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King in the north: Fannys Bay Distillery launches its whisky

Posted by: Ted

Ted n Mat Whisky Waffle

Compared to the established distilleries of the south, the north of Tasmania has been something of a permafrost-covered wasteland, devoid of all but the hardiest specimens. Scratch the surface however and you will find new life growing vigorously, with a multitude of start-ups building stills and laying down spirit.

Now the first of this new cohort has come to fruition, with Fannys Bay Distillery officially launching its range. Owned and run by the lovely Mathew and Julie Cooper, Fannys Bay is based on the far north coast in the rather appropriately named hamlet of Tam O’Shanter.

Small scale, hand crafted and innovative could be the bywords of Fannys Bay. The small still that resides in the Cooper’s garage was hand built by Mathew and each 20L barrel that is filled is mothered like a flock of chickens until maturity.

The launch was held at the recently opened Kingsway Whisky Bar in Launceston. The venue turned out to be rather easy to find thanks to the live quartet of bagpipers stationed outside the doorway, deafening guests as they entered the bar.

Bagpipes whisky waffle

The long, narrow space was quickly filled with friends and fans of Fannys Bay, including luminaries of the Tassie whisky scene such as Casey and Jane Overeem, Craig Johnstone, Damien Mackey, Rex Burdon, George Burgess and Troy Trewin. Mathew and Julie were gracious hosts, warmly welcoming their well wishers and even finding time to carry around some of the excellent cheese platters that had been provided.

Troy, Jane, George, Ted

Troy, Jane, George and some hipster

While the brie may have been rather fine, the real stars of the show were the three expressions of Fannys Bay being generously poured by Mathew. On offer were a pinot cask 43%, a port cask 62% and a sherry cask 63.4%. The pinot was light and smooth with notes of grapes and green apples. In comparison the sherry was robust and full of stewed fruits and spice, while the port was dark and rich, oozing raisins, sticky prunes and burnt toffee. Everybody who tried a dram came away with a satisfied look on their face and there was quite a long line to buy the flat, rectangular bottles with their vaguely Victorian inspired lettering and painted reverse.

Fannys Bay Bottle whisky waffle

The official part of the evening was conducted by Rex, Jane and Casey, who all spoke passionately about the warm, friendly and hospitable nature of the Coopers and their willingness to share their knowledge and experience with others. Jane noted that it was ‘exciting to see people who have such passion jumping into an industry with such a huge amount of opportunity’. After rather sheepishly admitting that he had been to see the distillery for the first time only a few hours before, Craig got up recited a poem to a rather amused crowd:

May you have shortbread when you’re hungry,

Whisky when you’re dry,

Pennies when you’re poor,

And heaven when you die.

Speeches whisky waffle

After the speeches were concluded, several bottles of the first barrel laid down by Mathew were put up for auction. Barrel #1 (Bourbon) Bottle #1 was claimed by Traralgon based whisky collector Shane Barbour, who remained calm under fire from competing bids to claim his prize (he mentioned that he also has a #1 bottle of Oveerem, lucky sod). Talking afterwards, Shane reflected that one of the reasons he keeps coming down is that everyone in the Tassie scene is so friendly and welcoming (plus the chance to collect unique whiskies).

The evening concluded in a relaxed fashion, with guests chatting away amicably in small groups and nibbling pieces of Fannys Bay pinot cask chocolate brownie. Mathew and Julie glowed with pride as they reflected on the success of the evening. When pressed, Mat said that he was “very, very pleased to be able to show that we have such a great Tasmanian product,” with Julie adding that “It’s been such a great journey.”

Mat n Julie Whisky Waffle

The last word comes from Troy (which I think would rather please him), who quite succinctly summed the evening up thus: “Tonight was a candlelight held up in the Tasmanian craft distilling scene, industry coming together to celebrate this nascent venture, a leader of the northern new wave. Patience has been worth it.”

Look out Southerners, the North is alive!

b n w Ted whisky waffle

 

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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!

Having fun at Fannys Bay

Posted by: Nick and Ted

Whisky Waffle at Fannys Bay

Our favourite kind of shed

As self-styled whisky adventurers we get to meet some really fantastic people in the whisky business – case-in-point are Mathew and Julie Cooper, founders of the rather fabulously named Fannys Bay Distillery. Residing on Tasmania’s North coast they have brought whisky making to a region hitherto bereft of locally produced drams. As far as we (and they) know, Fannys Bay is Tasmania’s smallest distillery, but all indications suggest they will be punching well above their weight.

The Whisky Waffle boys travelled to the remote community of Tam O’Shanter to visit the Coopers on a sunny Sunday afternoon – or at least it would have been sunny if it were not for the thick smoke haze left by the bushfires. Mathew and Julie invited us into the shed to see where the magic happens, a location they both hope to spend a bit more time in this year as they have both recently retired. Mathew used to be a coordinator at the TAFE, though he has not quite left his teaching roots behind – regularly receiving visits from wannabe distillers (and semi-amateur whisky writers!).

Julie told us that Mathew first had the idea to make his own whisky after trying some dodgy homemade stuff at a friend’s place. He woke up the next day with a sore head and thought “there must be a better way”. Being a very hands-on type of person Mathew built much of the distillery himself, including the gristmill and the still.

Matt and Juls Cooper of Fannys Bay Whisky Waffle

Today in metalwork… Matt built a still.

“To make a product how you want it, it starts with the basics,” Mathew told us as he enthusiastically filled a couple of glasses with new-make spirit – one made with Gairdener barley, the other with Westminster. The difference between the two was subtle but noticeable, with the former being richer and more floral, whereas the latter was lighter and more herbal. Both left us curious and excited about what Fannys Bay whisky would be like when mature. Unfortunately the oldest spirit had only been in barrels for 12 months and therefore cannot be called whisky for another year. Of course that didn’t stop us from having a small sample – for purely education purposes, naturally.

We were presented with a pinot cask, a possible sherry cask, and a definite port cask, and were hard pressed to choose our favourite. Their aim to create an easy-drinking malt that appeals to a range of people is certainly looking on track. Take note people – in 12 months time Fannys Bay will be one to look out for.

While Julie is slowly (but happily) being converted into a whisky drinker, Mathew is more than happy to sample the odd dram. He loses no sleep about the success of the product, happily stating: “If people want to buy it, we sell it. If they don’t – then I have a lovely room full of whisky!”

Find out more about Fannys Bay via our links page