One of Bill’s passions is fly fishing and while on a fishing trip during the 1990s he wondered why no-one in Tasmania was making whisky: the conditions were perfect.
“We obtained our licence in May 1992, 153 years after the last licensed distiller was forced to close in Tasmania, and opened a commercial outlet [in 1996],” Bill says.
Because they already had two other businesses, a surveying practice and co-ownership of a pub in the Tasmanian ski fields, the Larks decided to make Lark Distillery cash neutral. “We bought our first still for $65 and joined Bartercard to purchase our first bottles and labels. For 21 years we ran the distillery on cash flow with no overdraft,” Bill notes.
The business really took flight when the Larks were waiting for their first lot of whisky to mature. Lyn was experimenting with a product distilled from native pepper berry. It received great coverage in the national press, and suddenly they were sending product all around Australia.
“I realised I was pregnant the first day we went commercial. It was chaotic and we had to move the distillery out [of the house],” says Lyn.
By 2001 Bill had joined Lyn in the business because it had grown too large for her to manage alone. By 2005, the distillery was so successful that Bill left his surveying practice and sold the pub. And although Lyn was originally responsible for the distilling, Kristy, the Larks’ daughter, took over as the company’s head distiller.
Ingredients for success
The barley that contributes to the whisky’s rich, oily character is selected from local Tasmanian farms and malted by Cascade Brewery. Lark also uses a combination of ale and distillers yeast which produces a greater complexity of flavours; soft pure water from Mt Field rainforest west of Hobart; and peat from the highlands bog. Lark specialises in maturing its whisky in small casks which delivers an intensity and richness of flavour.
“When we started selling overseas, we noticed people knew about Tasmania’s clean and green reputation. We have a moral and a personal obligation to ensure we maintain that reputation and protect the environment.”
Distilling can use lots of water, so the distillery’s present site boasts a system that recirculates the cooling water under the floor of the building to keep energy and water usage low. The Larks also use by-product from the still as nutritious fertiliser.
Making a splash
Their dedication to purity and quality means that Lark Single Malt is now an internationally recognised premium whisky.
“When we picked up an award in London in 2009, there was judge who’d been sceptical about Tasmanian whisky. I’d never met him, but … I told anybody who’d listen that I thought he was being a bit silly,” says Bill.
“He raced over [to me] and said, ‘You’ve probably read the things I’ve been writing about Tasmanian whisky.’ I said, ‘You’ve probably heard the things I’ve said about you!’
“But then he said, ‘What the heck are you doing in Tasmania and how can you produce such wonderful, rich, oily whisky? You deserved to win the best whisky in the world outside of Scotland and Ireland’.”
We have a moral obligation to protect the environment.
Lark Distillery is a quintessential small family business success story that has become an international award winner, taking out the prestigious Gold Medal Whisky of the Year at the 2011 International Whisky Competition in Chicago. Its focus on quality and authentic product has put Australia on the world whisky map with Lark Distillery being one of the first companies to export single malt whisky to the US.
Expansion has been impressive too, opening a cellar door in Hobart, a second distillery, bond store, brew house and also tours to its Coal River Valley production site. The judges agree with Bill’s statement: “Like many of Tasmania’s premium food and beverage businesses, our success stems from small-scale production of high-quality, high-value products.”
Throughout our 22 years we have always stayed true to our original goals.
“Let the product speak for itself. We had no money for marketing, but we always felt a part of our community and we sponsor local events and causes. We also attend industry shows and events and enter competitions to get people to try our products and spread the word,” says Lyn.
“Our major technology spend has been on distilling innovations, but social media has also been influential. My youngest son said, ‘Mum it’s the 21st century; you need to get on Facebook!’”
Slow and steady wins the race:
“Throughout our entire experience with the distillery, we’ve learned to stay true to our goals and to be honest with everyone, especially our competitors. The way we did things, slowly and carefully has been the secret to our success, building a sustainable business for the long term,” says Bill.
Lyn believes you should “Treat staff like family. It’s important to work to their strengths and push them to succeed.”