This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller on 16 June 2017.
In the modest vestibule of a vaulted-ceiling building on the outskirts of a historic city, as a full day of guidance and contemplation neared its end, the spirit moved me and I converted there and then. Some of the group looked joyful and clapped at the announcement. One person told me I was welcome at this establishment anytime. Angela just leaned back on her chair with a look that said: my work here is done.
In 2014 a company called Tasmanian Whisky Tours launched here in the south of the state. Due to demand and encouragement, it’s already expanded into wine, beer and cider tours to become, quite simply and instructively, Drink Tasmania. Yet their Signature Tour – a blend of all four products – still peaked, for me at least, with the liquor that first lit Brett Steel’s fire.
Raised just outside McLaren Vale in South Australia and with a grandfather who worked for Hardys, wine was a part of Brett’s upbringing. His spiritual awakening happened in London, in his twenties, at drinks after work with a publishing house colleague. The conversation went something like:
– What will you have?
– Scotch and coke.
– No you won’t.
Brett tasted his first single malt whisky; a ten-year-old Ardbeg from Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. “Quite a smoky, heavily peated whisky. I’d never had anything like that before. I was completely blown away.”
Back in Australia, Brett visited Tasmania for the first time in 2008. Not specifically for whisky but, being mid-winter, found himself nosing plenty of it in front of open fires and the trip activated both brain and heart.
He saw what Tasmania’s contemporary whisky pioneers, Lyn and Bill Lark, and other local distillers were doing and recognised “similarities between the burgeoning whisky industry and the history I knew of wine in Australia in the late seventies and early eighties”. Introduction of the Wine Equalisation Tax allowed Australian wines to be competitive on the international market; Brett felt whisky was set to receive similar government support.
There was also “a real awakening of the senses… of taste, smell and everything just felt a bit more vibrant down here and… took me back to my time of being in Scotland… I totally fell in love”. He returned every 18 months then moved to Hobart in 2011 thinking he might open a bar or something, then noticed a hole in the market.
Brett Steel launched Tasmanian Whisky Tours in early 2014. Six weeks later, Sullivans Cove’s French Oak won World’s Best Single Malt Whisky at the World Whisky Awards in London. Brett now calls it “very fortunate timing” though I reckon he uppercut the air when it happened.
That morning, Angela Reeve had met a group of us at Brooke St Pier on Hobart’s waterfront. Over coffee and sloe berry gin from McHenry on the Tasman Peninsula, we heard about the colony’s shaky initial attempts to produce alcohol; from planting the wrong types of grapes on Maria Island to John Franklin’s 1830s ban on distilling – a law that remained in place until the Larks challenged it in the early 1990s.
Well before that, in the 1950s, two European immigrants refused to accept wine couldn’t be produced in Tasmania. One was Italian textile merchant, Claudio Alcorso, who founded Moorilla – where Mona now stands – and initially trialled Riesling. Angela, who is sixth generation Tasmanian, remembers Alcorso from childhood as “a beautiful man”. Tasmania now produces only four percent of Australian wines but 10 percent of its fine and superfine.
With that planted in our minds, Angela transported us to the valley of her matriarchal ancestors for a tasting at family owned and operated Home Hill, in the Huon. Their 2014 Kelly’s Reserve Pinot Noir won two major trophies at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards in 2015.
“My role today,” Angela explained on the way, “is to take you to the places where people can tell their own stories. I’m the narrator and they’re the experts”.
We settled into a sunny spot in Home Hill’s rammed-earth restaurant looking straight out on their autumn-yellow grapevines, just one gusty day away from bare. Kelly herself introduced us to winemaker, Gilli Lipscombe, whose brain we could have picked for far longer.
The six places chosen for this Signature Tour all have a particular distinctive quality. And, as Angela pointed out, “it’s craft, so every place is utterly different from each other”.
Pagan Cider’s cellar door is a shed in a working cherry orchard on the road to Cygnet. Despite their exquisite labelling, there’s no pretention; just a down-to-earth generosity of product and knowledge. Employee Ryan Lucas has “a real aversion to telling people what they’re tasting” and genuinely wanted our feedback. His explanations quickly gave us language to join the conversation.
Pagan uses four types of apple – none of them cider apples – and the season dictates the fruit then “the fruit dictates what we get”. They utilise fruit from this abundant valley that would otherwise be wasted, such as cherries split from heavy rainfall. Along with their apple, pear and cherry standards, we also tried Scrumpy, raspberry, blackberry, mixed fruit, quince, strawberry and apricot. Apple cider provides the alcoholic base for these blends and sugar is never added.
Back up the road at Willie Smith’s, where we buy lunch, flights of four ciders land on the table along with an information sheet. Reeve calls this opportunity to consecutively try three apple ciders from the same producer “a great chance to teach your tastebuds”. The perry is like biting into a juicy pear.
On the way back to Hobart for a whisky at the Lark, Angela described Tasmania as “a little Scotland without the pollution. We’ve got really really pure water, we’ve got some peat in the central highlands and peat along the north coast”. At Sullivans Cove in Cambridge, Heather Swart explained the entire distillation process while overlooking stills and barrels. Both she and Angela referred to whisky as though a person.
Gathered on lounges, we tried a single malt blend then their award winning French Oak but it was the American Oak that got to me. “Socrates with spurs,” Heather called it. “It engages the mind, it’s quite complex but it makes you want to put on your Western boots and go for a ride”. I learnt the Tennessee chew and sang hallelujah.
Last Rites Brewing Co’s well patronised 6-tap industrial-style cellar door, just nearby, backs onto a graveyard. Former research chemist, Phil Zakaria, is head brewer and, along with four others, opened Last Rites in 2015. As we tried Pina Colada, The Last Dog, She’s no Bette Midler, Phil talked us through the process of their New-World hops-driven ales with focussed intensity. An expression of the same genuine passion for craft currently infecting and empowering many other Tasmanians.
I had wondered, after first speaking to Steel, if Drink Tasmania was a diluted version of his original whisky tour dream. Maybe, but it doesn’t really seem to matter. I see him standing in a bow tie at a shiny microphone; he welcomes the audience then joins the narrators at the side of the stage as the curtains open and the scene unfolds.