Belgrove. An artisan and his farm causing a stir in the world of rye whisky.
Belgrove. Imagine you are living back in the 1890’s and like most people then, you own a successful and fruitful farm of some sort. You may grow crops or raise cattle, but whatever it is you are thrifty and you know how to make good of what you have on your land. Now step onto Peter Bignell’s property just north of Hobart, Tasmania where he is a sixth generation farmer and now not only farms, but makes his infamous Belgrove Rye Whisky. You take a step back in time and see the entrepreneurship Peter has put into his whisky production set up. I guess as the old moonshiners would tell you, if you have extra grains from your farm, make whisky! Over the past 6 years Peter has made quite a name for himself in the Tas whisky industry; not just by his style of production equipment, but also because he is making rye. Rye is typically a grain grown in Canada and the US and that is why rye whisky usually comes from these regions. Most other distilleries on this Australian island are sticking to their guns with single malts and malted barley. I spent the morning with Peter and Jarrod, his new employee, and got to see how he has used old farm equipment, left over cooking oil and other local resources to make a completely self-sufficient distillery on only cooking oils and hydro-electricity.
The first step of making whisky is malting the grains. As you may have read in past stories, malting and malting floors in general are a lot of work. You have to trick the barley into thinking it is growing and continuously tend to it so it doesn’t stick to itself. By making it think it is growing, enzymes are released and the starch within the grain is turned into sugar. We need this sugar at a later step of the whisky making process where yeast turns this sugar into alcohol. Malting also takes a few days and most people outsource this part of the process now (see Supply Chain/Production on HerWhiskyLove). To malt himself, Peter took an old, industrial clothes dryer and now uses this as his malting machine. He regularly adds water to the fresh rye or barley with a small sprinkler and can agitate it as he sees fit by putting the “tumble” setting on. This has been very effective and due to increase in demand, he recently made by hand and out of scrap metal, a much larger tumble dryer system to malt larger quantities of mainly barley at one time. He does peat a few batches of his grains and uses a northern Tasmanian peat that he digs from his brothers farm. You may have also heard people talking about how rye is a difficult grain to work with in the whisky making process. Peter explained this further to me by saying that it can get quite sticky and creates a lot of foam in the wash still.
Now moving on to the mash and getting the sugary water out of the grains. Again, as you can probably already sense a pattern, Peter has an alternative for his mash tun. It is an old stainless steel milk vat that he has added a lauter (filter) screen in at the bottom. A rye mash typically takes about 2 days. Rye takes more time than a full malted barley mash. Peter is a firm believer that the wild fermentation of these new sugars from the grain starts in the mash tun. We smelled the wort coming out of the mash tun and it already had a stone fruit kind of smell and other fruity ester notes. The wort is then moved to the fermenters and each has the capacity to hold 700 liters. He uses a commercial yeast to ensure consistency and the fermentation process lasts anywhere from 5-15 days depending on the time of year and temperature. If it does get too warm, they will cool it down. The newly fermented wash is then moved to the single pot still. This pot still is again a unique design that Peter built himself. It sits solemnly in the dark corner of the barn and is purely run on cooking oil. He prides part of his flavor on the flame that comes across the bottom of the still and gives caramelized, burnt-toast flavors to the new make. This means it has to be cleaned out quite regularly due to build up, but it is worth it for the flavor additions. The condenser actually sits on top of the pot still if you look closely at the picture. There is no lyne arm and all condensing happens at the top of that still. It is actually the original style of a Portuguese brandy still. The wash and spirit runs all run through this one still. All cuts are made by Peter or his employees smell and taste. As you can probably assume nothing is automated and there is no plan to move in that direction. Peter’s major focus is quality, flavor and process and not yields.
Bottling and labeling are all done on site. They get their casks from SA Cooperage and The Tasmanian Cask Company. They have a range of cask types like most distilleries and have pinots, shiraz, ex-bourbon and sherry casks. All in different sizes as well, but mostly 100 and 200 liters. Rye may be difficult to work with in the production process, but it doesn’t typically need to age as long as malt barley whisky. Rye typically only needs about 2-3 years in oak to be at its peak of flavor and balance. Here are a few of his top releases. These are a range of single cask releases and bottlings that were a marriage of 3-4 casks.
100% Rye Whisky- multiple batch releases and his most notorious release
Oat Whisky- Made mainly from oats plus small amounts of wheat, rye and barley
Peated Rye- This is incredible. My whisky friends and I still cannot think of any other peated rye being made right now
Pommeau- typically a French drink made of apple juice and aged in a barrel of apple spirit
Grappa- Grape based brandy made from winery waste alcohol
Black Rye- Espresso and rye whisky
There are many other experimental releases and special bottlings. The most infamous are his rye’s. Here are my tasting notes for a few:
100% Rye Whisky Aged 2-3 Years
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Earthy, pear and some barn like qualities. Spice for sure.
Palate: Sweet fruits, pears again, and a barn like finish.
*Keep in mind where I drank this. Literally on a farm, in a barn!
100% Rye Finished in Pinot Noir Casks
Holly’s Tasting Note..
Nose: Grape, oak, tangerines, pepper.
Palate: Crystal sugar candies, raisins and coco.
Jim Murray raved about this one in one of his latest books.
Jim Murray wrote (I have attached the link for his exact notes and I just summarized below) …
Nose: Grains, nougat and you can taste the rye.
Palate: Concentrated rye, sharp, oily and fruit underneath with brittle dark sugars. The finish has nougat again and sugars with the rye spice.
Belgrove's rye whisky, 100% Rye Aged 3 Years in an ex-Overeem French oak (port) cask was called “Liquid Gold” by Jim Murray.
Each step of the Belgrove whisky process is in one large barn and then separated into individual horse stables. It has been divided in this way since the start of production and now Peter is sure if he moved it out of this old stable/barn, the wild yeasts and process would be altered significantly. He continues to just build on to this original site and he increases production. Peter has big plans for his whisky business and is already working on a new column still that will be ready soon. Jarrod will be helping to host all of the visitors that want to see where his infamous rye comes from and as for Peter, he plans to keep doing what he is doing. Bottling when he sees fit and continuing to make great tasting and high quality rye on his family’s property. I think the generations before him would be very proud. I also wanted to make note that Peter is not only an artisan when it comes to whisky and rye distillation, but also other forms of art in the sculpting world. Check out more of his creative skills here--http://www.pbsculptures.com/