You might be surprised to learn that Tasmania has more whisky distilleries than Ireland. And although Tasmania’s distilleries are much smaller than their Irish counterparts, Tasmanian whisky holds its own on the world stage. Some might say Tasmanian whisky is right up there with the best whisky in the world. Take a peek into the life of a Tasmanian master distiller and pick up a few tips on travelling in Tasmania.
Falling in love with a region while travelling can lead to wonderful things. Just ask Bill McHenry, who fell in love with Tasmania while visiting on a family holiday.
It led to McHenry pursuing a dream to become master distiller at William McHenry and Sons, which is the southern-most distillery in the Commonwealth.
I caught up with Bill for insights on whisky and Tasmania.
Why is the whisky at William McHenry and Sons special?
We are the southern-most distillery in the Commonwealth and located ourselves here as the property has springs.
We are the only distillery in Australia with our own springs and I am sure the quality of the water is why our products are so good and popular.
Also with a high average rainfall, being located near the sea and a temperate climate, the humidity is relatively high all year round which is ideal for maturing whisky.
The distillery is in its 6th year and we have roughly doubled our turnover each year.
What inspired you to set up a distillery in Tasmania?
In 2006 I was working for a start-up biotech company. Three months after joining I found myself in a legal battle between the Company’s board and the bank that had seeded money for the business.
It was a particularly stressful time with an added stress of a young family living in Sydney and the Head Office in Perth 3000km away.
I found I was doing a lot of commuting and spending time away from the family.
Then one day after a tough day with the lawyers and the Board of the Company I accidentally drove through a red traffic light.
That incident jolted me back to reality.
I went home that weekend to the family and we had a BBQ with the neighbours, good friends of ours.
I retold the story of the red traffic light incident and my neighbour came out and said if I wanted to change careers with a name like William Fraser McHenry I should learn to play the bagpipes, wear a kilt and make whisky!
He laughed but that’s exactly what I am doing!
Well, my background in chemistry and agricultural science makes me ideally suited to making whisky as all of the processes are simply basic chemistry.
I was educated at Adelaide University and earned a Bachelor of Agricultural Science but I always had a thing for chemistry from the time I was given chemistry sets for Christmas.
I also studied chemistry to second-year uni.
Have you always lived in Tasmania?
I was born in Adelaide and I have travelled a fair bit, first backpacking around the world in 1980 and then moving to New York to work for Pfizer for five years.
My family is now settled in Hobart.
When I started planning the distillery I travelled to Scotland twice and read as much as I could then got straight into it – there is a Latin proverb – see one, do one, teach one. We now teach people how to make gin!
Is this a family business?
Yes, we are all involved – my wife, me and three children. The oldest two Hamish (21) and Katie (20) are still at Uni. Our youngest is still in school.
The children help out in all parts of the business, my son helping on the property as we have 100 acres to look after, my daughters in the shop where they are suited to customer relations.
My wife is a doctor so she is pretty busy outside the business but helps where she can.
Describe a typical day in your life
I’m usually up at 6 am to start the still. Some nights I sleep in the distillery and run the still through the night.
With one still, we have capacity constraints so I try to have it running as often as possible.
After the still is turned on, it’s time for a quick cup of tea and into the paperwork.
The Australian Government has a very onerous taxation system on spirits and we need to record all our production and bottling very carefully.
Then I’ll start to do a bottling run of some gin (Sloe Gin, Barrel Aged, Navy Strength or our Classic Gin).
We get visitors all through the day so often I will down tools and show people what we do.
By 6pm the distillation run is complete so the still gets turned off, drained and cleaned ready for the next fill either that night or the next day.
Is there a bright future for craft distilleries?
Absolutely. Handmade products are much in demand.
We are living in an age of growing affluence and people are demanding quality and want to sometimes experience the craft and are coming out of their way to visit us.
We even get visitors making holiday plans around visiting craft brewers and distillers.
What do they do when they visit you?
Our Gin Workshop is a journey through the ages.
We show people how gin has evolved from a simple medicine made by shepherds in Italy to the sophisticated drink served in bars around the world and enjoyed in a huge range of cocktails, from the classic gin and tonic to the famous martini.
What’s your favourite spot in Tasmania?
Roaring Grill in North Hobart and Smolt down on Hobart’s waterfront
If you had to move where would you go?
Nowhere – I am settled here.
I have travelled to all the continents on the planet and I can’t think of a better place to live.
My grave site is already marked out not far from the distillery where I can see the sunset over Norfolk Bay.
Most romantic place in Tasmania?
I love the renovated Pumphouse Point Hotel on Lake St Clair in the Tasmanian Highlands.