midlands

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.

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!

Belgrove Brown Rye

Reviewed by: Ted

Belgrove Brown RyeEverybody knows by now that Tasmania is a hub of whisky revolution. Ever since the resurrection of the industry in the 90’s, things have been taking off quicker than an alka-seltzer bottle rocket. So how do you innovate in a young industry that’s already innovating its socks off? Rye thought you’d never ask…

Founded by Peter Bignell, a man often described as a Da Vinci of distilling (well, he definitely is now), Belgrove Distillery is located just outside Kempton in the southern Midlands of Tasmania. DIY, organic and hand-made sums up Belgrove’s vibe, with Pete quite literally crafting everything from the ground up, including the stills, barrels, biodiesel (made from left-over chip oil from the local take-away and used to power the stills) and of course the grain used in the whisky itself.

The grain is where Belgrove really makes its point of difference from all the other Tasmanian distillers. Why use boring old barley when you can use rye instead, organically grown on-site? After growing a bumper crop of the stuff on the farm in 2008 (a favourite grain of the Canadian distillers but not used in Tassie), Pete was apparently inspired to turn it into whisky. Being a extraordinarily talented and driven individual, one thing led to another and here we are today.

Belgrove now produces a number of different 100% rye drops, including white rye, black rye, peated rye and of course, the subject of this review, the brown rye.

The nose of the brown rye is dark and fruity, full of ripe apple, plum and apricot. It rather reminds me of the scent of the bowl of home-made preserved stewed fruit my grandma always used to keep in her kitchen cupboard, a very fond memory. Alongside the fruit is rose petals, custard and an undertone of dull metal, like drinking from a rough copper mug.

The taste is quite different to the flavour complex produced by the nose. Although its body initially starts off fruity, it immediately transmogrifies into deep earthy, ashy flavours, like smouldering rye stubble in a paddock or curling incense smoke in a gypsy tent. The finish is slightly bitter and astringent but very satisfying, like having a cup of black tea after a sweet dessert.

Everything you thought you knew about Tasmanian whisky goes out the window when you try the Belgrove brown rye. It’s like learning to drink whisky all over again, an exciting time full of power and emotion. It is a spirit that resonates powerfully with the creative, hands-on ethos of its maker. If you want to try something different, yet still uniquely Tasmanian, then the rye of Belgrove awaits you.

★★★

Belgrove Brown Rye

Tasmanian whisky: One state. Three ingredients. Unlimited flavour.

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