Distillery visits

“We’ve never claimed they’re going to taste the same”: A musing on single barrel releases

Posted by: Ted

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I am sitting on a comfy leather chair in a cosy private tasting room. I have just tasted some whisky. Actually, it’s the second glass I have tried and I am feeling a mixture of surprise, curiosity and intrigue – not in a bad way mind you, I’ve just been caught a bit off guard. I put down my glass on the table which is crafted from half a 100L barrel and glance to my left at Nick. He raises his eyebrows, his expression reflecting my own inner turmoil. I turn to face our host, Fred, who flashes a broad smile and comments “We’ve never claimed they’re going to taste the same.”

To provide some more context, we were visiting Sullivans Cove Distillery in southern Tasmania. We had been invited down as part of Tasmanian Whisky Week 2017 to meet with Fred Siggins, Strategy Manager for Sullivans Cove, and tour their facility. After exploring the distillery Fred had invited us to sit down try some of their releases, where this particular story picks up.

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The reason for our intrigue was that we had just tried two glasses of the Sullivans Cove American Oak Cask (that’s the one with the black label for those who are interested). “And? What’s so weird about that?” I hear you ask. The funny thing was, despite being the same expression, the first glass had tasted very different to the second. The secret to the trick was that the drams had been poured from two different bottles, which in turn had been filled from two different barrels.

When we think about whisky (ie Scotch), we tend to think about consistency. For instance, I might buy a bottle of, say, Balvenie 12 Year Old and really like it. The next time I buy a bottle, I expect it to taste exactly the same as the first one. I am buying it based on a particular flavour profile that represents that expression. The problem for distilleries is that natural variation occurs between whisky barrels for all sorts of reasons, meaning that even if you start with exactly the same spirit and barrel variety, the end product will be slightly different. To get around this, the master distiller will mix (or ‘marry’) different barrels together in a tank (‘vatting’) until they achieve the particular flavour profile they are after. It must be pretty stressful trying to hit that same mark every time.

Sullivans Cove, like other Tasmanian distilleries, goes in completely the opposite direction. Consistent flavour profile be damned, let’s keep everyone on their toes by doing single barrel releases (excluding their Double Cask expression, which is a marriage of American and French oak)! Instead of vatting together a whole range of barrels, once a particular cask is determined to have reached optimal maturity it is decanted and bottled.

As we’ve already discussed though, the result of this approach is that any variations between barrels are laid wide open. Its not just down to the barrels either – thanks to the design of the Sullivans Cove still, which has a stainless steel bowl and a negative lyne arm, the relatively low copper contact means that the resulting spirit is big and meaty and full of character, which carries through into the final product. The ‘ready-when-it’s-done’ philosophy also means that each successive release will vary in age.

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Hence why when it came to the tasting, Fred had provided two bottles each of the American Oak and French Oak expressions, each representing a different barrel. Very handily, Sullivans Cove actually include the origin barrel on the side of the bottle, so you can tell exactly what you’re drinking.

Stepping up to the mark for team American Oak were barrels HH603 (16yo) and TD0056 (12yo), both bottled at 47.5%. On the nose HH603 had notes of aged apples, leatherwood honey, timber, beeswax and a rich bourbon characteristic running underneath. The palate was oaky and nutty, with a finish of oranges. In contrast TD0056 was slightly marine in nature, with a certain fresh, salty, fishy characteristic, mingled with notes of lavender and wood dust. The palate was grainy and bright, with flavours of pear, strawberries and coriander.

Vying for supremacy on team French Oak were barrels TD117 (11yo) and HH400 (15yo), also at 47.5%. TD117 was smooth and refined, with hints of chocolate, raisins and a whisper of sandalwood. The palate had a good chewy mouthfeel and left a dryness on the finish. In comparison HH400 was rich and luxurious, oozing white chocolate, peach, vanilla cake, ginger and leather. The mouth was fat and filling initially, then tapering off to a gentle finish with a nice linger.

Of course, we weren’t naive to the potential for this difference in flavour. We hear things, man, we’re down with the whisky geeks. We’ve had Sullivans Cove plenty of times before… but only in isolation. We’d never sampled different bottlings next to each other like that. It’s not like the bottles were from entirely different planets, there was still a certain Sullivans Cove-ness running through them all, but it really opens your eyes to how much variation can exist between barrels.

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Some people may be a bit put off by this approach or feel a bit cheated. “This isn’t what I had last time!?” “But I wanted barrel HH525!” they’ll huff. I on the other hand tend to think it keeps things fresh and interesting. Heck, there’s hundreds of whiskies in the world that will keep doing the same old thing every time, so it’s good to have something a bit challenging once in a while. Fred agrees: “I couldn’t imagine working at a distillery where I had to taste and talk about the same thing day in, day out. I’d get bored! The awesome thing with Sullivans Cove is that every time we do a bottling it’s going to be a new experience.”

 

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Spending Time at Sullivans Cove

Posted by: Nick

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If you’ve only heard of one Tasmanian distillery, chances are that distillery is Sullivans Cove. Based in Hobart and formerly known as Tasmania Distillery, this founding father of Tassie whisky has a chequered and yet ultimately inspiring past and, as we Waffle boys discovered when we visited their site recently, an extremely promising future.

Sullivans Cove is one of Tasmania’s most visitor-friendly distilleries. The viewing platform looking out across the bond store is a proper money-shot (see above!) and in keeping with the establishment’s status as Tassie’s poster-child distillery. This honour was thrust upon Sullivans Cove in 2014 when a bottle of their French Oak Cask won the prestigious World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards and changed the face of Tasmanian whisky forever. But as our generous host, Strategy Manager Fred Siggins, was keen to point out, there is so much more to Sullivans Cove than barrel HH525.

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Consistency in flavour is a difficult task for the fledgling Australian whisky scene. Due to the size of the industry (or rather the lack thereof) most releases are the product of one barrel and therefore the flavours vary from bottle to bottle. While some distilleries choose to conveniently sweep this issue under the carpet, Sullivans Cove embrace it, hand labelling each bottle with a sticker informing the purchaser exactly which cask or casks are contained within. The result is that a dram of one French or American Oak bottling will be unlikely to taste identical to a previous one.

While this approach ensures Fred is continually explaining to customers why their new bottle tastes slightly different to their old one, it also forms one of the most exciting aspects of the distillery. During our visit we were lucky enough to sample not one, but two of the French and American Oak expressions. Had they not featured the distinctive blue and black labels we may not have picked them as the same bottling.

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In each case one dram was smooth and easy drinking and the other vibrant, fresh and zingy. Excitingly, we could not work out which of each we considered to be the better drop – instead deciding that we would prefer one over the other depending on the mood we were in. Fred agreed and recommended that Sullivans Cove customers leave a small amount in one bottle before opening the next, to really appreciate the difference.

The other exciting aspect of the distillery is the age of the whisky in the bond store – and in their bottles. Sullivans Cove head distiller Patrick Maguire has been creating whisky since taking over the company in 1999 and giving it a much-needed new lease on life in the process. This means that some of the barrels are now pushing 18 years old, an incredible age for an Australian spirit.

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Both the French and American Oak releases are usually aged for anywhere between 10 and 17 years while the entry level Double Cask release, a marriage of 2 to 4 American Oak barrels and one French Oak barrel, contains a cross section of particularly mature whisky, unheard of in any other Tasmanian release.

The only drawback of this premium method of whisky creation is the premium price. Sullivans Cove make no bones though about the fact that they make a premium product and are not looking to change that any time soon. Fred did point out, however, that there is a lot of new Australian whisky coming into the market currently demanding a similar (or greater) price to the Sullivans Cove Double Cask. While this new stock is exciting, the whisky is likely to only be 2 to 3 years old. When compared with the potentially 17 year old whisky found in the Double Cask, it really paints the Sullivans Cove price point in a positive light.

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Sullivans Cove is now one of the most recognisable brands in the New World spirits scene, an achievement which is a true testament to the work put in by Patrick Maguire all those years ago. For a very long time, his whisky creation was a labour of love, an unprofitable venture fuelled by passion rather than profit. The rules have now changed, however, and currently there are over twenty distilleries in operation in Tasmania – with more on the way. It is certainly no overstatement to say that this reality may not have come to be if not for Sullivans Cove Distillery.

Sullivans Cove will be open for tours seven days a week, starting in September! Tours depart hourly and can be booked at the Sullivans Cove site.

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A Stopover at Starward

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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They grow up so fast, don’t they? It was under two years ago that Whisky Waffle first visited New World Distillery/Starward in their Essendon Airport location and were impressed by their hardworking staff and their delicious whisky. Fast forward to the present and they’ve raised the bar considerably, upsizing their apparently insufficient aeroplane hangar for a gigantic warehouse, which in turn will likely be bursting at the seams in two years time.

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Starward has been a very busy distillery. On Nick’s previous visit he noted how staff worked around the clock on three distillations a day to create as much product as humanly possible – a key factor in keeping their prices within an accessible range for we mere mortals. This commendable approach has led to two key outcomes: a wide range of people have been able to try the whisky and their bond store has filled up in no time.

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The pressing lack of space at the old airport hangar led to a drastic solution: a new home. Their new premise is much closer to the city of Melbourne, located at 50 Bertie Street Port Melbourne, a short tram ride away from the city.

The cavernous open plan industrial space, some two and a half times larger than the Essendon facility, easily fits all the distillery equipment, the bond store and a slick bar area (although apparently they haven’t managed to find space for the basketball hoop yet). Also found within the walls is a team of fantastic staff members, such as Sasha, Rachel (how’s the hunt for an Aussie husband going?) and Cameron (cheers for showing us around and letting us try some of the best new-make in the business. You’re not really a spud).

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One of the big highlights of visiting the distillery (apart from the tree growing next to the bar) is the chance to try a variety of the New World Projects range, which are the result of the distillers getting creative in their spare time. We were lucky enough to sample the PX Cask #3 (sweet, fruity and now out of stock), Dram Full Single Cask #1 (oaky with a herbal finish), Lui Bar Selection #3 (spicy and rich, our pick of the session) and the First Distillery Last Release (cask strength and punchy).

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Thanks to everyone at Starward for the warm welcome on a cold day. It’s great having a distillery right in the city so that locals and tourists can easily visit. If you have a spare moment we can highly recommend heading down to Port Melbourne and dropping into one of Australia’s hardest working distilleries.

Starward Distillery is open Friday and Saturday 12pm-10pm and Sunday 12-8pm. Tours are conducted on those days at 2pm and 5pm.

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Larking about at Lark

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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Fact: the modern Tasmanian distilling scene was founded by Bill Lark.

Fact: the foundations for Whisky Waffle were laid down at the Lark bar.

Fact: it is rather shameful that we have never found the time to visit the Lark distillery

Recently the Whisky Waffle boys were down in Hobart with a rare free day to spend on whisky business, so we decided to take the opportunity to rectify an embarrassing gap in our Tasmanian distillery bucket list and tag along on an official Lark distillery tour.

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We were about to run away with the barrels when we discovered they were empty.

Lark offers a two-hour daily guided tour of their distillery facility out at Cambridge, 15min east of Hobart. Our tour started at the Lark bar in Hobart where we met Guy, our guide, and the rest of the group. To work out in what order to hand out the complimentary Lark tasting glasses, Guy started off by asking how close everyone lived to the distillery. Surprisingly it turned out that we North West coasters were the only true locals, with the other guests ranging from Melbourne and Sydney to Alabama.

After introductions we all piled into the tour van, affectionately known as the ‘Drambulance’. On the way out to Cambridge Guy regaled us with tales of the history of the Australian whisky scene and the part Bill Lark played in its resurrection. The road into the distillery passes through the grounds of Frogmore Creek winery, the vines providing wild yeast that is encouraged into the Lark fermentation vats to help create the unique Lark flavour.

The distillery itself, in true Australian fashion, is in a large tin shed that overlooks the Coal River Valley. Upon arrival we donned fluoro vests and met Chris Thomson, the self-proclaimed ‘most experienced distiller in Australia’ (and who are we to argue with him).

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Chris Thomson was also thrilled to meet the two most experienced Tasmanian whisky bloggers in Australia! (again self-proclaimed)

To lubricate our minds before starting the tour we were provided with a dram of the Lark Classic Cask, a perfect breakfast whisky (or at any other time of the day for that matter). Guy and Chris took us through the distilling process at Lark, from the Bill Lark-designed peat smoker, to the fermentation and the distillation.

Along the way the way we were able to try wort (aka sweet barley juice), wash (aka unhopped beer) and new-make spirit, which was fruity and soft. Chris gave us some handy nuggets of distilling advice such as “when going from the fores to the heart we smell and smell and smell and smell and smell and smell” and “using our amazing distillers skills we make the first cut,” *moves hose casually from one vat to another* “Very technical”.

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Those are some niiiiice sparge arms!

The final part of the tour was spent in the bond store (also a large tin shed) where Guy told us about barrel making and aging. We were also able to try some Lark straight from the barrel, which Guy fished out with a spirit thief, as well as some whisky from sister-distillery Overeem. Also on offer were Lark’s whisky liqueur, Sláinte, and several variants of their Forty Spotted gin.

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Every Lark tour is a barrel of laughs.

At the end of the sampling session our merry band of tourers re-embarked the Drambulance and headed back to the Lark bar. The tour had been a pleasant and informative mix of whisky stories, hands-on experience, technical information and waffling. Most importantly, we Waffle boys were finally able to show our faces in public again and proudly say that we had been to the distillery that started it all.

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The best thing about whisky tour groups is that you all end up best mates at the end!

Reflections on a visit to Islay

Posted by: Nick

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It is no exaggeration when I say that the isle of Islay is, without a doubt, my favourite place that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The quaint lime washed houses of Port Ellen, the spectacular coastline and beaches, the stark peat bogs and the friendly locals waving as you drive by all combine to create a coastal utopia. And then there’s the whisky. Ah… the whisky…

There is a reason that drams made on this Hebridean isle are famous the world over: they taste like nothing else on earth. Smoky, salty, oily and fiery as hell itself. On my first (gloriously sunny!) day upon the island I visited Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig: the worlds’ ultimate pub crawl. In the evening I lay down on the sand at Kintra Beach and watched the sun go down with a belly full of South-Ileach whisky. There  was not a more content man on the planet.

The next day I stood beneath the distinctive Port Ellen lighthouse, looked across the bay and felt more connected to a place than I have ever experienced in my life. I would go back today. I would drop everything. Just for one more whiff of that peaty air. Just for one drop of that liquid aptly described as the water of life.

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#IslayWeek

#LetsGetPeaty

Welcome to the Southern Wild

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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Yes, Ted hit his thumb with a hammer

Compared to the glut of distilleries in the Southern region of Tasmania, the North West has been fairly light-on for dram making. To be accurate, hitherto there has actually been just the one producer (although they make up for that by being the largest in the Southern Hemisphere). Thankfully, that paucity is set to change with the opening of a new kid on the block – say hello to Southern Wild distillery.

Based in Devonport, Southern Wild is the brainchild and consuming passion of one George Burgess. We first met George at a dinner in 2014 where he confided to us his dream of establishing a distillery in his home town and “teaming up with other passionate specialist Tasmanian producers to create small batch varieties of unique hand-crafted and seasonal/rare finest quality distilled spirits and liqueurs”. Our response was ‘nice one, it’s good to have dreams’, but boy has he really followed through with that threat!

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George: one day this will be whisky!

A food technician by trade, George has already spent years developing the skills and know-how that has allowed him to dive deep into the world of distilling. He loves discovering new ingredients for his gin-making and tinkering about with different flavours and scents. In fact, the name Southern Wild was inspired by the raw natural beauty of the places he finds some of his botanicals. “I’ll be going down some rough bush track, no phone signal and a nagging feeling of lurking cannibals. Suddenly the bush will clear and you’ll find yourself in this beautiful location encircled by nature and meet the most friendly, down-to-earth folk tending this amazing locally-grown produce.”

Formerly known as Devonport Distillery, Southern Wild has moved about a bit over the years – and its shiny new venue is not even its final location! Devonport has been going through a bit of an identity crisis of late which has led to the creation of what is known as the ‘Living City’ project. In a nutshell, this venture aims to knock down chunks of an inefficient and spread out CBD and rebuild them with a focus on fresh local produce, performing arts spaces and, eventually, a foreshore precinct. The former will be housed in a glamourous farmers market known as Providore Place, with small pods for local producers such as Southern Wild Distillery to sell their wares. A brand new building will be created for the distilling as the current home is a converted loading bay at the back of the council building – however we must admit, for a loading bay it scrubs up rather nicely.

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Stills and suspended plants make for the best distilleries

The room is dominated by the shiny new still, while a gleaming bar is a hive of activity with recently hired bar staff making fancy cocktails. Overlooking the entire room is a mezzanine with space for a band to play – a highlight for George when he first sighted it, telling us his response was “you had me at mezzanine”. Behind the music/hangout area is what looks like a mad scientist’s laboratory, but in reality is the space where George creates and tinkers with his product.

While there are currently a few barrels maturing several intriguing varieties of what will one day be called whisky, George unfortunately doesn’t have any ready yet. Instead he is focusing on what is truly his pet project: his gin. Ever since we’ve known him, George has been raving about his passion for gin and now he’s created not one, but three, each uniquely Tasmanian. Named ‘Dasher & Fisher’ after the two rivers which flow into Devonport’s own waterway, the Mersey, he has created ‘Mountain’ gin, richly flavoured by Tasmanian pepperberries, ‘Meadow’ gin, containing a strong hint of lavender and ‘Ocean’ gin, intriguingly salty with notes of wakame seaweed. While Ted loved the London dry style of the Mountain, Nick was more into the coastal aromas of the Ocean.

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The Ocean gin, surrounded by its botanicals

While this is only the beginning for Southern Wild, it certainly has a bright future ahead of it. It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of the distillery as it transitions from its temporary residence to its permanent home and the inspiration that provides George in his creations. And of course, being Whisky Waffle, we are particularly looking forward to the moment when we can share a dram. From the sneak peak we’ve had though, we are confident that Southern Wild will be releasing whisky that truly speaks for the place it was made, just as its maker intended.

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The still-maker, the still-man, and two idiots who are still waffling

Sheltering at Shene Estate

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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Seeing that Christmas is nearly upon us, we thought we’d begin this review with a Christmas cracker joke: 

Q. What do you get if you cross a keen back-shed distiller with a passionate architectural restorationist?

A. Shene Estate Distillery. (Come on, it’s at least as funny as any other Christmas cracker joke!)

Whisky maker Damian Mackey met heritage building conservationist David Kernke nearly ten years ago – Damian was looking for a location to make his eponymous whisky, while David was looking for something to diversify his new acquisition, the 19th century property Shene Estate. It must have been fate which brought these two together because, along with their respective families, they have created one of the most stunning distilleries in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world.

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Boys with their toys: L-R David Kernke and Damian Mackey

While the main building at Shene Estate looks like a grand mansion, it turns out that it was actually only built to keep horses in, making it one of the more expensive stables ever erected. It was constructed by English lawyer Gamaliel Butler who, as well as having an excellent name, also had a shrewd business sense. He used his wealth and social standing to begin work on a lavish country estate, but died before the main house was constructed, leaving only some outbuildings, including a Georgian Regency era homestead that David and Anne reside in, and the stables – and even that lacked the top of its central turret. Going by the grandiosity of the stables, one can only speculate as to what the main mansion would have looked like if it were ever finished.

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Proof that that magnificent building is, indeed, a stables

Whisky Waffle was lucky enough to be invited to visit Shene Estate earlier this year and meet the friendly team, consisting of head-distiller Damian Mackey, his wife Madeleine and the Kernke family – David, his wife Anne and daughter Myfanwy. While the reception we received was warm, the weather certainly wasn’t and we were nearly blown off the face of the earth while walking between the stables, the beautiful old barn and the distillery.

Speaking of the distillery, it is housed in a new purpose-built timber-clad shed that was designed to perfectly blend in with the existing 19th century architecture. Despite a third of the room being taken up by a truly epic stack of ex-sherry barrels, we still managed to clap our eyes on some beautiful distilling gear. A run was on the go while we were there, with David manning the still, and it seemed as good a place as any to ride out the storm.

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The still is eager to fill up all those barrels in the background

What the wind couldn’t achieve, the whisky certainly could – upon trying a dram we were totally blown away. Technically, we can’t officially call it whisky yet; what we were lucky enough to sample came from the first ever barrel produced at Shene Estate and was only 18 months old. We are apparently among the first in the world to try the matured spirit, a great honour for two whisky nerds. While the whisky is not yet the finished product, it shows a lot of potential to become one of the greats within the Tassie scene.

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Barrel number 1. The first of many.

The whisky is to be released under the name Mackey and its point of difference stems from Damian’s Irish heritage in that it is triple distilled. This produces a lighter and more refined spirit, although one certainly not lacking in depth; the style may be Irish, but the character is all Tasmanian. The new make is then transferred into ex-port barrels and stored in the loft of the stables. The solitary barrel currently looks rather lonely up there, but rest assured there are many more on the way.

In fact, the Shene Estate team revealed to us that there are big plans afoot for the future of the distillery. Things have been moving at an unexpectedly rapid pace and Damian told us with a mixture of pride and horror that they have skipped straight from year one to year five on their five year plan. The most exciting consequence of the expansion is the addition of two new stills to create a set of three – one for each distillation.

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And this still will be the smallest of the three!

While the architecture was stunning and the whisky exciting, the real highlight of our visit was meeting the wonderful people who have dedicated countless hours to making a pipedream into a reality. From Damian’s distilling, to Anne’s delicious Poltergeist gin, to Myf’s community engagement, to David straightening each and every piece of gravel in the courtyard, the team has created a unique and fascinating distillery. And even after a long afternoon showing Wafflers around the estate, they still had the energy to deliver us back to our lodgings and deliver David his chicken sandwich to see him through to the end of the distillation run. It’s that level of hospitality that ensures Shene Estate will always have a special place in our hearts.

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Selfies at Shene

Shene Estate Distillery has a road-side stall set up at the estate every Sunday between 10 and 4 which is staffed by friendly family members. Like to see more? You can also book a tour here.

Return to Redlands

Posted by: Nick and Ted

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They grow up so fast, don’t they? When we last visited paddock-to-bottle distillery Redlands in 2014, their spirit was still too young to be released and head distiller Dean Jackson was only just filling barrel number 42.

Fast forward two years and the shelves are stocked with elegant (cuboid) bottles of Redlands paddock-to-bottle Tasmanian single malt and Dean is busy filling bottle number 271. Oh, and did we mention that the distillery has moved 50km up the road to a new site?

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Knock knock! Wafflers at the door.

After the sale of the Redlands Estate property in late 2015, the distillery was faced with the challenge of finding a new home in just 21 days. After several weeks of stress-filled searching, they eventually settled on what they hoped would be the perfect venue: the heritage listed Dysart House in the small southern-midlands town of Kempton.

From the moment you push open the (heavy) front door you can tell that Redlands has fallen on its feet. The main house is built from beautiful sandstone blocks and the dark timbered interior houses the cellar door, kitchen, a sitting room with high backed leather chesterfields (careful not to slide off – Brigitte likes to keep them well polished) and a glorious blackwood table (which only made its way inside with help from Whisky Waffle’s muscle).

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The sitting (and drinking whisky) room

The distillery and bond store can be found in a red-bricked outbuilding off the side of the main house. Redlands’ continued growth is evidenced by the addition of a new still, with the (now) wash still, Heather, joined by new spirit still, affectionately known as the Mad Hatter. The bond store continues to expand, now housing hundreds of 20 and 100 litre barrels that once contained pinot noir, port, sherry and even Tokay.

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Heather and the Hatter

These days if you visit Redlands, you will be able to try some of the most elegant, drinkable and delicious whisky Tasmania has to offer. Redlands’ signature release is aged in Tasmanian ex-pinot noir barrels and is like drinking apricot jam. The unusual ex-tokay barrel release is broad and full across the palate, oozing with dark berries, while the ex-port barrel, which we tried at cask strength, offers marmalade, honey and vanilla.

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A wonderful room to drink wonderful whisky

Redlands has changed so much in the last two years, but they have even grander plans afoot for the near future. While the old brick outbuildings are charming and old-worldy, they simply don’t have any space for expansion as the distillery scales up production. The solution to this problem is the construction of a facility in the adjacent field, with work scheduled to begin in 2017. The new distillery will allow for a greater output, allowing the Redlands single malt to be enjoyed by a much larger audience.

The sale of the old Redlands estate could have easily spelled the doom of the distillery; instead it luckily seems to have made it stronger. Who knows what the future will bring, but you can be certain that Whisky Waffle will be back to find out.

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…and next time we’ll bring Dean a box to stand on in the photo!

Rye Reflections: my visit to Belgrove

Posted by: Nick

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While casually scanning through the many varied barrels in the bond store end of Pete Bignell’s converted stables, I asked him what he thought his signature expression was. It was a tricky question – I mean, it must be hard to settle on just one drop in a place of such experimentation, innovation and creation. And he looked at me with a grin and told me that his signature expression was exactly that. Not a barrel type, or even a grain; but creativity. I guess when you think about it, what else could possibly link a champion sand sculptor with a leading whisky maker – but creativity?

As we continued to waltz through different age statements, grains, barrel types and peat levels (north-east peated malt: phwoar!) I realised that no two barrels were alike. Each one had its own history and its own story – and Pete knew ‘em all. It’s clear now that embracing the lack of uniformity and instead pursuing creativity is what Belgrove is all about.

A Rye look at Belgrove

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The much-extended old stables which house Belgrove Distillery

In our review we jokingly referred to Belgrove Distillery’s Peter Bignell as the da Vinci of distilling. When we visited him, we discovered that we were actually bang on the mark. Case in point was his method for powering the pump that injected homemade biofuel into the burner for the still: an old Sunbeam Mixmaster (usually on ‘Whipped Cream’ setting!).

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Apparently meringue-setting heated the still too much!

Our arrival at the distillery was actually rather hampered by some pesky road workers, who decided to dig up the highway in front of Peter’s driveway half an hour before we arrived. We had to call over a massive grader to flatten the surface enough to get the Alfa over (the troubles with low sports cars).

Belgrove distillery takes its name from the property, which is also a working farm. This was apparent as soon as we opened the gate and spied a flock of freshly shorn sheep, which we later discovered Peter had taught to eat leftover rye mash. Scattered around the old stables building that houses the distillery were various contraptions cannibalised from old washing machines, scrap metal and Russian Typhoon-class nuclear submarines.

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This one is made from the parts of Apollo 11 which fell to earth

The distillery, located just outside the southern midlands town of Kempton, is unique in Tasmania in that it predominantly produces its spirit using rye instead of barley. The story goes that Peter had a spare paddock full of rye that needed using and so decided to turn it into whisky. Rather than buy expensive new equipment, and prescribing to a reuse and recycle ethos, he instead decided to build everything himself.

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Including this glorious piece of copper!

We need to stress that home-made doesn’t mean rubbish; the malter/peat smoker crafted out of an old tumble dryer is a work of genius, and the mash tun is perfectly functional – until it gets clogged up by the huskless rye that is. Peter quipped that when this happens he has to put the old wooden paddle appropriated from his kids’ dinghy to work to unclog it (he’s changed both the handle and the blade three times apiece, but maintains it’s still the same paddle).

Peter has been a farmer his whole life, only turning to distilling seven years ago. He said that his university degree in agricultural science has been invaluable, allowing him to exploit the science behind the art, although he doesn’t downplay the role of the natural yeasts and bacteria that inoculate the mash, which he refers to as Belgrove’s unique terroir. Peter is completely hands on with the whole process, from growing the grain, to the distilling, the bottling and especially the tasting.

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Peter is clearly a hands-on farmer

Luckily enough we were able to join him in tasting a variety of interesting spirits, including rye, barley, apple hatchet (distilled apple cider), ginger hammer (distilled ginger beer) and even an experimental batch of eau de vie that Peter was trialling for Tasmanian Cask Company’s master cooper Adam Bone, who dropped by to check on proceedings. The range was varied, exciting and specific to Belgrove, and it was inspiring to be able to taste such contrasting flavours produced in the one place.

We did however have our favourites; the rye at 47%, Pommeau (apple hatchet cut back with apple juice) and especially the Pinot Noir matured rye at cask strength, of which we took home bottles #1 and #2 of a new barrel. However, revelation of the day was the 100% malted barley smoked with peat from the previously untapped bogs in the north-east of the state. Good people of the world, are you ready for Tasmania’s answer to Scotland’s Islay? Well, it’s maturing in Peter Bignell’s bond store at this very moment.

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Nick filling bottle number one!

While Peter is expanding the old stables to house a new still and larger malting equipment, he still resolves to remain stubbornly small scale, championing the merits of a hands-on approach. He muses that “big distilleries only care about how much whisky per kilo of grain they can get. I’m trying to get the most flavour.” From our all too brief visit, it is clear that he is succeeding in that vision.

Tasmania is home to many distilleries, big and little, but perhaps none is more eclectic and fascinating to explore than Belgrove.

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Don’t worry, Ted. Someone has to have bottle number two!