There has been alot of excitement regarding Lark Whisky
recently. Bloggers and magazines have been publishing lots of juicy information regarding Bill Lark’s reincarnation of a wonderful industry. They are also deservedly singing his praises as the Whisky and other spirits his distillery produces impress the most respected reviewers the world has to offer.
Last year I was lucky enough to meet their current master distiller, Chris Thomson on his tour around Europe. We shared a few drams, talked a lot of shop and sampled many of Australia and Scotland’s spirit related delights. I’ve been following his progress since then, and always relish the chance to try his latest creations. With all of the current buzz surrounding Lark, I took the opportunity to catch up with Chris and offer a unique insight into what makes Tasmania perfect for Whisky production, what makes Lark unique and what drives him in his passion for making some of the best spirits the World has to offer. Part one looks at Tasmania and the unique aspects of Lark’s Production:
Facebook Interview between Craig Johnstone and Chris Thomson:
How long ago did Bill start distillingin Hobart, and when was the last distillation before that?
Theshort answer is 1992, but the story is not that simple. Between about 1840 and1901 it was illegal to distill in Tasmania. Post federation, distillation wasonly allowed with a minimum capacity of 2700 litres. Bill Lark had to have thelaws changed (the Distillation Act of 1839) to allow small-scale distillationto commence in the state of Tasmania for the first time since 1839. So nextyear will be our 20-year anniversary!
Why is Hobart a good place to makewhisky?
The key is really to do with the abundance of high quality natural resources inTasmania.
Weproduce some of the best cold climate brewing barley, have some of the purestsoft water in the world and an ideal climate for maturing whisky.
Weonly use brewers barley (a Tasmanian strain called Gairdner) which results in a rich, particularly malty spirit. Theclimate in Tasmania, though reasonably stable in temperature, is dominated bylow and high pressure systems rolling over the Island state. This forces thematuring spirit in and out of the wood, speeding up the maturation process,producing a whisky full bodied and full of life. No boring drams here!
How important is the local area to Larkwhen it comes to making spirits and liqueurs?
Very!Again the key is in Tasmania’s ability to produce high quality barley and anideal climate for maturation of Lark’s whisky spirit. Lark also has a mininglicense over an area of peat bog in the center of Tasmania called Brown MarshBog. We can boast having the only peat mining license in the state! Thispeat is significantly different to Scottish peat, and imparts a real sweetnessto the spirit with far less of the heavy smoke flavors. It is also the only place where the Tasmaniannative Pepperberry grows (TasmanniaLanceolata). The distillation of this botanical forms the basis of manyof our liqueurs and spirits including the Gin and the Pepperberry liqueur,TASI. The Pepperberry trees grow wild on the rugged inland mountains and areharvested by hand, and distilled to produce these uniquely Tasmanian spirits.
You’ve been to Bonnie Scotland, how doesthe climate and landscape compare to Hobart?
Thelandscape is very similar, with both highlands and lowlands but with quite differentvegetation of course. In terms of temperature, Tasmania has a greater rangewhich is suited to maturing whisky.
Where do you source your ingredients?
Allingredients are Tasmanian, something we are very proud of.
Cascadebrewery produces some world class beers and is the largest maltster inTasmania. We have had a long and rewarding relationship with them!
Can you explain the peat smoker Billinvented and why it’s different to our traditional kilns?
Wereceive all of our barley at lark malted but not peat smoked. We then moistenthat barley and sit it in racks above a peat fire. We have named this system“post malt smoking”. By post malt smoking the barley we eliminate the issue ofcarcinogens, which appear when green (non-malted) barley is peat smoked. Ourprocess negates the need to treat the barley with sulphur, giving us a morenatural process.
Where does the peat come from?
Ourbeautiful peat bog in the center of Tasmania, Brown Marsh Bog!
Wheredo you source your casks?
Weuse mostly port casks sourced in an exclusive agreement with Seppletsfieldwinery in South Australia (producer of world famous Para Port and the only 100year old port on sale in the world). These barrels have been maturing port forat least 20 years but in most cases are considerably older. These barrels arethen cut down to 100L (aka “quarter cask”) and heavily toasted before beingfilled.
What species of oak are they?
Lark’ssingle malt whisky is produced in the most hands-on way possible, in extremelysmall quantities. The mash tun is stirred by hand and the cuts for the finaldistillation are done by taste and nose alone. There is no recipe for ourwhisky, the brewers and distillers are there to produce the best possiblewhisky on that day. As external factors change (for example seasonal variationin barley) so does the spirit and the distiller’s job is to guide that to thebest spirit possible, not the same spirit produced last week, last year or fiveyears ago. Thus each distillation is a unique experience, and is given its ownbarrel. We feel that by making our whisky single cask we are allowing thisprocess of artisan brewing and distilling to shine and the unique qualities ofour whisky to shine with them.
Ourwhisky will always taste like Lark whisky because of the shape of the stillsand the quality of the barley, but will vary slightly with every barrel.
Ihave always said ‘quality over consistency’.
Billexperimented with small cask ageing from the beginning and settled on thequarter cask as our standard very early on. They mature whisky much faster thenthe standard 200L to 400L casks, producing the equivalent 12 to 18 year old injust 5 to 7 years. However there is more to it than us just wanting to tasteour mature whisky as soon as possible. They seem to produce a real livelinessto the mature whisky; an excitement - for a lack of better expression, an Xfactor. They never produce a boring dram that just sits on your pallet thendies.
How are Lark’s stills unique?
BothLark’s 1800L wash still and 600L spirit still were designed by Bill Lark andbuilt here is Tasmania by mater craftsman Peter Bailey, who has gone on tobuild many more stills and even exported them. Still design is unique in someway to each and every distillery.
Who comes up with new product recipes?
Everyone! The products we run now were developed by various different members of our team.
People like a traditional hand-madeproduct, how hands-on is Lark’s production?
Lark is the epitome of a hand-made artisan product, from stirring our mash tun to hand labelling every bottle, everything in the production is hand done; sometimes by traditional methods and sometimes differently through innovation, but always with the quality of the final product in mind.
Is there a typical age range for yourcasks at Lark?
5to 7 years in a quarter cask (100 litres) seems to be perfect. Much longer andour whisky becomes too woody and looses balance, much shorter and our whisky istoo young and a little raw.
Has Lark ever imported ingredients orcasks to experiment with, or are you keeping it an Australian/Tasmanianproduct?
Wedo have a select number of barrels from outside Australia, for example someAmerican Oak bourbon barrels from the USA, but for the most part everything iseither Tasmanian or Australian.
Part two of this exclusive interview will be up on Thursday when I ask Chris about being a Whisky Maker and learn some insights into many a whisky fan’s dream job! In the meantime if you are looking to try some Lark, you can find it in many an online retailer and comes in at around £90 per bottle. An extremely reasonable price for a single cask handcrafted spirit flown half way around the globe!