Whisky lovers discover emerging world of Tasmania's liquid gold

HOBART, Australia - Tucked away between rolling hills dotted with sheep and winding roads taking wine lovers to vineyards is a nondescript, white warehouse with small, square windows.

The modest-looking building gives no hint about what lies within its four walls, except for a small sign hanging on a fence - Sullivans Cove - signalling the home of the makers of the recently anointed world's best single malt whisky.

Made with barley and fresh water and matured in barrels in Tasmania off Australia's southern coast, Sullivans Cove is among a new breed of whisky makers in the country's smallest state that is making waves on the international stage.

"It's an old-fashioned style of whisky and I think when the judges tasted it, it appealed to them," owner Patrick Maguire told AFP about the 13-year-old single malt he and several colleagues distilled, which won the top accolade at the World Whisky Awards in March.

"It's got all the structure there, the mouth-fill, the creaminess, all these things that aren't in so many whiskies these days because they are mass-produced.

"And that's the difference I think." Influential international whisky expert Jim Murray, who rates the Tasmanian tipples highly, has also praised the casks - all second-hand and previously used to keep other wines and spirits - as being key ingredients in their success.

Whisky link revived

Scotland has long been known as the spiritual home of whisky, while Ireland, the United States, Canada, and more recently Japan are viewed as established markets.

But while some may see Tasmania's products as upstarts mingling with the old masters, Bill Lark - regarded as the grandfather of Australian whisky - said the southern state had a budding industry in the 1820s before more pressing concerns ended it.

"Sydney was starving and they started sending messages to Hobart, saying, 'We need your barley for food, stop using it for whisky, send it to Sydney'," the 60-year-old told AFP as he cradled a glass of single malt in his bar alongside Hobart's harbour.

"There was a lot of pressure borne on the governor of the day and in 1830 he agreed to rise the level of excise so high in Hobart that six of the seven distilleries closed." The remaining producer briefly benefited before the next governor John Franklin imposed a total ban on distillation in 1839.

Fast-forward one-and-a-half centuries to 1992.

Lark said his wife Lyn were drinking whisky in the state's highlands when they started to wonder why Tasmania did not make the spirit even though it had "very good barley, beautifully clean water, a wonderful climate... and peat fields".

The Larks managed to persuade a local politician to help amend a 1901 law that discouraged boutique breweries and bought a Aus$65 (S$72) still to make whisky in their home.

Awards and international recognition followed, and two decades later Lark's business has 18 staff and turns over millions of dollars each year.

Dozens of other producers have popped up in Tasmania and on the Australian mainland and caught the attention of whisky critics and connoisseurs around the world.

Demand soars

Maguire, 57, said early fans of Sullivans Cove whiskies were from France and the Netherlands before interest picked up in countries as far flung as New Caledonia, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and even Britain.

Domestic consumption has also increased sharply, and the biggest challenge facing the producers now is not getting aficionados to drink their drams, but to meet the explosion in demand.

Lark produces about 25,000 bottles a year, which he hopes to increase to 60,000 bottles in eight years.

Sullivans Cove releases 18,000 bottles a year and runs such a tight operation that when its whisky was chosen as the world's best, the distiller only had three bottles left from the winning French Oak barrel.

In contrast, British drinks giant Diageo - the world's biggest producer - sells more than 120 million of scotch whisky Johnnie Walker each year.

Lark and Maguire both believe moving towards a mass-produced product would compromise the hand-crafted nature of their whisky, which they say is essential to their brands.

"I've got a cupboard full of Scotch and Irish and Japanese whiskies at home and I love them - they are all good whiskies," Maguire said.

"But a lot of them are mass-produced and they don't have the same luxury we've got of having the time to do things slowly in the old-fashioned way...which retains all the natural things that should be in a whisky."