First single malt whisky

page 254

The Lark Distillery did not make Tasmania's first single malt whisky.

image: screenshot of Lark website, 2017

Did Bill and Lyn Lark make Tasmania’s first single malt whisky? The Lark Distillery printed the claim on their bottles and website in 2016. As the publisher was reluctant to have doubted so revered a distiller as Bill Lark, a section questioning this claim was omitted.

The corrected text

Colonial distillers had no doubt that they could make whisky in Tasmania. These foundational distillers were (many, not all) already experienced distillers, and they quickly converted the colony’s barley crops into spirit. Within two decades they ceased and their creations evaporated into history.

Two hundred years later Bill Lark—before he had attempted it himself—was uncertain as to whether whisky could be made in Tasmania (Brian Poke held a similar apprehension); nevertheless, like Captain Cook and many other explorers, both men “discovered” something: Tasmania could make whisky. From his own subsequent research, Lark rediscovered colonial distillation; notwithstanding all this, the Lark Distillery with Bill’s blessing, proclaimed itself in 2016 “Tasmania’s original single malt whisky distillery” and printed on its labels “Tasmania’s first single malt whisky” [their italics].

How could that be true?

Was it that the Cascades spirits made in the 1820s were not Tasmanian or not "original", not single malt, not whisky or not made in “distilleries”? And so consequently, is Kingston or The Cascades the state’s original single malt whisky distilling cradle? The answer depends heavily on something historians know very little about: how colonial distilleries made and aged their spirit.

Historian Chris Middleton observes that in 1820 whisky was a provincial, working class spirit known only in Scotland and Ireland. It was virtually unknown in England, so the British distillers in Tasmania during colonial times were interpreting what “whiskey” was. (Were the Irish distillers in the colony, I ask, better informed?)

This much we know: Barley grown in Hobart (and later the Midlands and Tamar district) hinterlands was carted to malthouses adjoining still-houses where it was steeped in mountain waters. It was floor malted (with gumwood firing the kilns), fermented (by brewer’s yeasts?) in vats and batch-distilled in copper pot stills. One colonial distiller stated his liquor came off at a respectably contemporary 70 per cent ABV. The spirit filled casks (typically ex-rum puncheons) of 60–100 gallons each, no less. But as well, it also filled pipes infused with Portuguese port or sherry butts of Spanish oloroso, brandy and even possibly cognac, as well as South African ex-red wine barrels. A musty old Newcastle ale butt was another option. All these are casks that today’s distillers could not until very recently obtain at any price, but in those days, they were cheaply obtained and freshly emptied in Hobart Town. Charring was new-fangled in 1826, but it was reported on locally. Stored in cellars and dry bondstores and then released—initially by the barrel (i.e. single cask) at cask-strength (later in the bottle broken down to about 45 per cent ABV) direct to stores, inns and taverns, the spirit they made was sold as “Colonial Whiskey” [yes, spelt with an ‘e’]. Clearly, in scale, ingredients and method, 1820’s whisky making in Van Diemen’s Land had many similarities with today. On the face of it, it was whisky. But that is not enough. It would have to have been a single malt to invalidate the Lark’s specific claim. And there is another exclusion, too.

Photography did not exist in 1820. This is the first photograph of a single malt whisky made in Tasmania.

photo Osborne Images

Barley appears to have predominated, but wheat, also, was sometimes distilled. Those wheat batches, strictly, would not be “malt” and could not be counted. Any mixed bills of wheat and barley would not be single malt. Spirit made with “a deleterious, weavel-eaten, and stinking Indian wheat” (as the Hobart Town Gazette described it) would not be Tasmanian, and spirit distilled from sugar (“not unfrequently [sic] used”) would not be whisky. That still leaves plenty of the old stuff as whisky spirit, but another issue arises: ageing. The colonial whiskey was barrelled, but only pending dispatch, and aged, typically, for a matter of months, not years. How much of it was aged for two years or more? All that spirit would not be whisky as we define it today.

The evidence for two years on wood, let alone lengthy ageing is slender. By 1840 the Caledonian could in theory have had ten years old whisky, but the evidence for even a single hogshead of whisky matured for no less than two years is all circumstantial or inferred. Some advertisements stated that supply was withheld “until the spirit shall have age sufficient”, but what did that mean? From another advertisment in 1836 for the sale of an entire bondstock of “Superior Old Whiskey” it could be argued that the Derwent Distillery may have had 5-year-old whiskies—because the word "Old" typically referred to spirit matured at least five-years, but that is an inference.

Chris Middleton argues none was aged for any significant time, but I would argue that the question of age is moot. The two-years test is irrelevant because it is arbitrary and retrospective. Whisky, colonial whiskey has to be be accepted on its own terms, not ours. After all, if Tasmania's definition of whisky were to change to, say, 10 years on wood, would that mean that all today's spirits were not, can not, or are no longer whisky?

All the above reasoning is bye-the-bye. Lark accepts that what the colonials made was whisky, but it was not single malt whisky. He relies on the etymology of the term itself. "Single malt" was not coined until the 1970s, and not legally defined until 2008, hence—Lark’s semantic argument runs—nothing that came before can claim to be the same thing.

A fine point.

What, however, for argument's sake, if today’s single malt definition (un-blended, batch-made, malted barley) were to be retrospectively applied? Some of that locally-grown, single grain, single distillery, colonial spirit was most certainly single malt.

Whether it also exhibited a similar quality to today’s single malt whisky [a sense implicit in the term] is discussed in the The Cascades Spirits, but on the main claim I say that in this unjustifiable claim the commonly generous Bill Lark is discrediting his forebears.

Bernard LloydComment