Fake whisky (Part 1)

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 Tasmania's infamous fake whisky

This is the most fiercely fought story in the book. Robert Hosken’s response to the draft came in writing through his lawyers. He warned me and the publisher that if the story was published he would sue for defamation. In meeting after meeting Hosken repeated this threat. We sought our own legal opinion and the advice was "Tell Mr Hosken to get fucked." He doesn't have a leg to stand on. Ultimately, the publisher chose to publish a heavily redacted version dictated by Mr Hosken.  Below is the original version in full (but published for convenience in two parts), together with an audio compilation of the Hosken quotes and a PDF of the documents cited. 

Postscript

In the year after publication nothing has been heard from Mr Hosken or his lawyers.


Hear Robert Hosken in his own words:


The Corrected Text

Some day in about 1990 the busy real estate developer Robert Hosken sat for a whole day with his back to a tree, thinking.

Looking at the site of Hobart’s old Gasworks—an historic industrial complex between the capital’s two main thoroughfares—Hosken asked himself What can I make this into? The Works were within a stone’s throw of the city’s attractive harbourside precinct and its sandstone facades were large, handsome and historic but they had been derelict for decades. Some of the buildings were torn down, the rest empty and falling down, the wasteland triangle itself cut up for street widening.‘There was bugger-all there,’ Hosken told me, ‘It was dreadful.’ …What to do with it?

Hosken saw something no one—or only a developer—could see in the polluted triangle.

Sitting there ruminating, Hosken was reminded of his childhood. His father had run a frozen food company in Launceston and the young Hosken sometimes played around the site. Next door was a large timber shed with low ceilings and big beams. ‘I would peek in the door and see bare-footed men walking around wearing—strangely enough—nothing but loincloths. They sweated and perspired under lights, and with their shovels turned the barley. They had to turn it day and night and it was such a hard, perspiring job. It stuck in my head.’ It must have been Boags Malthouse.

Studying especially the building that had the tallest chimney in the state of Tasmania, Hosken’s first idea had been Right! It will make a brewery, but he concluded that there were too many breweries and cracking that market was too hard.

His second thought: a distillery! Then What do I know about distilling? F-all. How many distilleries are there in the world? Look it up. Too many. The world’s awash with whisky. Another thought came into his head. In Japan on a trade mission with the politician Robin Gray, in Roppongi and Ginza, he had seen Japanese businessmen mad on whisky and abalone. They’d spend all night drinking whisky and eating abalone. Abalone and whisky—that was a value-add. This place could make a distillery to manufacture whisky for abalone.

Next thought: ‘If I have to build a distillery and I have to make whisky, I’m going to make the best in the world, otherwise it’s not worth f’ing about—not when you’ve got abalone.’

Hosken purchased the old gasworks in July 1993 for a knockdown price of around $300 000.

Next, how?

By slavishly following what everyone else does? No. The heart of a whisky Works is its still but because Hosken believed that ‘Everyone will tell you theirs is the best whisky—and they’re [all] full of shit,’ he did not visit any one’s distillery nor did he go on any pilgrimage to Scotland. He took great care, he told me, in studying everything available and, concluding that ‘those cranks in Scotland weren’t using very good stills, theirs were inefficient’, he instead sent a Rhode Scholar—a 23-year-old woman—around the world to find the perfect still. She suggested that the alembic charentais still was the best. (Al-anbīq is Arabic and means “still” and Charente is the French region where the still was invented.) Designed to make cognac, such stills typically have an insulated copper pot with a minaret-shaped stillhead and a tall, thin-bored swan’s neck. Their descending lyne arm is also thin and long. On its way to the worm-tub the arm passes through a vat holding the next batch. The hot vapour in the lyne arm pre-warms the batch, giving the still the efficiency (almost) of continuous distillation combined with the quality of batch distillation.

Hosken worked out its every last bit in absolute detail. ‘Every contour, every bend is vital. You also have to understand the metallurgy of copper, to learn how to anneal copper, how to roll it, how to weld it.’ His was not to be some ‘Mickey Mouse Club thing one metre high’, it would be impressively big. To fashion its domed, wooden, head mould Hosken went to Lilydale in Victoria which operated the nation’s largest ship’s lathe. ‘I put up an amazing array of oxy-acetylene gear to build its reflux bowl. To swage it, we had a great lever and spigot, and that was pressed with great force and extreme pressure to bend the copper into a dome. One day, one of these spigot’s, when red-hot, came loose and bolted down the factory. It was one of the most dangerous thing you [could] ever see in your life. Luckily, it didn’t kill anyone.’

The replica was not exact, it was simplified. Hosken describes it as “modified”, another word would be bastardised. Behind the decorative wooden casing, its 2500-litre pot, fabricated in Devonport by Maintec Engineering, was stainless steel. So was the worm and the lyne arm. The large second chamber vat was empty; the lyne pipe passing through it warmed nothing but thin air. ‘The point,’ in any case, ‘was only to prove a point, and there was no other way to prove it than to spend the money and do it—and then…’. [Hosken’s ultimate

‘then’ ambition is explained below.]

Hosken’s ideas developed into what he named The Old Gasworks Village: “a shopping and entertainment centre at the heritage gateway to Hobart, filled with interesting and unusual arts, handicrafts, antiques and decorator items; bistros, bars and coffee houses, with night-time entertainments and a Sunday market”. That is printed on his souvenir tea towel along with “cheap and cheerful—there’s something to suit all tastes”. The village’s must-see roadside attraction was, the tea towel proclaimed: “Australia’s only whisky distillery”.

Looking for a distiller, Hosken interviewed several in Sydney, all from overseas. He chose Ravi Saluja [spelling?] a young Indian with experience not in whisky but in petro-chemical distillation. Selected ‘because he did not have preconceived ideas,’ Ravi set-up the still and began experimental runs in February 1995.

Just after Christmas in December 1994, after months of work on site (for a cost reported at $3.5 million), the new Gasworks Village opened. In its distillery was a shop with 120+ items and fittings that were ‘unbelievably beautiful,’ Hosken told me. To celebrate its foundation the distillery gave away hip flasks of a “commemorative” whisky. Labelled Sullivans Cove Premium Whisky, with no whisky of its own yet, Lyn had sourced the contents from Scotland. It was Scotch.

Ravi inaugurated the still’s work, but missed his family greatly and left within months. Lyn Lark took over. She had been working for Hosken in administration for a year before he opened, and for several years previous to that had been distilling for herself.

As well as continuing to sell the whisky, the shop was soon selling a Mt Wellington gin, Redcoats brandy and Virgin vodka. The marketing flair was Hosken’s. He devised the names and designed the labels for all his brands, personally drawing some of the artwork, frequently improvising with colonial-era artworks.

Half a dozen staff conducted tours, offered tastings, explained distilling or served in the shop that also sold branded goods like postcards, posters and tea towels, as well as fruit and chocolate liqueurs, brandy-infused jams, gin spirit mustards, whisky teas and—in little square bottles of a “100 per cent Australian, all natural, no preservatives, superior quality gourmet delight”—the inspirational product: thinly-sliced, whisky marinated abalone meat.

Hosken had a flat above one of the Gasworks buildings and lived on-site. The distillery worked day and night. The distillers: Lyn Lark, Hosken’s son and his mate David McQuestin (and on occasions Bill Lark voluntarily helping his wife) were making malt spirit on a scale never attempted in Tasmania. In unchartered waters, they learned on the job.

There was no malting or brewing on site; un-hopped beer was purchased from Hobart’s Cascade Brewery. Hosken did not himself distil but he explained distilling to me thus: ‘If you add a reflux onion you get a double distillation, because of the nature of the vapour, and it is better to double distil and get a better quality product. Once it comes out as white spirit, cut the oil out and get the feints out of it, and put the main heart of the run into clean, new, white alba oak and nurture it. Then, with care, you will get a good result. I am also of the view that it is the aftercare that counts.’

Wanting a range of whiskies, Hosken soon went looking for fresh barrels just emptied. ‘It’s useless to buy a barrel that has been empty for three months or more’. He bought whole casks across Bass Strait on semi trailers. ‘All these spent barrels arrived and—typical me—I hadn’t thought where am I going to store them.’ He needed a big bondstore. Fortunately, there was one across the road. Customs later found him another one at Glenorchy. The distillery started selling investment barrels with a buy-back offer attached. ‘It was a guaranteed return of about 8 per cent per annum compounded—but to accountants and lawyers only. I was the first person ever to do that,’ Hosken told me.

Leaflets, sales brochures, advertisements in tourist newspapers and press statements extolled the whisky’s Tasmanian mountain water, Tasmanian peat and Franklin barley, the triple-distillation process and claimed theirs was the only commercial whisky distillery in Australia.

The Works also contained a museum. A heavy old pot he’d found under a pile of weeds amid the ruins at the Cascades was, he thought, the official government still used to make the whisky ration for colonial troops—later it was said to be the original still of Australia’s earliest distillery. Thousands toured the Works and bought the whisky.

Then came trouble.

Big trouble...

The story continues at Fake whisky Part 2