‘So, what’s the story with Lark?’ It was a warm Friday afternoon in mid-February. The bar I was working behind was slowly coming to life when the Lark question, issued by one of our regulars as he wiped beer foam from his lips and swigged an Australian single malt, caught me off guard. No doubt he was referring to a story The Australian had broken two days earlier on the resignation of Lark CEO Geoff Bainbridge. In the article, footage obtained by the paper showed Bainbridge smoking a meth pipe and spouting some less than appetising things to camera.

‘It’s a long story.’ The tired refrain I normally roll out when asked about Lark, so vexed, bizarre and exhausting has the narrative become. Once upon a time, the Lark story, the version my bar regular was probably familiar with, accorded with the story the industry shared. It was the story of Bill and Lyn Lark. The epiphany at the lakes, when Bill wondered, while fishing with Lyn’s father, ‘Why isn’t anyone in making whisky in Tasmania?’

It was the story of Tasmania’s first distilling license since 1839. It was making whisky in kitchens, bakeries, bars and sheds and the determined progress of a passionate family business. It was pure Tasmanian water and world class barley, highland peat bogs and the world’s cleanest air. It was Bill, Lyn, their daughter Kristy and a dedicated team of people around them building and inspiring the spirits industry in Tassie and beyond.

I’ve told and written that story hundreds of times. It’s a great story, and I have immense respect for its early protagonists. But the story got a lot more complicated after 2013 when Bill and Lyn sold 75 per cent of their shares in the Lark distilling company they founded in 1992. From there, the Lark story the public might have heard gradually diverged from the story the industry privately puzzled over.

 

Bill Lark; Lark Cellar Door and Whisky Bar – Lark Distillery

I first visited the Lark Cellar Door and Whisky Bar on Davey Street in Hobart in 2012. It was a fascinating moment to be introduced to Lark and Tasmanian whisky. The industry was coming to a crossroads. There were eight Tasmanian distilleries making whisky then and several more on the drawing board. Hardly anyone, beyond dedicated whisky enthusiasts, was paying the industry much attention, and if you wanted an introduction to that industry you headed straight to the Lark whisky bar on Davey Street.

My first visit was on a staff trip with Chez Regine, now Whisky & Alement, for the Tasmanian Whisky Appreciation Society’s trivia night. In those days, the Lark bar had a warm, welcoming, old-timey feel to it. It was a flash of Hobart pre-MONA effect. The atmosphere at the Lark bar, the big-hearted, laid back staff and the community of people gathered there told you so much about where Tasmanian whisky had come from. Within a few hours we were introduced to most of the Tasmanian whisky industry (you could fit most of them in one room at that point). To this day that night is one of my fondest whisky memories, and I’ve been writing about the people and the spirits produced in Tasmania ever since.

The next morning, we headed back to the Lark cellar door on Davey Street. Bill Lark, Tim Duckett, owner of Tasmanian Heartwood Malt Whisky, and Mark Nicholson, the tours and education manager for Lark, were there to greet us. Our destination for the day was the Lark Distillery in Cambridge, or ‘The Shed’, as it was affectionately nicknamed. When we arrived 15 minutes later, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.

Lark Distillery, Cambridge, 2007 – Lark Distillery

This was the distillery behind Tasmania’s foundational whisky brand? The humble shed was constructed in 2006 to bring Lark’s various mashing, fermentation, distilling and maturation processes under the one roof, or two sheds, more accurately. The difference in scale to the Scottish whisky distilleries I’d visited was mind bending. But when Mark and Tim and then Chris Thomson, Lark’s head distiller, started showing us around and sharing stories of how Lark came to be, like many, I quickly fell in love with the place (the cask strength drams helped).

This was rustic, small-scale malt whisky making. It harked back to an older, simpler way that had been done away with in Scotland a long time ago. Mashing by hand, brewers yeasts and long open ferments, cutting spirit by taste and smell. It was a storyteller’s whisky, with cute Tasmanian inflections like post-malt smoking and small cask aging, and, like pretty much everyone else, I was entranced.

When we left Hobart and returned to Melbourne following that brief introduction, I was desperate to learn more about Lark and the development of the Tassie whisky industry.

 

Mark Nicholson, Lark Whisky Bar and Cellar Door – Lark Distillery

The recent history of the distilling industry in Tasmania was, at that time, opaque to say the least. Hardly any in-depth writing or journalism on how the industry came to be existed then. While we were constantly pouring through books and blogs on Scottish, Japanese, Irish and American whisky at Whisky & Alement, everything we knew about Tasmanian whisky had been gleaned from travelling to the distilleries and talking to the distillers.

From 2013, I started heading down to Tassie two to three times a year for various events, bottlings and journalism assignments. At that time, Tasmanian whisky was viewed through the prism of Lark. Everyone you met said Lark was where the story started. There was no mention of Brian Poke or the Franklin/Small Concern Distillery established in the early 1990s in Tasmania’s north. Or of the remarkable story behind Cadenhead’s purchase of seven Small Concern single malt whisky casks in 1995. There was no mention of Robert Hosken and Sullivans Cove’s complicated beginnings, where both Lyn and Bill worked as distillers, and the first Tasmanian whiskies to emerge since 1839. Nearly everyone in the industry had either worked with or been mentored by the Lark’s, so you accepted what you were told and tried another whisky.

Then in June 2013, Bill and Lyn sold around 75 per cent of their shares in the Lark business. It was a big deal. There were various reasons given for the sale, among them, Bill and Lyn’s understandable desire to ease up approaching retirement, especially after Bill’s stroke in Glasgow in 2010. In interviews, the Lark’s also said they wanted to ‘bring in people who had experience in building larger businesses’. The sale brought in somewhere between $1 million and $5 million (the precise amount wasn’t disclosed), with Bill, Lyn and daughter Kristy Booth-Lark holding around 25 per cent of the remaining shares. Exactly who the remaining investors were was never disclosed.

From July of that year, an elected board chaired by former Woolworths CEO Leon L’Huillier, which included stock brokers, surgeons and prominent Hobart businessman, took control of Lark Distillery Pty Ltd. Kristy Booth-Lark stayed on and managed Lark’s barrel investment scheme, while Bill remained as the global brand ambassador. Ex-Nant Distillery manager John Rochfort became Lark’s new CEO.

 

Jack, Lyn and Bill Lark – Lark Distillery

When this new Lark team took the reins, it didn’t take long before problems started to surface. One of the major difficulties the new board faced was growing the business with so little malt whisky to play with. In 2014, just over 1000, predominately 100 litre Lark whisky casks had been distilled since 1992 – a miniscule amount by world standards (well over a dozen individual Scottish distilleries produced that in a week).

The Lark’s had built up their business on its cashflow and only laid down what they could afford to make. They engineered their system of production on what was necessary to fill a few 100 litre whisky casks a week, a system that was replicated by several other Tasmanian distilleries. The Lark and Tasmanian whisky ‘brand’ was sold around this idea: small-scale production by owner-operator producers organically growing their businesses.

But this model was never going to work for investors seeking faster financial returns. In 2014, Lark produced 17,000 litres of malt spirit. For comparison, the smallest Scottish malt whisky distilleries at the time were producing 100,000 litres a year, most were between 1 to 5 million litres, the largest upwards of 10 million.

There were two solutions to Lark’s stock problems: increase production, although whisky stocks still wouldn’t be ready for a number of years that way, or secure whisky from elsewhere. John Rochfort began making offers to acquire other Tasmanian whisky businesses (even the larger-scale Hellyers Road Distillery in the state’s north was approached). Expanding production at Lark’s Cambridge distillery also became a priority, but there were difficulties on that front due to power constraints and the cost and time involved in upgrading the site’s limited infrastructure.

 

Jane Sawford, Casey Overeem – Overeem Distillery

Lark were then thrown an option with Casey Overeem’s Old Hobart Distillery and Overeem Whisky brand. Casey’s self-described ‘hobby-business’, to which Lark supplied the wash, had rapidly developed a cult following in Australia and overseas on the back of consistent, high quality single malt whisky releases. But the business, which operated out of a home garage, had grown well beyond Casey’s original intentions.

Not long after Casey retired in 2013, he sold Overeem Whisky to Lark. At the time, the sale was seen as an appropriate progression, with Casey’s daughter Jane, who had been managing sales and marketing, continuing in that role with Lark when they took control of the brand. Little did we know that this was the start of an acquisition trail that would see Lark purchase multiple Tasmanian whisky distilleries and completely alter the fabric of the industry.

Times were changing, and so were the personnel at Lark. John Rochfort left Lark only months after starting as CEO to return to his native South Australia and help found McLaren Vale Distillery. (His tenure at McLaren Vale finished in a heated legal dispute and the subsequent Rochfort Distillery he founded also ended in liquidation and court battles.) Troy Trewin took over as Lark CEO, while Kristy Booth-Lark, once the general manager of the business under her parents, was eventually made redundant from the company. She’s since gone on to establish her own renowned Killara Distillery – ‘Killara’ being a nod to the street name of the Lark home where it all started.

Despite the personnel changes, investors started circling the business following the Lark-Overeem marriage, keen on owning a slice of Tasmania’s figurehead distilling brand. And then one day in May 2014, the game changed.

 

World beater Sullivans Cove French Oak HH0525 – Oz Whisky Review 

The eyes of the international whisky world were suddenly transfixed on Tasmania when a single cask of Sullivans Cove French Oak won World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards. Overnight, the perception of Australian whisky altered. Before the award, there were doubts and doubters about Australia making a globally competitive whisky. But with this recognition, even the sceptics had to take note. Every Tasmanian whisky producer experienced a bump in sales following the Sullivans Cove win, Lark especially so. And where investors were curious about Lark before, now they were circling.

Chief among them was the publicly listed private equity group Montec International Limited. First listed in 2003, the principal business activity of Montec was the marketing and licensing of dairy technology; they had no experience in the whisky business. Veteran businessman and Montec chairman Terry Cuthbertson had got wind of the budding but fragmented Australian whisky industry and saw the potential for growth and consolidation.

Within a year of the Sullivans Cove triumph, the Sydney-based Montec had changed its name to Australian Whisky Holdings (AWH) and rapidly built up a controlling interest in Lark. In March 2016, AWH purchased a 12 per cent stake in Redlands (now Old Kempton) following the distillery’s move from its original home to Kempton. Chris Malcolm, AWH CEO and owner of Clark Rubber (yep, the pool, foam and rubber retailer), would also become the major shareholder in cooperage business Master Cask, owner of Tasmanian Cask Company. To those of us watching on from the sidelines, it was clear that a race was on to buy up and control as many of Tasmania’s key whisky assets as possible.

 

Redlands Distillery; Nant Distillery, 2014 – Oz Whisky Review

Next up was Nant. In early 2016, news reports starting filtering out about the financial strife the Nant Whisky Group was in following founder Keith Batt’s filing for bankruptcy. For years, rumours and discontent had been circulating about the expanding Nant business and the unscrupulous conduct of Keith Batt. Undeterred by the numerous red flags, AWH sniffed an opportunity. In October 2016, AWH purchased Nant Distillery, its historic estate, and crucially, Nant’s whisky stocks and assets for $3 million. They also agreed to take on $5.5 million worth of Nant debts and liabilities subsequent to legal and financial due diligence being completed.

What followed was incredibly ugly, convoluted, and, in some ways, still remains unresolved. Six months after news of the Nant sale was announced, the ABC published a bombshell article detailing the extent to which investors in the Nant whisky barrel buyback scheme had been defrauded. Following an initial audit, AWH told investors that more than 700 casks of whisky purchased had never been filled by Nant. An unknown number of casks were also missing or had been decanted, bottled and sold without the knowledge of investors.

 

Keith Batt

Years of legal disputes, criminal investigations and media exposes on the Nant drama followed. When I visited Hobart for Tasmanian Whisky Week in 2017, the air was tense. I found out there was more movement on the Lark front with AWH increasing its shareholding to 48.12 per cent. Experienced marketing manager Jane Sawford (nee Overeem) had also resigned, leaving Lark and the Overeem Whisky brand with AWH. Hardly any of the longstanding Tasmanian whisky figures now remained at Lark.

The exceptions were head distiller Chris Thomson, who’d been in that role since way back in 2009, and Scottish distillery manager Craig Johnston. Both were critical constants throughout this period. Under their watch, production was expanded at Lark’s Cambridge site and the availability and consistency of the Lark core range and single cask offering steadily improved. When Lark celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017, the Revolution Release was unveiled: 25 experimental 20 litre casks personally created by Thomson. It was an unruly and slightly bonkers way to commemorate the brand’s 25th birthday, but also very Lark in its focus on flavour, single casks and natural cask strength whiskies.

The release was possibly the last vestige of the old Lark way, because big changes lie ahead. In early 2018, AWH signalled its intention to buy out the remaining shareholders of Lark Distillery and take full ownership of the business. The offer was accepted by shareholders in May. Lark, Overeem and Nant, fledgling whisky businesses, were now the focal brands of an ASX-listed public company. AWH told shareholders that Lark and Nant would continue trading as separate operating entities, understandable considering the Nant controversy was still simmering. Production capacity at Nant was increased, while the Overeem stills would be transferred to Lark’s Cambridge site to further boost AWH’s overall distilling output.

Things seemed to be coming together under this new ownership structure, but the Nant story wouldn’t go away. Numerous journalists were digging deeper into the intricacies of the case – every major Australian news organisation was now investigating the scandal. AWH then completed its full acquisition of Nant, agreeing to take on the disastrous buyback scheme and work with investors who were panicking about the fate of their casks.

 


Then in March 2019, the ABC published the most comprehensive investigation into what had gone on at Nant. The article detailed the murky web of Brisbane-based lawyers, accountants and lenders who ABC journalists alleged had cashed in on Keith Batt’s negligence and mismanagement. It was revealed that the Tasmanian fraud squad had launched an investigation into Nant in 2017, the largest in Tasmania’s history, at the behest of dismayed investors. Detectives had also flown to Queensland to interview former Nant employees and associates. Incredibly, to this day, no-one has been charged or prosecuted in connection with the Nant Whisky Group’s business dealings. Estimates at the total figure lost by investors, creditors and former-Nant employees range between $10 and $20 million.

Just when you thought the situation couldn’t get any worse for the embattled AWH, a new battle had been waged at board level. In May 2019, as reported by The Age, a shareholder civil war had completely cleared out the AWH board. Rich-lister Bruce Neill, the company’s second largest investor, had seized effective control of the business and marshalled the support he needed for a boardroom coup, ousting four of the five AWH directors. Stuart Grant, one of the ousted directors, told the The Age that the Hobart-based Neill was angered by the board’s recent decision to raise $5 million through a share placement to Hong Kong’s ACE COSMO Developments, arguing it ‘diluted the Tasmanianness of the business’.

As a result, three new directors were installed: David Dearie, a former senior executive at Treasury Wines; Warren Randall, the unofficial ‘King of Australian Wine’ and owner of Seppeltsfield in the Barossa, which also supplies casks to the whisky industry; and Geoff Bainbridge, former co-founder of hamburger chain Grill’d. Bill Lark resigned from the board in protest, so too did acting chief executive and chief financial officer Brendan Waights.

 

Geoff Bainbridge

Suddenly, there was a completely new team in charge of AWH, as former CEO Chris Malcolm was pushed out months before the boardroom brawl. Terry Cuthbertson, one of the original Lark backers, was now gone, too. High-flyer Geoff Bainbridge, who arrived at Lark with his own baggage, having only just finalised a bitter legal feud with Grill’d co-founder Simon Crowe, was latter installed as managing director. He instigated a major overhaul of the entire AWH business.

As part of the overhaul, Bainbridge moved to quickly wind up the Nant buyback scheme managed by the previous board. Offers were made to investors based on the quality of whisky in cask, quality that was determined by an independent audit. Where investor casks hadn’t been filled, no compensation was offered. Where the cask had been diluted by Nant to around 40% ABV on the sly or the quality was deemed poor, the purchase offer was significantly reduced. When making these offers, AWH told investors that ‘… although AWH has been managing your whisky, AWH is not party to your Whisky Investment Contract and therefore has no obligation under that contract.’

The mum and dad investors, whisky enthusiasts and fledgling independent bottlers who’d been dragged along by the Nant mess were enraged by the offers. They started to band together and organise and their frustrations with AWH received significant media coverage. With Lark and Overeem now operating under the same banner, anger and confusion at AWH’s wheelings and dealings started spraying across the entire business.

 


The new board’s next move would look to change that. They began offloading nearly all of the assets AWH had acquired over the previous six years. In February 2020, the Overeem Whisky brand was sold back to Casey Overeem’s daughter Jane Sawford and her husband Mark for $962,000. A buy-back agreement with Old Kempton Distillery was also arranged, where AWH’s 12 per cent stake in the business was returned to Old Kempton in exchange for whisky stocks.

Only the scandal-riddled Nant whisky brand and distillery remained. Bainbridge explained the rationale behind that move to the Drinks Adventures podcast: ‘We’ve consciously decided to keep Nant, so we’re not looking to offload it at all,’ Bainbridge said. ‘Nant for us is really important because it is a tactical brand. Lark we hope will become the Penfolds of Australian whisky, so it needs to be protected.’

Australian Whisky Holdings was then re-badged as Lark Distilling Co. in May 2020. Bill Lark was also coaxed back to the business and reinstated as global brand ambassador. Another reset and another rebuild under a new team. And with the COVID-19 pandemic locking down and cutting off communities in Australia and around the world, the Lark brand was slowly reconfigured, again.

Where would the new board take Lark this time? The Penfolds reference was the clue. Instead of taking their cues from the Scottish whisky industry, Lark began treating their whisky stocks and brands like a wine company would. What was the point in owning ‘Lark’, Australia’s pioneering whisky name and brand, if you could only bottle up tiny amounts of the stuff produced at one small distillery? The solution was simple – ‘The House of Lark’. The strategy: produce but also acquire single malt whisky from other Tasmanian sources and bottle it under the Lark brand name.

Lark Symphony No. 1, Lark The Wolf Release 2020

The first expression of this strategy was Lark Symphony No. 1, a marriage of malt whiskies from Lark’s growing inventory. Head distiller Chris Thomson took some fruity Nant whisky, some heavier tawny matured Lark, and a leftover Overeem ‘vintage’ and married them together to create the new Lark Symphony. ‘The first blended malt from the House of Lark,’ went the slogan on the bottom of the label.

Lark’s The Wolf Release 2020 came next, the third instalment of an annual collaboration between Lark and Wolf of the Willows Brewing Co. Whereas all of the previous whiskies in this collaboration had been produced at Lark’s original Cambridge distillery, this bottling came with something different on the front label: ‘From our Bothwell Distillery’. Ah, what? Any confusion was cleared up on the back label, which read: ‘This year, head distiller Chris Thomson selected whisky from our Bothwell Distillery, home of Nant single malt.’

To some whisky commentators and enthusiasts in Australia, rebadging Nant with a Lark label, which would’ve been unthinkable years before, so toxic was the Nant name, was a major breach of trust. Some even argued it threatened the legacy established by the Lark family.

Single malts are produced at one distillery, that’s the firm tradition behind the ‘single’ tag we’ve inherited from the Scots. The Scotch Whisky Regulations were even amended and tightened in 2009 to shore up this point, following the sneaky release of the infamous ‘Cardhu Pure Malt’ a few years earlier. From The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009: ‘The name of a distillery mentioned… must not be used as a brand name, or as part of a brand name of a Scotch Whisky, or be used in a similar fashion in terms of its positioning or prominence, unless the whisky has been wholly distilled at that distillery’.

Of course, Scottish whisky regulations have no bearing on how Australian whisky is produced and labelled, which I pointed out at the time in a related article. In fact, most Australian single malt whiskies, especially Tasmanian, have never fully complied with Scottish definitions. Australia’s regulations are looser than those governing Scotch, meaning a whole raft of practices, rightly or wrongly, are permissible here under our laws.

 

Lark Distillery

Soon enough, ‘From our Bothwell Distillery’ (Nant) and ‘From our Coal River Valley Distillery’ (the Cambridge shed) started appearing on Lark single malt whisky labels. Much of Australia was in and out of lockdowns at the time, but that didn’t stop a frenetic array of new Lark whiskies being released, mainly different wine cask finished expressions, targeting online shoppers, home drinkers and most particularly, collectors.

The escalating price of these new whiskies, $250 to $300+ for 500ml bottles, started to turn heads, too. The price of more limited Lark whiskies then jumped to a whole new level with Lark’s Rare Cask Series and Legacy bottlings. The first bottling in the Rare Cask Series, Para50, finished in 50-year-old Seppeltsfield Parra vintage tawny casks, retailed for $550 (700ml) when released. The next two releases in the series, Lark Brokenwood Shiraz and Para100, doubled in price to a whopping $1200 and $1000 (700ml) respectively, although thankfully came with a complimentary 100ml bottle ‘enabling the collector to enjoy and savour now’. The Lark Legacy 19 year old whiskies, which actually hailed from Sullivans Cove during Bill’s tenure between 1999-2001, almost doubled in price again, retailing for $1950 each.

Lark Rare Cask Mizunara, Lark Rare Cask Brokenwood Shiraz  – Lark Distilling Co.

The multi-million dollar question was, and remains, just how much is a litre of Lark whisky worth? In an incredible interview with esteemed financial journalist Alan Kohler for Eureka Report in June 2021, Bainbridge plainly laid out the strategy for increasing the value of Lark whisky through the use of finishing casks.

‘… The biggest change that we’ve done in the last two years is really take a liquid that’s maturing and coming into its own and taking it out of its current barrel, so it’s traditional Lark barrel, and moving it into another barrel to add value and add character and add flavour to it.

‘We might move it into a Brokenwood shiraz cask barrel or we might move it into a Japanese mizunara barrel, we might move it into Para Port 50-year-old or a Para Port 100-year-old barrel and we’ll finish it between six and 12 months in those barrels and then we’re able to sell it as limited release. Typically, to give you pricing architecture, a normal maturing Lark would sell for around $180 to $200 a bottle and a limited release would sell from between $250 and $1,000 a bottle, so we’re able to value-add to that liquid.’

So, you take some ‘normal’ whisky, finish it in a fancy cask then charge a 1000 bucks for it (the Scots would be keeling over reading that). It’s one of the stranger things I’ve heard in my time covering whisky, especially to hear the general manager of a spirits company publicly discuss maturation and pricing policy in such a blunt and unsubtle way. But as Bainbridge made clear in the same interview, Lark’s strategy was to maximise shareholder return and build the company to a point where it would become an attractive acquisition target for one of the ‘big five’ spirits conglomerates.

‘The evidentiary framework that we’ve pursued is one that says, 80 per cent of the $100-dollar-plus global whisky market is controlled by five companies. Those five companies do not start 80 per cent of the brands, they wait until a brand is big enough with enough barrels under maturation and enough sales penetration and they buy them. Those companies that we’re talking about and those that would be familiar to you, whether it be Diageo, Beam Suntory, Jack Daniels which is Brown-Forman, Pernod Ricard or Remy Cointreau.

‘But directionally speaking… we’re looking to double revenue and double litres on an annualised basis for the next two years and that puts us right in the sweet spot of what has been historically the acquisition criteria.’

 

Oz Whisky Review

One of the first moves to help Lark realise the strategy outlined by Bainbridge was revealed a few months after the Eureka Report interview. In October 2021, Lark announced that it had acquired Shene Estate & Distillery north of Hobart for $40 million. Shene whisky stocks had previously been purchased for future ‘House of Lark’ bottlings, but the overall sale included Shene’s 40 acres of land and buildings, the Shene Distillery, upwards of 400,000 litres of whisky stocks, eight bond stores, a working cooperage and the historic homestead. The Shene brand, like the Nant brand, would be ‘decommissioned’. Lark also revealed plans to spend $13 million to build a new distillery at Shene Estate with a capacity to produce 1 million litres of spirit per year. The new distillery will become the primary Lark production home and cellar door and is expected to be operational in 2023.

Behind the scenes, Bainbridge was pushing even harder to expand and improve business conditions for Lark, which started to cause serious friction with other distillers in Tassie. The Tasmanian Whisky and Spirits Producers Association (TWSA) have long been in the process of trying to get Tasmanian whisky and Tasmanian single malt recognised as a geographical indicator (GI). Among a number of stipulations to get the GI adopted was an agreement by TWSA members that Tasmanian whisky could only be bottled in Tasmania. Bainbridge, opposed to the entire idea of a Tasmanian whisky GI, flatly refused to accept this stipulation, among others. Lark had already been bottling a small percentage of their whisky in Melbourne, citing a lack of facilities in Tasmania capable of the volume required, further angering members of the distilling community in the process.

 

Oz Whisky Review

It was a far from ideal lead-up to Lark’s 30th anniversary celebrations, set to kick off in early 2022. But no-one was prepared for what happened next. On February 16, Bainbridge abruptly resigned following The Australian’s leaked video expose of his alleged drug use. Attempting to deflect the revelations, Bainbridge’s communications expert Lahra Carey immediately took a story to The Age arguing the video was part of a long running extortion plot against him. The Age bought the story and published an article with a contrite Bainbridge trying to assert he was the victim of a crime. This infuriated media rivals The Australian, who published a series of counter articles completely debunking Bainbridge’s story and forcing a full retraction from Age editor Chip le Grand.

No-one knew what to make of the sordid affair. Once again, Tasmanian whisky was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, but the Lark business continued on despite the ongoing media circus. A global search for a new CEO had already begun in December 2021, so with Bainbridge gone, director Laura McBain, previously CEO of Bellamy’s, the Tasmanian organic baby formula and food producer, became interim CEO.

Lark quickly got back to releasing a new limited edition whisky almost every fortnight, some retailing for $2500, to mark the 30 year anniversary of the brand. A large celebration with 200 guests then took place at Lark’s new Pontville (Shene) whisky village in June, with just-released whiskies and drone light shows presenting the history of Tasmanian distilling.

 

Chris Thomson, Bill Lark. Lark 30th Anniversary Celebration – Lark Distilling Co.

The history of Lark and Tasmanian whisky was, naturally, a focal point of the celebration. Lark’s long-time insistence that it was ‘the first Australian distillery to produce single malt spirit in 154 years’ is frequently proclaimed when discussing the history of Australian whisky. The claim is completely false. Dozens of Australian distilleries have produced and marketed malt whisky brands since the 1840s. How Lark’s curious claims and a number of other Tasmanian whisky myths are discussed in future, especially with several Australian distilleries starting to present alternative histories, will be one to watch.

What’s more certain, is that the Lark business will continue to grow and evolve. Across its various sites, Lark now has over 2 million litres of whisky under bond and will start significantly adding to that when the new Pontville distillery is constructed next year. Whisky from several Tasmanian distilleries, including Overeem, Old Kempton, Nant, Sullivans Cove and Shene, has, and will continue to be rolled into the House of Lark single malt program, allowing Lark to reach a much larger audience in Australia and abroad.

But how this approach and other practices by distilleries across the country develop in coming years is now open for debate. A major review of Australia’s definition of whisky has just been announced by the Australian Distillers Association, which could have implications for everything from Tasmanian whisky’s geographical indicator proposal to the production standards and labelling of all Australian single malt whiskies.

Now, more than ever before in the last 30 years of Australia’s distilling revival, the spotlight is on Lark. The chronicling of the Lark story has long been a creative exercise. But as the foundation brand of the modern Australian industry, as an ASX-listed public company, and as the biggest whisky producer in Tasmania, shouldn’t we apply a bit more rigour and reality to the narrative? Funnily enough, if I had the time to tell my bar regular the whole yarn I’m still not sure which inspiring bits I’d put in and which tawdry bits I’d leave out. This is, after all, only one version of a story that sounds different depending on who’s telling it, especially if there’s a whisky in hand.

 

Luke McCarthy
Luke McCarthy is the editor and publisher of Oz Whisky Review. An independent writer, author and drinks columnist, Luke's written about whisky and spirits for numerous Australian and international publications and is a judge at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards. His book, The Australian Spirits Guide, the first to tackle the history and resurgence of the Australian spirits industry, was published in 2016 by Hardie Grant Books.