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Tasmanian whisky tour yields delicious drams

Casks of whiskey fill Hellyers Road Distillery, known for its whiskey creams, in Launceston.

ROB BURNETT/SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

By EAGRANIE YUH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 15, 2015

Each year, my husband, Hamish, and I make a pilgrimage to Hobart, Tasmania, to visit family, lie in hammocks and taste whiskey.

That’s right, taste whiskey. Although Tasmania is better associated with a spinning cartoon character, it’s also prime whiskey-making territory. That’s because of its pristine water, four temperate seasons to help the whiskey age in barrels and a strain of barley that results in a rich fattiness that has come to be the calling card of the island state’s spirit.

On our most recent trip, we zigged up and down Tasmania in search of distilleries.

First up was Hellyers Road Distillery, north from our home base in Hobart and the largest distillery on the island. 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’re lost, we see the stainless steel tanks of the Betta Milk Co-operative, and just beyond it, the sign for the distillery.

We arrive with just enough time for lunch. From the high-ceilinged fishbowl of the dining room, we watch cows trundle for cover as 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 the milk cooperative decided to diversify its business by becoming a distillery. Next, we head upstairs, warm and dry while the storm rages outside.

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, turn the lever and whiskey burbles out, golden and fragrant. Alicia corks the bottle and shows how to dip the bottleneck into a slow cooker of carmine sealing wax, then quickly upend and turn it. It’s much easier for her than it is for me.

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 few days later, we make our way to Redlands Estate, a 45-minute drive northwest of Hobart.

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.

Next, Anthony leads us into a small barn and 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.

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.

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 operating one left in Australia.

Our guide walks us through gleaming, oversized machinery, explaining that the distillery turns malted barley into grist, then runs 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 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.

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