When Peter Bignell started growing rye on his farm in the lush, green heart of Tasmania 40 years ago, it was as a windbreak to protect his strawberry crop. Today, he is one of Australia’s most respected distillers – and certainly one of its most maverick – whose award winning rye whisky is in every sense unique. Unfiltered caught up with Bignell to discuss Belgrove distillery’s curious origins and his distinctive approach to whisky making.
Unfiltered: You’re producing Australia’s only rye whisky, using equipment and processes that you basically created yourself. Did you set out to do things differently?
Peter Bignell: Not really. I just decided to distill, and didn’t really care how anyone else was doing it. So I built something that’s purely functional, just for making whisky, using whatever I had to hand on the farm.
I built my copper pot still myself – got some new sheets of copper cut out, and rolled them and welded them. I needed a lesson on how to use an arc welder to do that. Then I kicked some horses out of a stable, whitewashed it and put my stills in there.
All my rye is grown here on the farm too. 40 years ago, the agriculture Department gave me a little brown paper bag of seed – a new variety that they had picked up from some breeding programme. So in the first year I grew that in the garden, and the next year my brother and I harvested and threshed it by hand.
From that, we had enough to sow it out on an acre paddock. We borrowed a rotary harvester, that was just like a little hoe, and used our big seed drill, and a year later had enough to do a broad acre.
I’ve been sowing the same grain ever since. The grass feeds the sheep in the winter, then in the summertime I let it run up to head and harvest the seed off it. That goes in to the distillery and into next year’s crop.
Unfiltered: The idea of been self-sufficient and ecologically sound seems very important you.
PB: I guess my Scottish heritage makes me not want to spend too much money, so I try to save as much as I can. That comes through in energy use as well; I try to use as little energy as possible, recycle, reuse and try to get rid of fossil fuels wherever I can.
For example, the stills are fired by biodiesel. That may not sound very environmentally friendly, but I’ve been making biodiesel for years to run my vehicles on the farm, so a diesel burner with biodiesel was the obvious choice. I use recycled cooking oil from the diner down the road.
The spent mash, once I’ve extracted the sugar, goes back out to feed the sheep. I grow wool and prime lambs, so they turn the mash in to fertiliser, which I can then spread back into my rye field. The nutrients just go round and round, and at the end of it you get whisky.
I’m also capturing a lot of carbon. A lot of farmers now grow varieties with short stalks to capture more sunlight. My variety is quite old fashioned, so can grow to 5 or 6 ft. All that straw is locking up carbon dioxide that gets incorporated into the soil, which gets eaten by worms and put back in to the ground.
Unfiltered: And this approach really impacts on your whole process, doesn’t it?
That’s right. So, instead of using energy to dry out the grain and stop it from growing, I just put it through a meat mincer. It doesn’t use any energy, but it sure as hell stops it growing! I only make enough for each batch, so it’s a bit fiddly as I have to malt each time, but it only takes up a small about of time.
Only about 20% of my grain is malted – the vast majority stays unmalted, a little bit like the Irish whiskies. There’s plenty of enzymes in the malted grain to convert that starch into alcohol.
Unfiltered: How much of a difference, if any, does this make to the spirit?
PB: Well, the green malt I’m sure gives a slightly different flavour to my whisky than if it was dried and roasted. Also, having direct heat on the stills from the diesel burners gives a little smoky barbeque aftertaste that just lingers at the back of the palate. I’m very happy with the flavour profile I’ve got, so I’m sticking with it.
Another good example is mashing and fermentation. Mashing takes about three days here, because the husk is so thin on rye that the mash goes very thick and porridge-like, making it slow to drain. When I first started doing this, I noticed the mash went sour over that time, and I was worried it had spoiled. Eventually, I worked out that it was being colonised by the resident lactobacillus bacteria, which were producing acid and actually preserving the mash, the way it preserves milk.
The interesting thing is that when the wort then gets into the fermenter, the acidity reacts with the yeast and produces esters, and those esters give it really fruity notes. So in the winter the fermenters smell like quince, and in the summer it must be slightly different esters so it smells like passionfruit yogurt.
Unfiltered: So is this unique to you?
PB: Not at all, though the fact that I acknowledge it as part of my flavour is unusual. There was a study done of two Scottish distilleries that were very close by, and had absolutely identical equipment and processes, yet produced very different spirit. It was found that the resident strains of lactobacillus in each was different, and it was most likely that which was causing these markedly different characteristics.
Unfiltered: Finally then, are you proud of what you do, and how do you see the distillery developing.
PB: The way I do things here is sustainable, but first and foremost I want to make good whisky. So just in whisky terms I think Bellgrove is pretty special. It’s nothing like American rye whiskies – more expensive for a start, but I think good value. It’s a long process – if I put the economics first, I’d avoid this really long mashing, but then I’d lose those fruity esters. But if I was a big company, there’s no chance they’d do it this way.
This interview forms part of a much wider look at Australian whisky, in the January 2015 issue of Unfiltered. To enjoy the full magazine and a world of other exclusive member benefits, join The Scotch Malt Whisky Society today.