The Devil's Share

Book Review by DramFan

Bernard Lloyd’s compendium of the history of Whisky distilling in Tasmania has been highly anticipated. In the leadup to its publication there have been rumours of publication-delays due to the objection of some contributors who expressed concern about the transparency in which some details about the not always so glamorous (or should be say reputable) history of distilling in Tasmania were revealed.

As a first impression, the book appears much more comprehensive than expected. This isn’t your typical summary of events leading up to the current distilling boom in Tasmania. Instead, it is a multi-faceted read that mixes historical research with personal accounts from pretty much any known individual who has been involved in distilling in Tasmania, and technical details of production setups and processes applied by those distillers.

Bernard has immersed himself in the Tasmanian whisky scene for many years in order to research for his magnum opus. The book contains every bit of information any whisky lover around the world should know about Tasmania. And yes, there are frank accounts and sometimes ‘juicy’ details revealed that emerged from thorough research and insistent questioning. Some of the most insightful parts of the book relate to the difficult path taken by those who start a distillery. Many Tasmanian ventures were either mothballed, or sold-on by their owners who misjudged the upfront investment required to make them viable. 

Equally fascinating are the accounts of how distilling started its resurgence via Bill Lark in the late 80s and early 90s. Bernard describes this period with the right mix of humor, anecdotes and historical evidence. It then illustrates why Bill Lark and his inner circle is seen as the godfathers of Australian Whisky through their continuous engagement and support for others who came after him.

The most memorable story for me tells how Tasmania’s largest distillery Hellyer’s Road was founded and what seems to be driving their business. Given their international exposure, they may be seen by many overseas as the primary ambassador for Tasmanian (or even Australian) Whisky. It is very different from anything I’ve ever heard or read about whisky-making and it offers some great insights on how they have become the brand they are today.

Interwoven into the accounts of contemporary whisky-making are flashbacks into colonial times and the short period where distilling on a small scale was permitted. It is interesting to read how some of the startup issues we see today have certainly happened in similar fashion 180 years ago. As much as these flashbacks are welcome, they also mean that - at times - it is hard to go along with the narrative of the author. Any thematic or historic narrative is also disrupted by the fact that Bernard Lloyd follows his particular definition of regions of Whisky-making in Tasmania and decided to structure the book accordingly. As a result, I somehow feel I got 3 books for the price of one where the various chapters are knit together with patches of information from historical, technical and personal accounts.

Due to his approachable writing-style Bernard manages to pull it all together, which makes the 50 or so $ a price well spent. Congratulations for the great effort – A must read!

You can buy the Devli’s share online and in selected bookstores)