Autochthonous whisky

on page 40 of the first edition

Very few whiskies in Tasmania have been totally Tasmanian. Today there are none.

 

The most controversial section of The Devil's Share was a single double-page spread entitled "What is Tasmanian whisky?" The piece went through more versions that any other. Its claims were denied and I was lambasted as ignorant or publicity-mad.

Notwithstanding his personal attraction to the “Bushky whisky’ concept, Bill Lark advised the publisher to remove the entire section.

The publisher refused, but himself found it too long, too legalistic, too complex, too harsh, and also wrong-headed: being unhelpful and a contradiction of the book's title.

"Change the title", retorted the author.

The section was halved. Three of the arguments, in the form of quotations by famous authors survived, but my conclusions derived from them were denied publication.

The Corrected Text

 

It won’t be scotch, it won’t be bourbon, this will be uniquely Tasmanian whisky.

Pioneer Brian Poke 1993

 

The longer two places make whisky, the further their ingredients and methods tend to diverge until a distinct product appears, for example: Scotch, Bourbon, Shōchū. Tasmanians have made whisky (on and off) for nearly 200 years and prominently and proudly printed on every bottle are the words “Tasmanian Whisky”. What is Tasmanian whisky?

Bill Lark suggested to me that ‘"Tasmanian Whisky" has an obvious and ordinary meaning: it means made in Tasmania.’ Place is quintessential to whisky and Tasmania is a place, but the problem with this definition is that anyone in the state could (as Bill also told me) ‘piss into a tub of whisky and call it Tasmanian whisky’. Lark explained the danger to Private View in 2016 too: “There’s no real definition of what a Tasmanian whisky is, and what’s required to produce it. When anything gets a good name there’s always the threat that somebody will try to enter the market with something inferior. We need to protect the brand name that has become quite iconic.”

In fact, there was a working definition and Bill had helped write it—more on that below. 

Others have considered the question. In 2015 the Honourable Leonie Hiscutt, MLC heard Bill Lark speak. Raised on a farm, Hiscutt had pondered the issue herself. She asked the parliamentary library to research a legislative reform options paper on the topic Protecting Tasmanian whisky

Its author, Lauren Hargrave noted, firstly, that the term Tasmanian Whisky had no legal status. Australian Whisky, by contrast, is defined: “A spirit obtained by the distillation of a fermented liquor of a mash of cereal grain in such a manner that the spirit possesses the taste, aroma and other characteristics generally attributed to whisky.”

This country-wide definition is hardly unique and it is also circular. What is Australian whisky? Australian whisky must be whisky—that’s it. But worse, in framing it, Scotch whisky is specifically presupposed.

Hargrave then suggested that, arising from Tasmania’s “unique factors”, “Tasmanian whisky was already in part understood as a unique brand… internationally [and] acknowledged through a range of awards and export”. In my view neither export sales nor awards create a brand or define anything and moreover, though “unique factors” is undefined, Tasmania’s land, water and climate have no “unique factors” that I know of. Hargrave also recorded the consensus industry view that “Tasmanian whisky refers to whisky that has been brewed, distilled and bottled in Tasmania. The majority of the ingredients are also to be Tasmanian” [my italics]. The more detailed part of Hargrave's report explored brand protection: Geographic Indicators (GI), Industry Trademarks, Appellation of Origin, and Government Guarantee; ultimately recommending the Geographic Indicator approach as “the most comprehensive, but also the most complex regulation to establish.”

Hargrave didn't mention it, but, perhaps to protect their icon from imposters appropriating the Tasmanian brand—together with the objective of creating for Tasmanian whisky “an iconic identity”—the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association had crafted its own definition of Tasmanian whisky:

 “Tasmanian whisky must be produced in Tasmania from new-make whisky spirit distilled from grains only in Tasmania. Tasmanian newmake spirit must be matured and bottled in Tasmania and be free of any artificial colourings and flavourings.”

Forty words that, today, define Tasmanian whisky. The regulations for Scotch take up forty pages. This laissez-faire definition, broad on method, silent on ingredients—in effect requiring little more than that the whisky be made in Tasmania—imposes some control over quality and encourages diversity and experimentation, which might be useful at an emerging stage—if any one was experimenting—but does the definition really help? Does it create an iconic, that is distinctive and noble, identity? 

The first part of identity is origin. Ingredients. Should the definition require local ingredients to be used? Commonsensical farmer and Nonesuch Distillery founder Rex Burdon told the ABC in July 2015 that ‘We want to make sure that if it's going to be called a Tasmanian product, it comes from Tasmania with all the produce that's used in it coming from the island. It's absolutely vital if we want to protect the Tasmanian brand.’* He is not alone in thinking this. Devil's distiller Brian Hinson wrote to me: 'All the botanical flavonoids should also be grown in Tasmania. For example, I won’t try to make gin, because I can’t source Tasmanian grown juniper berries." In colonial times, by law, all whisky had to be made with Tasmanian grain. In the early 1990s, without any local definition, whiskies could boast that they had been made in Tasmania from a Tasmanian barley cultivar (Franklin) that had been brewed in mountain water with Tasmania’s Cascade yeast.

Not today. Tasmanian whisky is made with a significant number of non-Tasmanian ingredients. Hargrave’s majority-only caveat on ingredients acknowledges this situation, and her focus was only on grain, yeast was not even discussed. Almost every single whisky in Tasmania is fermented with a European, usually English, yeast. (And there are other non-Tasmanian ingredients.)

The TWPA definition is so loose it allows Tasmanian Whisky to be made without anyTasmanian ingredients. A wash of barley (or any other grain) grown, malted, peated and brewed in Timbuktu can be imported and used to create a Tasmanian whisky. Another double whammy is in the casks themselves. Whisky not only contains the dissolved constituents of the wooden staves, it also contains the flavourings of anything that was in those barrels. Exotic barrel woods—French and American oak—saturated with either Barossa or Rutherglen fortified wines (which are themselves wine grapes fortified with grape spirit) or American corn liquor, are used to mature almost every whisky made in Tasmania. On the face of it, free of local ingredients, how can such whiskies call themselves Tasmanian? An ominous parallel has been developed by a pair of University of Tasmania academics who studied craft beer and asked in a lecture at Pint of History in 2017: “What is Tasmanian about Tasmanian beer?” and concluded that there may be nothing Tasmanian in some Tasmanian beers either. Which raises the big question: what is Tasmanian?

On ingredients, a TWPA spokesperson argued to me that: “It’s the same in Scotland. They use imported ingredients. Is theirs not Scottish Whisky? Of course it is, and by the same token ours is Tasmanian Whisky.” In fact, the term “Scottish Whisky” is not permitted in Scotland: by law, every whisky must be labelled Scotch Whisky. And the meaning of suffixes is crucial to this question, as I hope to demonstrate. 

The TWPA acknowledges that its definition is a work in progress. An expanded definition in circulation (but it is yet to be adopted) mandates the use of Tasmanian water. Water will require its own definition, distiller Pinky Adams points out.

The TWPA also drafted a revised definition that required Tasmanian-grown grain too (integral to GI), but Hellyers Road Distillery baulked at this requirement, arguing that they required peated malt at a quality and quantity not obtainable in Tasmania. The grain issue threatened to split the Association. The decision against requiring local grain was justified on the grounds that if not even Scotland insists on Scottish grain, why should Tasmania be more restrictive? Consequently, the TWPA chose not to pursue GI either, but instead to develop a collective trademark and a question-begging “certificate of authenticity” in the form of  a “Premier’s Guarantee”. I can’t wait to read the embossed gold type of that.

So much for ingredients.

The question of Tasmania-ness must go beyond ingredients to method. The ingredients of many products are axiomatic, the distinctiveness lies in the making. The contemporary American business consultant Scott Rosenbaum argues that as well as containing distinctive ingredients, “terroir resides, irreducibly, in a method of production that cannot be replicated anywhere else”. Methods of growing, malting and brewing are not even mentioned in the current definition. Even within its concern only with distilling, ageing and bottling, crucially, the still is not described, and on maturation, the period of ageing is not specified nor is the wood or the cask. The definition merely requires these be done in Tasmania. Colonial regulations were tighter. Should specific methods be specified? Is there a unique Tasmanian method of production?

It doesn’t appear so. Bill Lark admitted to Vintage Direct in 2009 that ‘the laws governing production of malt whisky in Australia are based on the UK legislative requirements [so] it's natural that there will be some similarities between Australian and Scottish malts’. The similarities are many. Tasmanian-made whisky has always used the same ingredients, plant and processes as Scotland (or Ireland). The differences? Lark suggests the different barley, peat and the peating process, the small casks and the single-cask expressions. Against what he claims, the peat process he describes is not widely used in Tasmanian distilleries, small casks and single cask expressions are unusual, but not unique to Tasmania, but in any case, the definition of Tasmanian whisky requires none of these methods to be observed.

During the past 200 years the way of making whisky in Tasmania has changed greatly, but not fundamentally. Tasmanian distillers have naturalised whisky production but they continue the old colonial stab at making Tasmania British. In his 60 Minutes piece on Tasmanian whisky Charles Wolley characterised Tasmanian whisky as “a counterfeit”. Most distillers in Tasmania are making a Scotch. A few have adopted the Irish whisky making tradition, two are attempting Bourbon and one maverick is making Rye. All such whiskies might be adjudged anti-Tasmanian—unless it is the knock-off method itself that is iconically Tasmanian.

The entire situation has an historical parallel in Scotland. At the turn of the 20th century a long battle was fought in Scotland to restrict the title "whisky" to the product that emerges when malted barley is run through copper pot stills. That refined, but commonly understood—even assumed—product definition was overturned. Henceforth, a spirit made from any grain: wheat, oats, corn, rice—any grain—stripped through stainless, continuous-process stills was now permitted to call itself whisky. Single malt was drowned in a flood of cheap blends. Quantity and efficiency were gained by sacrificing tradition and ignoring purity—and, frequently, quality. 

At the time the TWPA definition of Tasmanian whisky was written, almost every producer would have passed the original, higher, definitional test. They all put "pure" (100 per cent barley) malt through all-copper pot stills. Freeing themselves from these restrictions, the TWPA encouraged the use of continuous stills and thanked blenders for buying their spirit. These new stills and independent bottlers may be the same harbingers in Tasmania as they were in Scotland and the TWPA definition may help destroy their own brand.

Surprisingly, in terms of protection, no one, even Hargraves, mentions the existing Australian consumer law that defines and protects two classes of goods: “Made in Australia” and “Product of Australia”. 

Whisky producers in Tasmania use both terms, as well as others like: “Distilled and Bottled in Tasmania” (Redlands) and “Grown, malted, fermented, distilled, matured and bottled in Tasmania” (Belgrove), but the most common claim, by far, is "Product of Australia". Tasmanian whiskies are, with rare exceptions, all "Made in Tasmania", but to bear the three words "Product of Australia" the whisky must by law be made entirely of Australian ingredients processed entirely—or virtually entirely—within Australia. (Australian Consumer Law Part 5, Section 3, sub sections 18, 29 (1) a) and k) as well as 151 (1) a) and k).) Who can meet that test? If one of Tasmanian whisky’s three key ingredients is not Australian or if a substantial transformative process occurred outside the county that product could not be classed as Australian. On a reasonable or a strict interpretation of the law, not one of Tasmania’s currently available whiskies is a Product of Australia, let alone Tasmania. With major ingredients coming from outside Australia and the substantial transformative process of fermentation and maturation involving non-Australian ingredients, I question how the drink proffered meets the requirements of the definition, and consequently I suggest that the labelling is wrong and therefore arguably deceptive and in breach of the law.

So, on both ingredients and method, the whisky made in Tasmania is not local, not Tasmanian. But the problem is deeper and the impact is wider. "Tasmanian Whisky" is something different to "Product of Australia".  Tasmanian anything is different to something Made in Tasmania.

In terms of definition, the crucial distinction is simple. It is in the difference between Tasmania and Tasmanian. Firstly, the two must mean something different to each other otherwise we would not need both words. The word Tasmanian must signify something different to Tasmania. And it does. Tasmania is a geographic locality. Any thing might be made in Tasmania, but the suffix ian denotes:  ‘of or belonging too’ (volume V of The Oxford Dictionary). Strictly, to be Tasmanian a product has to be of Tasmania or belonging to that place, not merely present in that place. Frank Lloyd Wright understood. “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.” 

In practice, Tasmanian must mean Native. Indigenous. Endemic. So, just growing or being made in Tasmania is not sufficient. To be Tasmanian the product must be of Tasmania. 

In this too, there is a contemporary parallel. It begins with a credo attributed in 2015 to the doyen Scottish whisky-maker Jim McEwan: ‘This is what we stand for. We believe that whisky should have an authenticity derived from where it is distilled and where it is matured. We believe in provenance and traceability, a sense of place that speaks of the land, the barley and the water from which it is made.’At the heart of McEwan’s ‘authenticity’, ‘derivation’, ‘provenance’ and ‘sense of place’ is the core concept: terroir. And McEwan believes, and wrote also: ‘We believe terroir matters.’

I too believe it matters. 

A practical question now arises, Does the Tasmanian barley cultivar named Franklin pass McEwan’s test? After all, all barleys are ultimately Mesopotamian, not Tasmanian. The barley used is therefore not endemic, not native. The distiller Brian Hinson, however, argues that Franklin was indigenous if you take indigenous to mean: "any and every organism whose genome (DNA) has undergone gradual modification (by the evolutionary process of natural selection) on the island of Tasmania.” All such organisms have been indigenised. So it may be with Franklin barley, and so it may be with Cascade and Boag’s yeasts. They were indigenised over generations of breeding and inter-breeding. 

But I do not agree with Hinson, I repudiate Franklin barley and Cascade yeast as half-caste ingredients in the face of indisputably Tasmanian ingredients. In fact, there are many Tasmanian grains. Grains at once indigenous, native and endemic. Tasmanian grains. The irony is that they are well known and they have been growing on every Tasmanian whisky estate before it was established. And they are growing there now. And likewise there are native Tasmanian yeasts. And there are native oaks too. When these grains have been fermented and distilled and matured with these ingredients a Tasmanian whisky will have been made. Today, the product proffered as Tasmanian Whisky is not Tasmanian whisky.

The TWPA considers the suggestion that their whisky is not Tasmanian deeply offensive. The TWPA spokesperson argued that if my definition were adopted a Tasmanian whisky is impossible—and there would be no Tasmanian products: wine, milk, cheese—none of these could call themselves Tasmanian. Certainly, a product made with Mesopotamian grain and Nottingham yeast flavoured with Mediterranean grapes would not pass, and Tasmanian-­ness does have far-reaching implications, but its wide scope does not invalidate the definition.

The great pity is not that it hasn’t been done, but that no local distiller, it seems, wants to make a Tasmanian whisky, and the grievous sin is that an industry has appropriated, without permission, an island, a state, a place it does not deserve or serve. Tasmanian is Tasmania's quintessential brand, its identity label. The word demands legislative protection.

 

Whisky is only a fraction of the matter. Look at where Tasmania is by not adopting a restrictive protection. An Atlantic salmon scooped from a Canadian river and inbreed for thirty years thus becomes a Tasmanian Salmon? According to Tassal billboards, it does. Is a sparrow Tasmanian because it flies through Tasmanian air? Of course not.

No one is making a Tasmanian whisky, but not because it is impossible, for here’s the rub: they could. Harrison Hall showed, in his year 1818 book The Distiller, how a truly Tasmanian whisky could be made: “It should be the particular aim of the Tasmanian distiller to make a spirit purely Tasmanian, entirely the produce of our own country; and if the pure, unadulterated grain spirit cannot be rendered sufficiently palatable to those tastes that are vitiated by the use of French brandy or Jamaican rum, let us search our own woods for an article to give it taste sufficiently pleasant for those depraved appetites.”

Hall was writing from America about America. I substituted the word Tasmania. Different place, same thought. 

One day the term “Tasmanian Whisky” will be acknowledged as no more than a placeholder because when Tasmania develops its own whisky it will have, like “Scotch” or “Bourbon” or “Shōchū”, its own iconic name. Imagine a spirit made from an indigenous grain fermented with native yeasts in local water and aged on endemic wood by a Tasmanian method. That would be iconic.

Postscript In 2017 the Adelaide Hills Distillery in South Australia barreled, in their Native Grains Project, a whisky made with wattle seed in the mix. Further, in 2018, new distilleries, like Lawrenny, began to obliquely criticise other Tasmanian distillers for their sameness, for their over-reliance on “Port” and “Sherry” soaked casks. 

 

* Rex Burdon subsequently changed his mind. In hindsight, he told me, he is now “absolutely content that the TWPA definition is appropriate”, however he refused my request for an explanation and informed me that any further correspondence would not be read. 

Bernard LloydComment