An evening with the venerable Bill Lark

Tasmania’s premium boutique food and wine production continues to go from strength to strength. One of our first movers is Bill Lark, the founding father of contemporary Tasmanian whisky production.

Bill was a guest speaker at a recent Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) industry session on brand marketing.

After a welcome Forty Spotted Rare Gin and tonic, we were regaled by the amicable Bill Lark who had a thing of two to share on competition and passion; the hallmarks of Lark’s approach.

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The Lark story is well known. A land surveyor by profession, Bill found himself on a fishing trip in the Central Highlands, drinking whisky with his father-in-law and pondering why no one was distilling in Tasmania. He and his wife had operated businesses in the past and were hesitant about diving in again. They wanted to turn their hand to whisky distillation and so, agreed that the only investment they would make in their new endeavour would be the $65 still Bill bought at auction and any profits they might make from their own whisky.

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At the time, boutique production was illegal. Legislation as old as Federation had shut down backyard stills. With the help of the former local Federal member for Denison, Duncan Kerr, and Barry Jones, former Minister for Customs, Science and Small Business, the Distillation Act 1901, Lark got the Act amended to allow for small still production.

In those days, Tasmania was not a place you would associate with whisky. Wine probably, beer definitely, but cider and spirit production weren’t yet on the horizon. Scotland had saddled whisky up and was riding the horse all the way to the finish line.

Undeterred by the big end of town, as a passionate whisky consumer, Bill wanted to make an exceptional Tasmanian product. It would take an exceptional product to stand out in the crowd. Scottish whisky maker, John Gant, picked up the phone. He had heard what Bill was doing and asked ‘How can I help you make a good whisky?’ Gant wanted people to try the Lark product and have a good experience.

There’s a saying ‘the rising tide lifts all boats’.

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Bill is an advocate for sharing what you do and this openness has been fundamental to the success of Lark Distillery. He’s not afraid of competition. Like Gant, he believes competition generates support.

“We like what we do and we’re proud to share it,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid to let people know what you’re doing. Build slowly – don’t rush – they will come to you. We now have a band of supporters rusted on,” Bill said.

At a time when the Larks had little to invest in brand marketing, Bill leveraged this support to promote his quality product. They grew their market by supporting local groups. A few bottles of whisky to the Lindisfarne Yacht club raffle for example, had a greater return than a day on the water at the Hobart Regatta.

“One man who didn’t win the raffle came in to buy the bottle he missed out on and left with $1000 worth of whisky,” Bill says.

He says price is not a barrier because people will pay for a quality product.

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Lark is known for small barrel production of good quality whisky. It has to be an exceptional product because it’s expensive to make. During Bill’s speech, he introduced us to three of his whiskies. I’d like to be able to write about the whisky with the rich oily malt flavours, the floral nose on the front of the palate, Christmas pudding on the middle and a hint of smoke at the end or the cask strength with its 58% alcohol content where you taste the peat on the palate sooner. Peat sourced from Brown Bog Marsh, one of the only secure sites of peat in Tasmania, which the Larks have secured the lease to. But to tell you the truth, I don’t like whisky. The lovely Deputy, sipping by my side, was impressed and there were many other oohs and aahhs and general excitement around the table. I felt like a philistine.

In my defence, like most things, I’ll consume them in dessert. This Girl asked Bill how best to use his whisky in a dessert – it seems chocolate pudding is his favourite or he’s not big on desserts. Bill told me both the single malt and the cask strength would work well in a chocolate pudding, a milk chocolate pudding and a dark chocolate pudding respectively.

He has wise words for upcoming Tasmanian boutique enterprise – there is nothing you can’t do if you want and it’s never too late in life to do it.

“Don’t be afraid to try just do it and share what you do because you’ll be rewarded.”

I’m going to try that whisky chocolate pudding. Watch this space for the outcome.

Thanks to Bill for his good will and candour. Thanks to PRIA for organising the event.

You can find Lark Distillery on 14 Davey Street Hobart.

Read more about what they’re doing on their webpage – Lark Distillery.

Want to know more about PRIA? Here’s a link to their webpage – Public Relations Institute of Australia 

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