The world wide publication “WHISKY MAGAZINE” recent awarded my Belgrove Distillery “Icons of Whisky Australia, Craft Producer of the year 2019”.
It has got me thinking about the meaning of “craft”.
When I think of craft I often remember my Father in-law telling me about someone watching his father hand build a huon pine yacht. The onlooker was trying to pay him a complement and said “The work of a tradesman” the reply was “I am far better than that, I am a craftsman”.
That yacht was built entirely by hand. The timber was stacked in racks under their house for years to dry. It was all cut to length by hand saw, shaped and smoothed with hand planes, drilled with a brace and bit, steamed and bent in a home made steam box. All the wooden plugs to cover the brass screws were sanded to shape by hand. Every part of that quite large yacht had his hands and eyes shape and assemble it. The only thing his hands did not do was cut the trees down and mill the logs.
When it comes to making whisky there are certainly degrees of craft.
Craft does not necessarily mean small, for instance one can purchase very small computer controlled stills, just dial in the ABV you want, tip in some distillers beer (also known as wash) and switch on. There are even miniature computerised home breweries that can make the distillers beer. Relying on computers to control the processes is not craft.
To me craft distilling means a person or a small team using their senses and hands to manipulate every step in the process.
Where does that process start? Some distilleries buy distillers beer from breweries, it is strong beer without hops. Their craft starts at the still and finishes when it is in the bottles.
Others buy malted grain and craft that through mashing and fermentation. For some distilleries that process can be automated but for many it is all guided by craftsmen.
There are also a few distilleries that buy grain then malt it.
There are even fewer distilleries that grow their own grain as Belgrove does.
There are even fewer distilleries that also have their own peat bog. I dig the peat from one of our family farms, the bog is just behind my Brother’s house close to Bass Strait so it has quite a coastal influence.
At Belgrove all our grain is grown just near the distillery. It is harvested and stored late in the summer. The grain is then malted, mashed, fermented, double distilled in stills built by hand at the distillery. Each of those steps is monitored and tweaked by eye, nose and taste.
The decisions about where to make the “cuts” from fores to heart to feints are done only by nose and taste, no instruments used. The spirit is filled into barrels that are re-coopered and re-fired at the distillery. But that is not the end of the craft. As the various barrel types mature over the years they are regularly sampled and are not bottled until our noses and taste buds say the whisky is ready. Some barrels mature very quickly, some never become great whiskies as a single barrel. These are carefully vatted with other barrels of various ages and types to produce a top quality whisky.
Every stage of the whisky making at Belgrove is guided by our noses and taste buds. We are aiming to produce great flavours, alcohol is treated as if it is a by-product. The only instrument we rely on is a thermometer during mashing. Alcohol is measured at various stages of production but it is for record keeping only, not for decision making.
To be recognised for one’s craftsmanship the end product must be of a very high standard. Noma Restaurant from Copenhagen has been voted top restaurant in the world many times. When it installed its “pop up” in Sydney a couple of years ago it selected 5 of Belgrove’s products for its bar. Also World renowned Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible has scored 7 Belgrove whiskies as Liquid Gold in the last four years, and includes best whisky in the southern hemisphere 2019.