Lark Distillery. The pioneers and ambassadors of Tasmanian whisky.
Lark Distillery @larkdistillery. I didn’t take the normal tour of Lark Distillery and was fortunate enough to have a personal tour guide. Craig Johnstone, or my “Instagram-Catfish” friend @whiskycraig is a manager and distiller there. He was able to walk me around personally after his 4AM shift. I had already tasted Lark’s Classic Cask a few days earlier at their Lark Bar in City Center Hobart, right by the water. This is usually where the tour starts. A small bus then takes you to the distillery which is about 25 minutes north of the city. Bill Lark, the owner and founder of Lark Distillery is sometimes viewed as the father of Tasmanian whisky. He began his pursuit to make whisky in 1992 and the first step was lobbying for new distillation laws. At that time the Distillation Act of 1901 required new distilleries to have insanely large stills that a startup couldn’t support. This law was preventing any boutique distillery to start up in Tasmania at the time. Most people will also tell you how Bill is very forthcoming with tips of how to start a distillery and is very eager to help new distillers. You would not see this kind of comradery in many other places. Lark whisky was also a brand that didn’t take off at first. Bill had trouble selling it to people and getting people on board with the Tas whisky style. He would bring samples to festivals and whisky events showing people the uniqueness and style of the spirit.
After about 10 years of small production, Bill Lark’s dedication and hard work would begin to pay off. He needed more space for production and aging and moved into his current and larger facility. They are looking to expand even further and while I was on site they had engineers reviewing building plans. At the moment they have the distillery building alongside three bonded warehouses. They are running production 7 days a week and have tripled capacity since their early days. Just last year they produced 30,000 liters of new make spirit and this year are on target and have set a goal for 50,000 liters. Clearly growing at a steady pace for their 23 years of production. Their barley is local, Tasmanian grown and so far it covers their production needs. As they continue to expand alternative sources may need to be reviewed. You will see in the photo that they do have a kiln and do some of their own peat fires. It is an interesting style of peat flavor that they give their barley. Their maltings are done by the malting company in Devonport, who only produce unpeated malt as far as I have heard. Lark wanted to use local peat bogs and put some sort of peat finish on their spirit. Once the malted barley comes in from Devonport, they are again putting it in the kiln and running peat smoke through it. Usually maltsters will do specific runs of peated barley and that’s how we get our heavily peated Ardbeg’s and Lagavulin’s. To control the amount of peat smoke and flavor that you get, some unpeated malt will be mixed with the peated. Because the barley is already an unpeated, dried malt and then Lark is running peat smoke through it again, it is safe to say the peat smoke is very faint. It lingers right in the finish on the palate if you can find it. This contributes to their overall flavor and character, which means they need controlled access to their local peat bogs. They feel this peating is what really separates them from other Tasmanian whisky distillers. The Lark “house flavor” can be deemed as citrus, oranges, malt, butterscotch and that nice earthy finish.
The mash tun is actually an old milk vat and they are running one mash per day. Monday through Thursday they are doing an additional second mash each day for equipment tests and preparations for when Overeem (recently acquired) is back up and running. You can see in the picture how the grist is entering the mash tun. I was present for the 2nd mash of the day. They run a mash similar to the Scottish style with three waters gradually increasing in temperature being run through the grist along with the sparge. They will typically get about 1,200 liters of wort out of one mash tun cycle. This wort will then be moved in to one of their 11 stainless steel fermenters. Lark and its distillers feel the fermentation process is very critical. Hanging on every fermenter is a dry-erase board with the distillers nosing and tasting notes. Quoted directly from Craig, “Brewing is where flavor creation happens and distillation is where flavor concentration happens”. They take their wash flavors, pH levels, acidity along with other characteristics very seriously and you could see by their very detailed notes along with the charts they keep on each fermentation in their computer program. To convert the wort sugars into alcohol they use a combination of brewers and distillers yeast. Their fermentation period lasts seven days. Lark is also centrally located around many wineries. They feel these local yeasts from the wine fermentations play a role in their flavor characteristics. They have one wash still and one spirit still, both made by the infamous Peter Bailey that I have talked about in earlier Tasmanian write ups. The wash still can hold about 1,800 liters and the spirits still is at about 600 liters. They will lower the new make spirit that comes straight off the spirit still to about 63.4% ABV for the casks to be filled.
Adding to their house style flavor are the port casks they primarily use. They are at a production capacity where they can marry multiple casks together to create their bottle releases. If a cask deems itself incredible, they will also consider single cask releases. Lark recently acquired the brand Overeem Whisky as well and Overeem is solely focused on single cask releases and will complement the Lark portfolio. You can see in the distillation building that they are doing bottling and labeling all on site. I actually was able to help with some labeling with the help of experts James and Kirsten who work at Lark. I did okay, but they did have to take my label off and re-do it for me. They are the experts!
I was fortunate enough to try a few drams right out of the cask, but I didn’t take notes. I decided to thoroughly enjoy it and not worry about documenting at that point. I did however try the Lark Classic Non-Age Statement. Here are my tasting notes:
Lark Classic Cask 43% ABV Non-Age Statement
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Grassy, honey, pear and a bit of tangerine. Milk chocolate and deck wood.
Palate: Sharp snicker-doodle cookie, leafy/grass, coco powder and some vanilla cream on the end.
You will see here that I didn’t get any smoke/peat on nose or palate. I will see if I can get it next time I try this dram.
The tours of Lark Distillery are run daily at 11AM and a second tour at 2PM Friday through Sunday. You should book in advance and they are a bit pricey at 75 AUD, but they are worth it. You don’t have to worry about drinking and driving and can enjoy your drams. You also will not only get your guided tour, but usually one of the distillers is on site and will join in on the tour giving a deeper insight into what they are doing. Just over three years ago Lark stopped exporting to the states. They stopped exporting due to local market demand. I have seen a few of these older bottles in Baltimore and hoping to pick one up soon! It can definitely hold its own for a non-age statement and I highly recommend not only trying current Lark bottlings, but keeping an eye on them for new releases. They will be one of the first Tasmanian brands to make it big in our US whisky scene.