilling of spirits in Tasmania, and it was all over for the local industry.
With Australia’s Federation at the turn of the century, the Distillation Act of 1901 allowed some opportunities for those in the fortified wine game, but given the minimum legal still size was around 2700 litres, it was not such an easy proposition to set yourself up as a craft spirit producer. There’s little doubt some moonshiners remained in operation, but it was going to be another century before we’d actually see any legitimate whisky come out of Tasmania.
Fast-forward to 1989, and a chap by the name of Bill Lark went on a trout fishing trip in Tasmania’s Highlands with his father-in-law, Max. Enjoying a dram in a park in Bothwell, taking in the sights of the Georgian buildings, barley fields and the Clyde River, Bill questioned why nobody was making malt whisky in Tasmania – after all, not only is the climate perfect, there’s 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 and before long the law was abolished, allowing Lark Distillery to be formed in 1992, paving the way for the modern Australian whisky industry as we know it. Hot on the heels of Lark came Small Concern Distillery (1992), Sullivans Cove (1994) and Hellyers Road (1999) in Tasmania. 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 forty or so (that’s almost as many as Speyside!) distilleries that make Tasmania the whisky isle of the south.
So, what came out of your last fishing trip?
Lark has continued to grow over the years, having progressed from a still found at a garage sale on Bill’s kitchen bench, to a large facility in the heart of one of Tasmanian’s best known wine regions, Coal River Valley, just a stone’s throw from Sullivans Cove Distillery.
While Lark is renowned for using Australian fortified wine casks to deliver a rich, fruity and oily mouthfeel in their whisky, they also have the only official access to a peat bog in Tasmania. Every couple of months Lark drive the 5 hour return trip up to the peat bog, located in the very centre of Tasmania, 730 metres above sea level, and hand shovel the peat into a trailer ready for smoking back at the distillery. Being in the highlands of Tasmania, Lark stock up on peat runs before wintertime because the peat bog would be covered by a thick layer of snow during the coldest part of the year.
One thing that Lark distillery did which was extremely unique was to smoke the barley after it had already been malted. This post malt smoking was done by wetting the barley and then burning the peat below it so when the barley dried out, it would suck in the smoke during the process. For the better part of a decade and a half, Lark relied on a small peat smoker which could only take 90kg of malt at a time and would take 8 hours for the barley inside to dry out. With the increased production coming out of the distillery, Lark also increased its peated malt capacity by creating an engineering masterpiece and first of its kind peat smoker. This increase has taken the peated malt production from just 180kgs (two runs) to up to 2 tonnes in a day.
They brew their own wash on site, using Tasmanian grown barley, which is fermented for 7 days before being run through the stills. The distillery features two 1800 litre wash stills and two 600 litre spirit stills which run 7 days a week. Looking at the size of the stills in use by Lark today, it’s no wonder the minimum 2700 litre size specified by the Distillation Act of 1901 made it impossible for anyone to be in the business back then...
The new make spirit is then broken down from 72% to 63.4% ABV with ultra-filtered water and transferred to 100 litre Australian Port, Apera and 200 litre American Bourbon oak casks where it’s left for anywhere between 4 and 10 years before being released to the public.
Each of the locally sourced casks is checked for quality by the Master Distiller Chris Thomson, who allocates each parcel of casks to a release. After maturation, the casks are married together ensuring each release of Lark whisky fits within their house style, or are tailored for limited releases, like our Whisky Club Exclusive releases.
Bill and Lyn Lark’s efforts pioneered Australia’s whisky industry and ignited a craft distilling boom, that 30 years later sees 300+ distilleries dotted across the country, producing some of the best spirits, fom multiple categories, in the world.
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