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Sunday, 13 November 2016

Tasmanian Whisky Adventure, Chapter 2, Pt. 2: Belgrove Distillery!

This next stop on the Tasmanian whisky adventure would have to be the world's most environmentally sustainable distillery. At the time of writing it's also Australia's only rye whisky distillery, and the man behind it is easily one of the most multi-talented people I've ever met. We're headed around an hour north of Hobart, on the outskirts of the town of Kempton, to the absolutely extraordinary Belgrove Distillery. It may not be as visually appealing as some, but visiting this totally unique distillery was without a doubt one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Peter Bignell (pictured above) has been a Tasmanian grain and sheep farmer for over 40 years, but is also much, much more. This man's resume would be enough to crash the servers of your average recruitment agency. He studied agronomy and microbiology, has a bachelor's degree in agricultural science, and dabbled in physics and chemistry, among others. He's also an ice sculptor and sand sculptor, an engineering genius and master innovator, and clearly a very talented distiller. He made his own copper pot still (which is an ingenious item in itself), and is in the process of designing and building his own column-style wash still, he coopers and chars his own casks, and makes his own bio-diesel (from used cooking oil) for use in the distillery and on the farm. Oh, and he restored the historic water mill at Nant Distillery / estate while the distillery was being built. Meanwhile, I can't remember the last time I used a screwdriver...

Belgrove's malting machine and peat smoker: a re-purposed spin-drier!

After harvesting a particularly large crop of rye one year, Peter decided to put it to use by making what was Australia's first rye whisky, building a distillery in an old stone stable behind his house. He now grows his entire grain requirement on the farm, which makes Belgrove one of three 'paddock-to-bottle' or 'farm' distilleries in the world. This means that the entire whisky making process, from growing the grain to bottling the finished whisky, is done on site. There's no commercially produced malted grain shipped in from outside sources, and there's no centralised maturation warehouse or commercial bottling plant involved here. Everything is done by hand (mostly by Peter himself), on-site at the distillery, including the malting, (where necessary for the desired type of spirit - rye whisky is not required to be 100% malted), and the milling of the grain, and the fermentation and brewing of the wash (using both commercial and wild yeast) prior to distillation. In fact the entire grain malting process takes place in the re-purposed industrial spin-drier pictured above, which when desired is also a peat smoker (well, it's usually peat smoke - read on!). 

Belgrove's hand-made pot still, with cooling jacket fitted over the neck.
Peter built his copper pot still (pictured above) entirely by hand, including the welding and rolling of the sheet metal, after a couple of quick lessons from a local copper-smith. The still is direct-fire heated using either biodiesel, waste cooking oil collected from nearby food businesses (to quote Peter directly - "with the chips filtered out" - !), or even used engine oil or animal fats, and the heat is regulated by a re-purposed domestic kitchen mixer! Instead of the normal lyne-arm and external condenser found on your average pot still, Belgrove's uses a removable copper cooling jacket which is fitted over the neck of the still to condense the alcohol vapours into liquid form, using water sourced from the farm's dam which is recycled after use. In fact the distillery uses no town water, it's all collected from the dam and the farm buildings' roofs, and any hot water required (i.e. during mashing and brewing) is heated using bio-diesel. Peter also discards the first few litres of the foreshots (the methanol and other volatile compounds produced early in distillation) collected from each spirit run, rather than recycling them back into the next spirit run like most distilleries, to give the spirit a head-start when it goes into cask. Oh, and the spent grain mash leftover after distillation is fed to the farm's sheep, who in turn provide the farm with fertiliser, and in one case, something else which is just slightly different!

Peat, glorious peat! And there's more to the story in this case...

As I mentioned above, Peter is using peat to smoke the grain in a couple of his whiskies, but there's something very important to note about the peat itself. While Lark Distillery has the license and lease to mine peat in Tasmania's highlands, the peat used produced at Belgrove is different. The peat came from the family farm on the north-eastern coast of Tasmania (harvested some time ago), giving it a character which is more familiar to the Scotch drinker than its inland equivalent, and making Belgrove's peated expressions totally unique. There are currently only two casks of this whisky, one rye whisky and one single malt, and they're the only whiskies in the world which have been made with coastal Tasmanian peat. In fact you could say Peter is single-handedly taking on a certain Scottish island which also happens to use the odd bit of coastal peat when making whisky. Very, very exciting stuff! As for casks, Peter is mainly using ex-Tasmanian malt whisky barrels, which are often re-coopered and often re-charred (all by Peter himself) prior to being filled.

Part of Belgrove's current range of spirits, with many more in the works!

Belgrove Distillery produces a very diverse and very impressive range of hand-crafted spirits, so far including un-aged white rye spirit, a distilled cider / un-aged apple brandy named Apple Hatchet, a distilled ginger beer named Ginger Hammer, a delicious black coffee & white rye liqueur, a barrel-aged grappa, an eau-de-vie, an oat whisky (which is also delicious), and of course his excellent rye whiskies, including a peated rye and a rye finished in pinot noir wine casks. Also due for release in the near future are a chocolate malt (heavily roasted malt) whisky, a whisky distilled from spelt wheat, a distilled IPA beer, the peated rye and peated single malt that I mentioned above, plus a highland-peated rye (which Peter has released previously), and a true peated cask-matured whisky, where the cask itself was rinsed and dried over peat smoke prior to being filled with un-peated spirit. Like I said, totally unique and absolutely extraordinary! Speaking of which, it almost goes without saying in this case, but naturally (heh) there's no added colouring or chill filtration anywhere to be seen near any of Belgrove's products.

There's another one-of-a-kind barrel (pictured above) that I can't resist mentioning, and I was lucky enough to actually taste. Sitting in Peter's warehouse is a single barrel of young spirit, distilled from rye that was smoked with... wait for it... sheep manure, that was kindly donated by the farm's sheep! As Peter puts it, that's taking recycling to the extreme! Aptly named 'wholly shit', it was a very enjoyable dram, with a very interesting grassy smoke that only emerges on the finish, but is quite prominent. I don't think you'd suspect anything if this was tasted blind. It's only a few months old at this stage, and has to be at least two years old before it can be called whisky, so it's still a while away from bottling.. Definitely one to watch out for though, as with all of Peter's products!

Peter also graciously and generously parted with a sample drawn straight from the cask pictured below, so I could share the love with yourselves! This is a 50-litre re-coopered and re-charred ex. Tasmanian Distillery (Sullivan's Cove) barrel filled with the afore-mentioned peated single malt whisky, smoked with coastal peat from the Bignell family farm in north-eastern Tasmania. This cask is currently the only one of it's kind, and is therefore some seriously rare and absolutely unique stuff with less than 50 litres (thanks to the angel's share) in existence world-wide. What a time to be alive! As you can see it was filled in March 2015, so has another six months or so left to mature before it can be called whisky, so we'll refer to it as malt spirit for the moment. Since it won't be ready for bottling for another 6 months or so, and since it's completely one-of-a-kind, I'm not going to score it (it'll likely change dramatically in those 6 months anyway), I'll just share my tasting notes and give my thoughts. Hold onto your hats folks, because this review just might be a world-first!

Belgrove Peated Single Malt Spirit, 18 months old, approx. 63% ABV. Tasmania, Australia.
Peated with coastal peat from north-eastern Tasmania. Matured in a single 50-litre re-coopered ex-Tasmanian malt whisky barrel. Barrel number PB061, due for bottling March 2017.

Colour: Pale gold.

Nose: Sweet dusty malt, thick & slightly burnt oatmeal porridge, hints of very sweet tropical fruit. Something reminiscent of a dunnage warehouse, particularly the earthen floors and dusty casks. A little mild acetone, subtle vanilla, and a hint of that slightly salty coastal peat.

Texture: Light-to-medium weight, and only a slight touch of heat - hardly any considering it's around 63% ABV and only 18 months old!

Taste: Spicy wood smoke, some subtle dry oak, warm (not hot) chilli flakes, spiced honey, slightly herbal as well.

Finish: Long and quite complex. Some hot ash, a little cinnamon, more of the slightly burnt oatmeal porridge from the nose. A little soft, dry smoke, then that dusty sweet malt again but with a lingering soft peaty edge.

Notes: Really impressive, and really unique! The peat influence is quite subtle compared to what you might expect, but it's definitely there, and compared to other peated Australian whiskies it's quite prominent. It's also markedly different to it's distant cousins, even those made with peated barley imported from Scotland. It's already a great quality spirit, and I look forward to trying it when it's come of age and can finally be called whisky! Let's hope this stuff becomes a regular part of the Belgrove line-up.

Like many Tasmanian whiskies Peter's products are in high demand, they sell out quickly and are not the easiest to find, but some can be purchased directly from his website when available, and a few specialist whisky retailers usually manage to find some stock. The fact that Peter is often invited to speak at international spirits shows and conventions is definitely testament to him being able to teach even the 'big boys' a thing or two. Let's just hope that doesn't keep him away from the still for too long!

Belgrove Distillery doesn't have a fancy visitor's centre or carefully practised tour guides, and isn't really open to the public, but tours can be booked in advance by emailing Peter and asking nicely! If you're a whisky or distilled spirits fan, I highly recommend doing so, because there's no distillery quite like this in the world. I can honestly say this was the most eye-opening and mind-blowing distillery I've ever visited. Without a doubt.

A big thanks to Peter for showing me around, and for all his hard work, and of course for that very special sample. I will be back!