A Long Way For a Glass of Whisky...
Written by TRACY TOWER
Photography by SANTA FABIO
Going Down Under brings up many ideas of what you would see or do. I always wanted to see if it is true that toilets flush backwards in the southern hemisphere and see the Southern Cross. Then, something I read in ‘Whiskey – A tasting Guide’ by Eddie Ludlow is that Australia is the third fastest growing country in distilleries. So being a whiskey drinker, I added that idea to the list. Whiskey tasting.
As it turns out, even though I was assured of the phenomenon, all the toilets there flushed straight back so I cannot personally verify if water revolves in a different direction in the southern hemisphere. I did see the Southern Cross, but finding whiskies to taste proved to be an acquired skill. Not many bars served Australian whiskies, and the “Bottle Shops” (only place you could purchase liquor) did not have much of a selection either. Time did not allow for visiting many distilleries. On the other hand, I did find a couple tents set up at a local street market and did get a small bottle to try from a bottle shop.
After talking to the vendors at the market, I realized that most of the available whiskies are malted whiskies and most of the distilleries there are “very” small batch and not large enough to distribute any further than their own sales room. Barrel aged whiskies are done in mostly used barrels. Some of them bourbon barrels from the USA but mostly wine barrels from France. Oak tress do not grow in Australia, and it is not cost effective to import new barrels. Cooperages are almost nonexistent with only one being known of. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of distilleries in Australia, they are just hard to find. The two distilleries at the market were Spring Bay and Captain Bligh.
Both Spring Bay and Captain Bligh’s malted whiskies tasted very similar, smooth for being young, with a slight malted aftertaste, and sweet on the tongue. What was interesting is on a blind taste test at Captain Bligh’s the whiskey was not a whiskey but a Rum! Too bad we cannot get that here in the good old USA. It was what I would call a sipping Rum, not the usual mixers we get in Michigan.
My friend and fellow NSSC member Jeff Jones purchased a bottle of ‘Lark Classic Cast Single Malt’ for me. It was good whiskey, very expensive, beautifully packaged, and very much appreciated. The story behind it is too funny not to pass on. Jeff and I went into a Bottle Shop that was attached to a bar/restaurant. Not many of these in the area so it was a popular spot for locals. After checking on the shelves and not finding many Australian brands, we asked the lady behind the counter. “Do you have any Australian whiskeys?” She indicated a few bottles on a small shelve behind the cash register. Jeff asked her “Have you tasted any of them and which do you prefer?” She rang one up from the first shelf and was going to give us a price. Jeff and I looked at each other with that WT#? look and then Jeff tried again rephrasing the previous question. Which got us a no, I think. Seems like the lady does not speak much English. So, I ask “Can we taste any of these?” She again mutters the word she used before for ‘no’ and tells us not here, but we could purchase drinks at the bar next door. So, we had to go back out the door and into the parking lot then go in another door into the bar. As we do, EVERYBODY stops talking and turns around. Obviously, the whole town (12 people) was already there so we had to be strangers. We swagger like John Wayne up to the bar, and ask the same lady, what brands she had behind the bar that she had in the Bottle Shop. She did not know and had to go back into the shop to check. She comes back and points one out, “This one!” So, Jeff asks “Can we have a shot of that?” Again, she uses that word for ‘no’ which now really has the both of us confused with that same bewildered look as before. Apparently, a shot, at this establishment, is called a neat, not a shot, whatever, “can we have a neat of that whiskey?” Jeff asks. “With ice or no ice?” she asks, now in a little more understandable English, but still gives us a WT# facial expression, but at least we are making progress. Unfortunately, the only bottle they had of that one was $900. They did have a small bottle similar to what we tasted so that is how we ended up with what was bought. It lasted two days and I will make a pirate flask out of the empty bottle. However, the biggest story, one of the most fun stops of the trip, was at a small distillery that Santa and I found on our way to the next Air B&B, Belgrove Distillery.
Belgrove’s claim to fame is what they called a “Zero-kilometer distillery.” Which means that all their whiskeys are brewed from sources on their own farm. They also use repurposed equipment to brew their product and manufactured their own still using solar power welder. (That must have taken a long time) The still is heated with Biodiesel that they refine from used frying oil donated by the restaurant down the road. The grain dryers are old industrial clothes dryers, and the grinder is made from discarded equipment they picked up from roadside trash. Their bestselling whiskey is ‘Wholly Shit Rye Whisky,’ which is smoked from (you might want to sit down for this) dried out sheep dung. Yes, from their farm too! Obviously, we had to set up a tour for this...
The directions were simple, go to this restaurant and give them a call. Done. Drive back up the road until you see a VW van and follow. Done and done. We follow a white VW van down a two-track beautiful flower garden lined road, past a hand-hewn sandstone mansion, and stop at a grass parking lot by a farm gate, complete with sheep on the other side. Maan, a transplanted Iraqi with a ZZ Top look and an Australian accent, greets us after jumping out of the van. He is one of the three employee’s one is Peter the owner. Peter, described by Maan as a Scientist, and Maan, a chemist, give us a lively tour.
They are very enthusiastic on what they do and extremely excited about giving us a tour of their creation. And what a creation it is. Along with what I described above, Peter is an accomplished local artist and there are several pieces of his sculptures about. Relevant to the whiskeys are Peter’s ingenious repurposing of discarded equipment to use in the distilling process. Shown are the dryers, heated by the biodiesel. And the still Peter designed, and hand made. (Another is being made to increase output.)
At the tasting room, after an informative and delightful tour, we see a wall of various bottles of whiskeys.
Photographers note: I am not much of a whisky drinker, but Belgrove's whiskies were the best I have ever tasted.
Please read the continuation of the article on my blog. Part 2 has some more information and photographs.
Detroit People & Commercial Photographer