In good spirits

A spirited tour around the Apple Isle.

Tasmania has an ever-growing reputation for world-class whisky and gin distilleries. Take a road trip around its cellar doors and you’ll have another good reason to visit our stunning southernmost state.

Brian Johnston

6 February, 2020

Leave Hobart after breakfast and you could easily be in Launceston for lunch. The fertile, cow-chewed countryside of Tasmania’s centre flashes past, the smell of eucalypts and wet grass as you blast down the freeway. That’s one way to drive Tasmania. Or you could enjoy the back roads on the sorts of marvellous meandering drives you see in car advertisements, many of which are filmed here. You could enjoy handsome country towns, heritage trails and splendid countryside, and arrive in Launceston a week later.

These days, the history and scenic beauty of our island state are no longer the only incentive to take the slow lane. Whisky and gin aficionados will be pleased with Tasmania’s burgeoning distillery scene, which started barely a quarter-century ago but has impressive credentials. Tasmanian whisky distilleries have collected a swag of international awards, and several have been lauded as among the best in the world in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, the international authority on whisky.

This is all the more impressive considering how new distilling is to Tasmania. Although the first distilleries opened in 1807, spirits were prohibited in 1838, and there it remained until 1995, when Lark Distillery became the first spirits distillery in Tasmania in 160 years, and Australia’s first whisky distillery. Its founder Bill Lark had noticed Tasmania’s similarities to Scotland – bracing climate, peat bogs, pure spring water, barley production – and became determined to change state law and produce his own wee dram. Soon Bill’s wife Lynn was producing gin as well. The pioneering pair had unwittingly kick-started a whole new industry.

You could enjoy handsome country towns, heritage trails and splendid countryside, and arrive in Launceston a week later

Hobart’s waterfront is a good destination to browse spirits from across the state in the one place

Lark Distillery sits in the Coal River Valley outside Hobart and shares production facilities with another noted whisky producer, Overeem Distillery. Neither accepts drop-in visits, so head to Lark’s cellar door at Constitution Dock in Hobart for a taste of its smoky, lightly-peated single-cask whisky. There are some 150 other spirits available at the bar, including Larks’ Forty Spotted gin and the spirits produced by their daughter Kristy Booth-Lark at her own Killara Distillery, notable for its fruity, oaky malt whisky and rather delicate, citrusy Apothecary gin.

Hobart’s waterfront is a good destination to browse spirits from across the state in the one place. Society Salamanca cocktail bar stocks some 40 Tasmanian gins (plus a fair few whiskies too), while thoroughly sleek and chic Institut Polaire bar, with its all-white interior and lightshades shaped like ice cubes, has a gin-tasting experience that includes saffron-infused gin and pink gin coloured with grapes. It produces its own small-batch gin specifically suited to dry martinis.

You’ll likely be positively stirred rather than shaken by the quality of the local spirits. Head north and you can visit some of the distilleries themselves (many by appointment, so plan in advance) on an informal whisky route that brings you to Launceston or beyond. 

Indeed, you’ve barely crossed the Derwent River before arriving at the first, 7K Distillery, inside a Mad Max-looking assembly of orange shipping containers. Owner Tyler Clark is responsible for both the architecture and the gin, which uses native Australian ingredients such as lemon myrtle and eucalyptus, and is fruity and floral, making it ideal for mixing with tonic. 

Head another 10 kilometres north, and Shene Estate could hardly look more different. This delightful cellar door sits in nineteenth-century Gothic Revival stables, golden in sandstone against low green hills. The discovery of colonial-era gin bottles during the estate’s restoration inspired the Kernke family to make gin themselves. A tour of the distillery explains the process of creating both its excellent Poltergeist gin and its Mackey whisky. Tasmania’s only triple-distilled whisky has big toffee and caramel notes and a warm, elegant finish that makes it a particularly satisfying winter tipple.

You’re now in the Tasmanian heartland of heritage Georgian towns and bridges that makes you feel you should be riding a horse rather than driving. Old Kempton Distillery occupies an 1842 coaching inn. The stills are housed in the stable block, while the cellar door, tasting room and café are in the main house. A daily tour at 1:30pm takes you into the aromatic whisky distillery and barrel-filled bond store, and is followed by a tasting. If you really get into the spirit, you can lunch on beef-and-whisky pie and an ice-cream sundae drizzled with an unusual lavender-infused malt spirit.

The discovery of colonial-era gin bottles during the estate’s restoration inspired the Kernke family to make gin themselves

This is one of the coldest places in Tasmania, but no hardship once installed in front of a crackling fire

Just after Kempton, take the A5 that wends into the Tasmanian Highlands and links historical villages set between rolling farmland and trout-filled lakes. The landscape is superb. Indeed, you’ll get sweeping views even from the restaurant at Nant Distillery, which occupies an 1820s convict-built farm. Here Australia’s oldest water-powered flour mill still occasionally grinds the estate-grown barley that goes into its premium whisky.

This might be Tasmania’s most beautiful distillery thanks to its setting, lovingly restored buildings and immaculate lawns, but it’s no slouch on the production front either, since its American-oak, bourbon-cask single-malt whisky is considered among the world’s best. A tour with head distiller Jack Sellers explains the distilling process, while the subsequent tasting provides a good sense of how flavour is imparted by the finishing barrels: soft, fruity flavours from French-oak port barrels, spicier flavours from American-oak sherry casks.

Continue north towards Launceston on the A5 and C515 and you pass through wild landscapes of rocky peaks and waterfall-draped cliffs inside the Great Lake and Great Western Tiers conservation areas. This is one of the coldest places in Tasmania, not necessarily a drawback if your idea of a pleasant evening features another tot of liquid gold somewhere in the vicinity of a crackling fire.

As you approach Launceston, the Adams Distillery name is looped in orange across a grey corrugated-iron shed. The first batch of whisky in this seemingly unprepossessing building was produced in late 2016, and gin introduced in 2017. The very next year, Adams Dry Gin won a gold medal at the Berlin International Spirits Awards. Six kilometres up the road, Launceston Distillery is housed in the equally misleading Hangar 17, once a base for Ansett airline. Its location at Launceston airport makes it a reasonable road-trip finale, but continue north beyond Launceston and another dozen distilleries await.

It’s certainly worth the extra leg to stop at Southern Wild Distillery in the middle of Devonport. Its Dasher + Fisher gin brand is named for two rivers in northwest Tasmania and uses Tasmanian pepperberry among other botanicals such as juniper, coriander and liquorice root. Head distiller George Burgess isn’t averse to using lavender, rose petal and jasmine either. The result is some rather accomplished gin whose subtle flavours are a fine example of the increasingly sophisticated Tasmanian gin scene.

Continue north beyond Launceston and another dozen distilleries await

Continue west and the road hugs the coastline, squeezed between green hills and the choppy waters of Bass Strait

Continue west and the road hugs the coastline, squeezed between green hills and the choppy waters of Bass Strait. Turn inland before Burnie to find Hellyers Road Distillery in the pretty, cow-dotted Emu Valley. The largest whisky producer in Tasmania is unusual for being a co-operative of some 30 dairy farmers, and has more of a big-business feel that some of the more laidback boutique distilleries. Nevertheless, it’s one of Tasmania’s best-realised whisky visits thanks to its visitor centre, café and shop.

A 40-minute tour takes you behind the scenes in the distillery, during which you can sniff various ingredients, see what’s being distilled and inspect barrels full of the final product in the bond store. At tour’s end, you can bottle and wax-seal your own whisky from one of the casks. It’s a fitting souvenir of a spirited road trip. Crack the bottle open at home and its aromas of orange and spice will transport you back to the pleasures of a drive in the slow lane.