Radioactive whisky

page 113

The radioactive fallout over the clean green image of Tasmania


Only half of The Small Concern's creation story was published. The export story was told, but the scare story, the distillery's use, for marketing purposes, of Chernobyl, radioactivity and the clean green island image of Tasmania was redacted.

Joe Laraha (who had recently bought the Small Concern's Cradle Mountain brand name) convinced the publisher to have the radioactive question removed from Small Concern. Laraha’s reasoning was that radioactivity would affect every distillery so why have it only in "his" story. But the rest of the industry saw the story as of immense concern (even beyond the industry—to Tasmania itself) if it was printed anywhere in the book. They wanted it removed. The industry's editorial sub-committee insisted it be removed. Adding that it was also irrelevent because the actual amounts of irradiation were insignificant.

The amounts may be insignificant—though no one agreed to having representative samples compared to prove how low the levels were—but my section had no health scare. Health was not the issue. The issue is reputation—the “Clean and Green” representation—a reputation that is not deserved.


The corrected text

Morrison [Small Concern's founder] had claimed that after Chernobyl, Tasmania could offer what Europe no longer could: clean, green food and drink. Was Cradle Mountain whisky the world’s cleanest, greenest whisky or is “clean and green” merely the triumph of rhyme over reason?

“Clean and green” is arguably the Tasmanian brand’s core claim. The vaunt rests on many pieces of evidence: the island’s isolated location and hence its biosecuriy; its wild forest swathes; low, diffused population, light, non-nuclear industry and GMO-free status. Such general attributes give credence to specific claims that Small Concern (and others) make, like: “world’s cleanest rainwater” and “the purest barley crops”.


Chernobyl missed Tasmania, but it was only ever a minute multiplicand of the radionuclide equation. It was the atomic bomb blasts conducted in Europe, Russia and North America during the 1950s and 60s that added the most radioactive particles to the planet’s atmosphere. Fallout from Mururoa Atoll explosions during the 1970s also reached Queensland and NSW. On top of all that, more than a dozen atom bombs were detonated into the blue skies of Central Australia too. Most of those radioactive particles from Central Australia blew north and west, but a small portion crossed Bass Strait and predictive maps (Tasmania had no sample sites then or now) show the blackest fallout upon the nearest points: the island’s north west coast. Ironically, Small Concern's corner of the globe.

Radionuclides disperse. They also decay. All levels are now below detection in the labs of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, Radiochemist Sandra Sdraulig told me, but bomb fallout has not entirely evaporated and continuing emissions from the nuclear power industry have increased concentrations of plutonium and strontium worldwide.


Most common is Carbon 14. The “Carbon-14 bomb spike” is the term for the doubling of this particular radionuclide in the atmosphere during the 1970s. Absorbed during photosynthesis, the spike can be found in the growth rings of American and French oak trees, in yeast cells and in barley too. That genie is now in every bottle, and by consuming those products the carbon-14 got into the cells—the brains and brawn, the heads and hearts—of all people born between 1950 and about 2000.

To prove, nonetheless, that the Small Concern’s claims were not mere boasts and that Tasmanian-made whiskies do have fewer radionuclides in them than Scotches, I consulted a Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney, Dr David Fink. Due to commercial confidentiality and court orders, much of Fink’s lab results are unpublished, but, he told me, ‘We were one of the first labs in the world to do bomb pulse radiocarbon “dating” on vintage wines bottled between 1960 and 1990’. He had no qualms about testing whiskies.

‘If the test has to do with plutonium, strontium, uranium, iodine—we [Tasmania] would probably win. I would expect Tasmanian whisky would have lower levels of these elements than Northern Hemisphere whiskies because heavier radionuclides don’t travel far. After Chernobyl and because of nuclear power, Scotch whisky would have higher levels.’

Would he expect to find the Carbon-14 bomb spike in Tasmanian whisky? 

‘Pre-2000? Yes, easily.’

Would he expect it to be different to a same-aged sample from Scotland?

‘Probably not. The Southern Hemisphere bomb pulse peak is only about six months to a year out of sync with the northern hemisphere.’

Doctor Fink also observes that we cannot say what absolute purity and cleanliness are. Thus, I note, Tasmania may possess the world’s cleanest water and purest barley; however, the wretched and unpalatable fact remains that man-made radionuclides are now part of the background radiation count and the background is part of the place. Regarding people, the infinitesimally minute presence of radionuclides in whisky is harmless and falling; regarding different whiskies, their ubiquity makes comparison immaterial; but regarding that touchstone of distinctiveness, place, the world is, indissolubly, one single place and no living spot on Earth—as far away as can be—is unsullied. Nothing in nature is natural anymore.


The claim to purity begged investigation and scientific comparison to establish which whisky contained more radioactive particles. I suggested we test both nation’s whiskies to prove which had the least, but we didn’t have a large enough sample. Then I found an entire barrel of 1995 Small Concern whisky, and I remember telling Bill Lark this. He fell silent and I could almost hear his stomach churning with apprehension. No one wanted the test done or the comparison made.

Bernard LloydComment