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Food and beverage stories

Tassie spirits explosion

Edition 195_TasSpirits

A Tasmanian vodka made from sheep’s whey, has been crowned world’s best as the popularity of our ‘other spirits’ continues to explode.

We all know about the incredible success of Tasmanian whisky. Well, now our gins and vodkas are moving out of the shadows and shining as well.

Emboldened by whiskies' golden touch, artisan distillers are also turning their attention to these other spirits in a trend that has gained rapid momentum over the past 18 months.

Infused with exotic flavours – and created via innovative techniques – Tasmania’s gins and vodkas have been collecting some impressive international awards along the way.

Top of the list is Hartshorn Distillery, whose Sheep Whey Vodka was named best vodka at the recent 2018 World Drinks Awards in London.

This micro-distillery, tucked away at Birchs Bay, has pioneered the use of sheep’s whey – the waste curd from the Grandvewe Cheese it also produces – to create the celebrated unfiltered vodka which tastes like no other.

“This is a beautiful creamy, velvety drink that captures the sweet milky flavours of the sheep’s whey,” head distiller, Ryan Hartshorn explains.

“And it is really turning perceptions of what vodka is all about on its head.

“In the past people have dismissed vodka as just a mixer drink. What we are trying to do is get respect back for vodka so that people start seeing it in the same light as whisky.”

But Hartshorn is not the only local distillery that made waves at the awards, with the Tasmanian Moonshine Company scoring a gold medal for its triple-distilled Tasmania Vodka.

This small Hobart distillery has been selling its tipple for just on a year, and manager John Jarvis called it “a big win and very exciting.”

“Our whole focus is about maintaining the essence of a craft distillery and this includes producing in very small batches – that’s about 300 litres of vodka at a time,” he said.

Then there is Pontville’s Shene Distillery, which goes from strength to strength.

Their Poltergeist Unfiltered Gin has just won double gold at the World Spirits Award in San Francisco for the second year in a row.

Not surprisingly, the family-run distillery is “over the moon” that this “big, bold and beautiful gin” has been honoured yet again but believes much of the credit must go to Tasmania itself.

“Our award also puts the spotlight on this state’s exceptional natural ingredients,” Myf Kernke from Shene Distillery said.

“Tasmania’s pure water is perfection, and we are also blessed with amazing local botanicals to flavour the gin, not to mention native macadamia nuts and lemon myrtle that also give Poltergeist its special taste.” 

There is no doubt that this impressive haul of awards goes hand-in-hand with the rapid growth we have witnessed in Tasmania’s gin and vodka production.

And one person who has been watching this at close quarters is Kirk Pinner: the owner of Burnie’s Spirit Bar Tasmania which stocks only boutique Tasmanian beverages.

As he observes: “There has been a massive explosion in the popularity of Tasmanian gin – and to a lesser extent vodka – over the past 18 months which follows on the tail of the huge success of our whisky.”

In fact, Mr Pinner says his gin sales now equal those of whisky, with each accounting for about 40% of spirits sold.

He attributes gin's popularity to the fact that Tasmania’s artisan distillers are so willing to experiment with creative flavours. His bar for example, has 16 types of gin on the menu, including one made with hazelnuts and two from strawberries.

Vodka is not forgotten with nine varieties on offer, including a tipple produced from potatoes and another from grapes.

However, perhaps the greatest indicator that Tasmania is in the grip of a spirits frenzy, is that the two first-ever gin fairs have both sprung up over the past 14 months.

In January Hobart hosted its inaugural Ginuary which show-cased the offerings of 18 local distilleries, while in April the north-west town of Sassafras attracted a big crowd at the second Gin Festival.

Brielle Mason – from the Tasmanian Food and Wine Conservatory – organized the Gin Festival and said, “Tasmania has gone gin crazy”.

“It is definitely the new thing, the new hipster drink,” she adds.

“And there are plenty of people getting on board the ‘gin-train’ especially our whisky producers who are drawn to it because of the rapid turnaround time.

“While whisky takes years to mature, gin can be produced in a matter of weeks and from a producer’s point of view that is one of the most attractive things about it.”

Meantime, if you are hoping to jump on-board Tasmania’s spirits band-wagon be warned; there may be a bit of a wait for your key piece of equipment.

Peter Bailly is Tasmania’s master still-maker – crafting some 20 exquisite copper stills every year –   and he simply cannot keep up with demand. There is a 12-month waiting list for one of his bespoke products.

He has also noticed that orders from artisan gin and vodka producers are growing at a rapid rate.

Ten years ago virtually all of his stills were for the production of whisky, but these days nearly half will be used for those ‘other spirits’.

As Mr Bailly says: “business is definitely booming.”

Footnote: Congratulations to Sullivans Cove which has been ranked as among the top ten distilleries across the globe by influential US spirit magazine, Supercall. In March Sullivans Cove single malt single cask whisky was named world’s best in London.

Image courtesy of Kirk Pinner

12 June 2018, Edition 195

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