When Patrick Maguire first showed his Tasmanian whisky in Paris over a decade ago, he struggled to convince European connoisseurs to taste it.
“They wouldn’t make eye contact and would walk straight past,” said Maguire. “The attitude when we turned up was ‘that’s very nice, but it’s not Scotch’.”
Now, the world is coming to Maguire after his Sullivans Cove French Oak Cask was named the world’s best single malt in 2014, the first time a distillery outside Scotland or Japan won the award. He has a 6,000-litre still on order for a whisky that retails for A$450 ($333) a bottle and can sell out within 10 minutes. Maguire sells half his produce to distributors in countries including the US, the UK and Japan, and the rest at the cellar door or online.
Ten years ago, there were only three distillers in Tasmania. Now, there are 22, and with sales growing by more than 50% in the two years to June 2015, that number is expected to double over the next five years. Still, total revenue from the industry reached just A$20 million last year, a drop in the whisky world’s ocean. Scotch whisky, by comparison, generates £3.95 billion ($4.9 billion) a year, accounting for about a quarter of UK food and drink exports.
“The only negative is volume—we can’t keep up with demand,” state premier Will Hodgman said in an interview in Tasmania’s capital Hobart. “But we want to preserve the integrity of the brand. The bar has been set high and if they want to be competitive, the new entrants will need to prove to be equally high grade.”
A rugged island about the size of Sri Lanka tucked beneath the south-east corner of the Australian mainland, Tasmania is a long journey—even for whisky enthusiasts. Settled as a penal colony two centuries ago by the British, distilling of alcohol was long banned in a bid to crack down on public drunkenness.
Tasmania has long been a social and financial laggard compared to its mainland peers, and with its traditional mining and logging industries in the doldrums, it has the second-weakest economy among the nation’s eight states and territories, according to a Commonwealth Bank of Australia ranking. A surge in international demand for niche products like its whisky—as well as dairy, seafood and tourism—has given its population of just over half a million people renewed hope that the island’s fortunes are finally turning around.
Maguire, who once ran a pub in the island’s remote north, helped pioneer the industry’s emergence in the 1990s. “This industry has helped change the perception of Tasmania from a sleepy little backwater to some place that’s actually quite dynamic,” he said.
With abundant clean, soft water, Maguire says the other secret to Tasmanian whisky is a combination of the home-grown barley, the malting process and the way the spirit is distilled. “We don’t push the spirit through,” Maguire said. “We let the still roll along at its natural pace” to better capture flavour.
Robbie Gilligan, president of the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association, believes there’s room for growth. “There’s plenty of people rushing to join the industry now because the market isn’t over-saturated,” said Gilligan, who is overseeing an expansion at his Redlands distillery from one 100-litre barrel a week to 21.
Standing in his distillery at a 200-year-old farmhouse 50km from Hobart, Damian Mackey, whose triple-distilled Mackey Whisky won gold in the best world whisky category at this year’s International Whisky Competition, says Tasmania’s limited production and rising global demand for premium single malt whisky guarantees the industry’s long-term future.
“A big Scottish distillery would spill more than we can make in Tasmania,” Mackey said.
A year ago, the 500 litres of whisky coming out Mackey’s backyard each year was a weekend hobby. He has since left his government office job and plans to boost production to 150,000 litres a year in a purpose-built facility at Pontville’s Shene Estate with business partner David Kernke.
One of Mackey’s tipples scored a mark of 94.5 points in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017, putting it in the top 2% of the 4,600 whiskies tasted and earning it the title of “liquid gold”.
With 224,000 international visitors to the state in the 12 months to June, up 13% over the previous year, the pair see the distillery as a tourist drawcard as Tasmania seeks to capitalize on a surge of interest from Asia, especially China, after President Xi Jinping’s visit to the island two years ago.
“We are very happy whenever we see a map of Australia with Tasmania missing—the Tasmanian brand doesn’t need to be shackled to the Australian brand,” Mackey said. “If most people around the world think we are a separate place, that’s great.”
News of the award for Sullivans Cove piqued the interest of Johnson Tan, a former Singaporean investment banker and whisky collector now living in Thailand. He has since bought—and drunk—several bottles.
“For me, what Tasmanian whisky has got going for it is the quality of the water—that makes a big difference,” Tan said. “The industry deserves a lot of credit for basically establishing itself with a great product in one generation.”
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