Perched on the side of Mount Arthur, William McHenry and Sons Distillery is a rustic set-up in one of the most beautiful spots on the Tasman Peninsula. Some years ago, Bill McHenry fled his big city job to set up this small family-run whisky distillery. Whisky takes a long time to mature, so now he also makes some good gin and teaches others its secrets.
I’m one of seven enthusiasts who have signed up for a four-hour workshop on how to distill our own gin. It’s a cross between a cooking demo and a chemistry class but more fun. I’m juggling funnels, measuring jugs and burners and also deciding which botanicals or flavourings I like. I add my chosen ingredients – juniper, cardamom, star anise and orange peel – to the bubbling alcohol and it doesn’t take long before I have my own Devil’s Brew in a bottle.
If the weather is fine, there’s a gin-themed lunch (organised by the exuberant Kim Dudson of Bespoke Tasmania Tours) on the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, it’s quite blowy so we eat inside.
Later Bill loads us into two vehicles and we travel further up Mount Arthur to see why he set up in such a remote location. He shows us the secret natural spring oozing up through the rocks, the source of the pure water that he believes gives his whisky its special taste.
Bill is one of several locals who have had to use their ingenuity to recover from Tasmania’s 2013 bushfires and turn the Tasman Peninsula region, about 90 minutes from Hobart and best known for the Port Arthur Historic Site, into a gourmet destination.
Port Arthur lavender
After the wild scruffy scenery of the peninsula, the rows of neatly manicured purple flowers at Port Arthur are a surprise. Framing picturesque Long Bay, the lavender fields are a new attraction, a sign the region is alive and kicking.
Years of drought forced Clare Dean and her husband Brendan, a sixth generation sheep and cattle farmer, to have a go at growing lavender. Last October Clare Dean opened Port Arthur Lavender visitor centre after refurbishing a building that had been empty for several years.
I’m lucky to meet the busy Clare on my visit and we walk through the cafe with its expansive and entrancing views of Long Bay. We visit the distillery room to view the lavender oil still and videos of the recent harvest. December/January is when the oil is extracted. Some is even used for culinary purposes, and Dean and her chefs are constantly searching for recipes.
The centre and cafe have been designed by Clare and lavender finds its way into jams, muffins, chips and even ice-cream. Of course, there are numerous traditional lavender products and even the waste is recycled to make pretty paper.
The family grows 16,000 plants at both their Pawleena and Port Arthur farms, though the plants here are for display and bloom from September to May. A walk through the lavender fields is invigorating.
An oyster and wine team
Another feel-good story is the Bangor Wine & Oyster Shed (actually, it’s a stylish cafe/wine bar). Here the wine-making Dunbabins (Matt and Vanessa) have teamed with oyster farmers Tom and Alice Gray. The area was devastated by the bushfires and the two families decided to build an architect-designed restaurant on one of the prettiest locations beside Bangor Vineyard, overlooking the oyster beds in Norfolk Bay.
Alice welcomes me to the Shed, which opened in December. Already it has become a beacon for locals and visitors, especially at weekends. Oysters are a must, just harvested and tasting like a capsule of the churning ocean where they’re grown.
Of course, Port Arthur, the historic convict site, is the main drawcard for the area. Allow a few hours to wander through the imposing buildings, rich in stories of human tragedy. For the more adventurous, Pennicott Wilderness Journeys explores the wild coastal scenery on a three-hour cruise. From November this year, bushwalkers will be able to enjoy the 46km Three Capes Track. If you’re peckish, stop at Dunalley for fish and chips.
Perfect cocktail gin
I head back to Hobart to meet friends for the final part of the gin workshop. Bartender Shaun Gardner is expecting me and my special brew. After a quick tasting, he decides my gin is perfect for a classic Aviation cocktail. As I sit back, reflecting on my day with enterprising locals, I imagine the cocktail has absorbed some of the pure air and ocean-blasted landscape of the Tasman Peninsula I’ve been exploring.