Media Spotlight – The Mercury

It brings a rye smile

GRAEME PHILLIPS   |   May 10, 2011 12.00am   |   themercury.com.au

YOU’VE probably seen him at events like Hobart’s Wooden Boat Festival. He’s the man who makes those amazing sand sculptures.

He is also the man who so beautifully restored the old water mill at Nant in Bothwell. And, until the drought hit, he used to grow and sell about two million strawberry runners to all parts of Australia each year.

He also collects waste cooking oil from a few cafes, puts it through a home-made Heath-Robinson set-up and turns it into bio-diesel to run all his farm vehicles, home central heating and hot water.

Most recently, he built himself a 500-litre copper pot still and has become Tasmania’s and, as far as I can tell, Australia’s first producer of rye whisky using the only home-made, bio-diesel-powered still in the country.

You could say Peter Bignell is a most talented and versatile man. And his rye whisky is, for me at least, a knockout.

When he was 15, Peter brought a particular variety of rye from the mainland and grew it to feed sheep and cattle at the family’s Thorpe property at Bothwell. It is the same rye he is growing 40 years later for his whisky on his Belgrove property at Kempton.

The process he uses is much the same as that by which whisky and other distillates are made the world over. Put simply, part of the rye grain is malted (germinated), then mixed with milled rye to form a mash, which is steeped in hot water to convert the soluble grain starches to sugars. The liquid is then drained, fermented and distilled with, in this case, the residual dried mash going to fatten some lucky Berkshire pigs.

A committed environmentalist, the whole process is as effective a closed loop as he can make it.

As Peter says: “The only things I bring in are the waste oil and yeast, and the things to go out are whisky and pigs.”

But here’s the tricky bit. The beginnings and ends the fores and feints of distilling runs contain many undesirable flavour and aromatic impurities and the quality of the middle cut, or heart of the run, and of the final product is largely determined by the point at which the distiller cuts these fores and feints off.

Once he has done this on the first distillation, Peter repeats the process by passing the middle cut through a second time to achieve an even purer and higher-alcohol, double-distilled rye spirit.

Now, Scotch and Tasmanian malt whisky are made from 100 per cent malted barley. The American bourbons you see around the traps by law are made using a minimum of 51 per cent corn, the balance being made up of other grains.

Similarly, American rye whisky is made using a minimum of 51 per cent rye, while Peter’s is from 100 per cent rye.

Rye was the most popular style of whisky in the US until Prohibition and the subsequent advent of bourbon. Sweeter and fruitier than bourbon, it was also the original basis of such famous cocktails as the Manhattan and Old Fashion.

While I’m far from being any sort of expert on these styles of whisky, what Peter has produced and bottled since his first bottling in February is quite wonderfully sweet, fruity and spicy, smooth and without any coarse vegetal aromas or flavours. And it goes down a treat.

While he’s experimenting with barrel ageing, at this stage the whisky is a colourless “white” spirit, making it an ideal mixer.

Perhaps some bar around town might even like to see what a true Manhattan or Old Fashion tasted like in their original form.

For Peter, it’s still early days and production is understandably small.

“The pot still I made is modelled on one of Bill Lark’s early ones,” he says.

“Down the track, when I really get going, I’ll build a larger one.”

In the meantime, his Belgrove White Rye whisky is available at Cool Wines and Lark Distillery in Hobart, or Peter can be contacted on 0409 144 560.

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