Meet the grandfather of Australian whisky: Bill Lark

Yesterday, my buddy Lobke, the tall, stately, gorgeous maitre d’ from South Africa, asked me if I’d like to have dinner with the captain. “No thanks,” I told her. “I’m dining with Bill Lark.”

“Ah,” she said. “Aren’t you the lucky one?”

I haven’t mentioned Bill Lark yet. He’s another of the guest lecturers on our cruise and is often described as “the grandfather of Australian whisky.” You didn’t know Australia made whisky, did you? I didn’t either. But they do. And Bill makes the best of it.

The other night Ross, the Bruny Island pig farmer, and Emma, his wife, and Bill and I shared a table at dinner and Bill brought along several bottles of his Tasmanian whisky, and I have to tell you I was quite impressed. I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting distilleries in Scotland and writing about them and, as I told Bill, his single malt is as good or better than anything you’ll find on Islay or in Speyside or anywhere else in Scotland.

Whisky maker Bill Lark

In fact, Bill has gotten so good at making whisky in Tasmania that he is now called on by Scottish distilleries to act as a consultant. Imagine that: A Tasmanian wild man telling the Scots how to make a good dram.

I asked Bill at dinner how he got into the business. It’s a typical Bill Lark story. Back in 1988, he said, his wife wanted to drag Bill to an auction in Hobart. “It’ll be fun,” she told him. “They’ve got some old chests and beds and lamps and a whisky still.”

Say that again, Bill said.

“What, about the chests and old beds?”

“No the last thing.”

“A whisky still?”

“Let’s go.”

So they went. And for $65, Bill got an old illegal copper still. Mind you, he had no idea what he was going to do with it. But he took it home and started doing a little reading and learned that in order to make whisky you only needed three things: malted barley, yeast, and water. So he started making whisky. And, his friends told him, it wasn’t half bad. A few years passed and he became so competent in making good whisky that he thought, Maybe I should try doing this on a commercial basis.

Only problem was that while there had once been a thriving distillation business in Tasmania back in the day, no one had legally made whisky — or any other spirit — in 139 years. All because of some very complex restrictions that made it virtually impossible to distill spirits unless you were a mammoth concern. Still, Bill thought what the hell. So he applied for a license. Which was denied. So he called up someone in Sydney who was in charge of alcohol and exports and licensing — all the things Bill needed — and after hearing Bill’s story, the bloke told him he’d change the law. Which he did. And in 1992, Bill Lark was granted the first distiller’s license in Tasmania since 1853; this year Bill’s whisky was recognized by whisky expert Jim Murray as one of the top ten whiskies in the world.

Not bad for a little guy from Tasmania who started out with nothing more than $65 copper still bought at auction.




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