History of Whisky in Launceston

Caledonian Distillery

Distilling in Van Diemen’s Land was a difficult business, but Launceston’s first whisky distillery, the Caledonian Distillery, survived these challenging times to be one of the Colony’s foremost distilleries.

It was established in 1824 by James Towers at his property “Ravenswood”, about 2 miles from Launceston on the banks of Distillery Creek.  During the 1830s the distillery was operated by his brother Robert and then his brother-in-law David McGown.

 

A 1917 Weekly Courier photo overlooking Distillery Creek. The former Distillery building and Distillery Cottage are on the right of the photo (Tasmanian State Archives)
A 1917 Weekly Courier photo overlooking Distillery Creek. The former Distillery building and Distillery Cottage are on the right of the photo (Tasmanian State Archives)
Other industry on Distillery Creek included a neighbouring flour mill. Harden Mill, built in 1857, was situated on the opposite side of Distillery Creek (now demolished). (Tasmanian State Archives)
Other industry on Distillery Creek included a neighbouring flour mill. Harden Mill, built in 1857, was situated on the opposite side of Distillery Creek (now demolished). (Tasmanian State Archives)

The building itself was made of brick and operated with one still.  The distillery sold “pure spirit” and “whiskey” in Launceston and Hobart Town for 10s per gallon. Barley, wheat and oats were also accepted as payment. McGown had fourteen years of experience as a distiller in Scotland, and claimed his spirits were equal in quality to anything made in the Scottish Highlands.

Colonial Distilleries often had to struggle with grain shortages and high grain prices, as well as Government policies that discouraged distilling.  The Government had long believed that local distilling was having a detrimental effect on the Colony’s revenue, health and morals. Eventually in 1839 the Distillation Prohibition Act  banned Colonial distillation and forced the closure of Caledonian Distillery.

The distillery buildings are listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register, and are currently used as a residential property.

 

Timeline

1822:

  • Colonial distillation is legalised.
  • Tasmania’s first distillery, The Sorell Distillery, is established by James Towers and Thomas Midwood in Hobart Town.

1823:

  • James Towers and Midwood sever their relationship. Towers forms a partnership with R. Loane and W. Keating to establish the Derwent Distillery.

1824:

  • James Towers establishes the Caledonian Distillery at Distillery Creek on his property “Ravenswood” near Launceston.
  • Robert Towers establishes Towers Brewery in Lyttleton Street  and the Caledonian Inn in Charles Street.

1825:

  • Assistant Colonial Treasurer visits Caledonian Distillery and finds that the building, stills and utensils conform to regulations.
  • Due to high grain prices and an increase in the duty on Colonial spirits, Caledonian Distillery stops production.

1826:

  • Production recommences, “pure spirit” and “whiskey” are being offered for sale in both Launceston and Hobart Town.

1830:

  • James Towers tries to sell the Distillery. Robert Towers takes over and installs a new still and builds a malt house.

1832:

  • Robert Towers dies in Launceston. Towers Brewery closes, but ownership of the Distillery passes to David McGown and production continues.

1838:

  • A Legislative Council Committee conducts a review of Colonial distillation. McGown informs the Committee that any ban would cause him severe financial hardship and urges them to allow distillation to continue.

1839:

  • Lieutenant Governor Franklin enacts the Distillation Prohibition Act, banning colonial distillation in favour of brewing ale only. Caledonian Distillery, one of only two distilleries left on the island, closes.

1842:

  • David McGown is awarded £2,500 as compensation for the closure of his distillery.

2014:

  • Launceston Distillery established. 

2015:

  • Launceston Distillery commenced production of whisky and their first small casks are filled.