The Tasmanian whisky-maker
Author: Issariya Morgan
Bill Lark – the man behind our Own Selection Tasmanian whisky – founded Lark Distillery in 1992, making him one of the early pioneers of Australian whisky-making. We speak to him about the early days and the supportive network of the international whisky community.
In 1989, in the highlands of Tasmania, Bill Lark was fishing trout with his father-in-law. It was a regular ritual between the two, always savoured alongside a bottle of whisky.
“We were barbecuing a lovely trout,” Bill recounts over a phone call. “We started talking, asking ourselves why no one was making whisky in Tasmania. We’ve got good barley, fantastic water and the climate’s OK. My wife Lyn turned up, and she said, ‘Why don’t you give it a go?’”
It proved to be the beginning of a journey which changed the couple’s lives. Bill began speaking to friends who had previously worked at various distilleries in Scotland, all of whom readily shared their stories over a bottle of whisky.
“I got swept up in this wave of enthusiasm along the way, to the point where I purchased an antique copper pot still at an auction and started playing around.” Fortunately, Bill had the support of those around him – including government ministers, who helped him get a license. “And so, Lark Distillery started on our kitchen table, in a residential suburb of Hobart.”
The early days
Lark Distillery is one out of eight distilleries now operating in Tasmania – but they were the first. “For a number of years, we were quite on our own,” Bill says, reflecting on those early days. “We had to work out what it is we were trying to do: what barrels to use, the size of the barrels, what yeast regimes we were going to use. We had to learn how our still worked and how to do our cuts.
“We had plenty of help from whisky-makers in Scotland, but ultimately, we had to go through it and learn it for ourselves. We had to settle on our own style of whisky, which became our well-known Classic Cask style. To this day, it’s still my favourite whisky.”
As Lark Distillery became more established and successful, it inspired other budding whisky-makers to set up their own distilleries in Tasmania.
“I suspect, on our own, we may have been seen as a bit of a novelty,” Bill admits. “We had people come and say, ‘No one makes whisky in Tasmania, they make whisky in Scotland.’ So, when people started coming to me wanting to get involved, I immediately offered to help them, for two reasons: firstly, I remembered how people had helped me at the beginning; and secondly, I knew that if we were going to be taken seriously on the world whisky market, we really needed to have a number of distilleries making very good whisky.
“Our eagerness to help each other has really been the basis of our industry for the last 30 years. It’s a close-knit community, just like in Scotland. I’ve visited most of the distilleries and I feel as if I’m swept up in one big family. It’s a similar sort of feeling.”
The Lark community
For the first five years, it was just Bill and Lyn. “My wife did all the botanical distilling and I did the whisky distilling,” he says.
While waiting for their first whisky to mature, the couple sold apple schnapps and a gin. Then, they opened a cellar door, which is when they started to attract people who wanted to work with them.
“For about 20 years, we never advertised for staff – we had people wanting to come work for us and be part of this growing industry,” recalls Bill. “They’d start by selling our products in the cellar door, then showing an interest in what was going on in the still room, wanting to learn as much as they could about that. They’d nearly always move into the still room, and when an opportunity arose, they’d become our distillers.
“Our head distiller now is a chap called Chris Thompson, who was a rockstar in the waiting. In the meantime, he was helping us bottle our products, but never got his big break. He got chatting to the head distiller at the time and saw an opportunity to move into that role.”
Today, Chris trains a team of six distillers who work at Lark Distillery. Bill speaks with great warmth about the closeness of the Lark community, which has now grown to around 50 members of staff.
A whisky of quality
A philosophy of quality permeates the Lark approach to whisky-making. “Even at the beginning, we knew it was going to be a single malt whisky,” Bill explains.
“We made a promise to ourselves that we were never going to release anything – not even to a friend – unless we were 100% sure that this whisky was of the highest quality. We wanted to know it was something we’d be proud to stand up and offer to our friends and then to our customers.”
Now, almost 30 years after Lark Distillery was founded on the couple’s kitchen table, Bill is delighted that their whisky will reach a new audience on the other side of the world.
“I’ve always been keen to acknowledge the help I’ve had from the UK industry when I started, and to this day, I wouldn’t be here without it,” he concludes, as our phone call comes to an end. “It’s so great to see our whisky over there.”
Discover Bill Lark’s Tasmanian whisky here.