Two of Tasmania’s most popular whisky figures are set to launch a new range of bottlings via an online streaming event. Emma and Robbie Gilligan, longtime stalwarts of the Tasmanian whisky industry, will launch their family-owned whisky company Derwent Distilling Co. this Saturday night, unveiling their first three whisky expressions in the process.
It’s the first online launch of an Australian whisky brand since the coronavirus pandemic, and a fitting example of how the industry is adapting.
Originally, a large launch party was planned to take place at Cascade Brewery in April, right near the original Derwent Distillery, which operated from 1823 to 1839 and helped to inspire the Gilligan’s current project. But challenging times often present opportunities, as Emma and Robbie told me this week via a Zoom chat (naturally).
‘It’s been a rollercoaster, I’m not gonna lie,’ Emma said. ‘We were super excited about our launch. We’d planned to have it at Cascade Brewery, which is literally about 500 meters down the road from the original distillery site. So we knew that there was a lot of history there. But as soon as we found out that all this was happening, we pulled the pin on it pretty early.’
Instead of waiting for an opportunity to host a physical launch, they quickly decided to move the party online and have since generated a wave of interest well beyond Tasmania.
‘We don’t know how long the pandemic is going to last. It could last a year, so why hold off? And actually, there’s been a bit of a silver lining because a lot of the people that were coming along to the event are still going to be able to learn about us, but we’ve managed to get our name out there to people who wouldn’t have been able to come to Tasmania… In hindsight, it’s maybe been a better option for us than holding an event in Tasmania alone,’ says Emma.
The Gilligan’s have worked right across the Tasmanian industry, with Robbie starting at Lark and then moving to Redlands and Old Kempton and also representing the Tasmanian Whisky Producers Association. Emma also worked with Robbie at Redlands/Old Kempton, where they helped to build whisky stocks, manage the cellar doors, and spread the exposure of those brands with some highly successful events.
Emma and Robbie Gilligan via a Zoom chat.
But a plan to create their own distillery and whisky brand was always in the works, and when they found the perfect plot of land next to a pristine section of the Derwent River north of Hobart, they couldn’t put it off any longer.
‘It’s a stunning property,’ Robbie says in his thick Glaswegian accent, recalling the first time they came across the spot on a Sunday drive not long after the birth of their first child.
‘So we thought, this is a great place to start a distillery, we can make something of this… And we want other people to come and see that and experience it, and go, oh wow, we’re not just coming here to drink some whisky at a distillery, it’s a whole experience just to be in the surroundings itself.’
Before construction starts on the distillery, a range of whiskies will be released under the Derwent Distilling Co. label. These whiskies were mashed, distilled and matured by Robbie at separate distilleries, predominately Redlands and Old Kempton.
Future Derwent Distillery site in Dromedary – Supplied
‘I did all that distilling myself, from start to finish,’ says Robbie. ‘I did my own wash runs, spirit runs, and I did my own cuts to determine the type of spirit that I wanted. I hand-chose all the barrels as well from different cooperages based on ideas I had and whiskies that I knew were successful.’
The first three releases are all ex-wine cask matured whiskies, utilising casks that previously held apera, port and Tasmanian pinot noir.
Asked about whether wine cask whiskies will be a future hallmark, the couple said they aim to experiment and find out what consumers like before establishing their own core range of whiskies. They currently have 14 different styles of cask and spirit maturing in bond.
During the online event, guests who pre-ordered the tasting pack can join along in the tasting, but the Gilligan’s are hoping anyone with an interest in whisky will jump online and check it out.
‘We want it to be accessible to everybody and for people to see that we’re just a family that’s passionate about whisky,’ says Robbie, ‘And if we get people to like our whisky from that, then that’s a bonus. So tune in, get your favourite dram and we’ll have some fun!’
The event goes live on Saturday May 23 via Derwent Distillery’s Facebook page, and will be hosted by legendary Tasmania whisky presenter Mark Nicholson.