Peter Bignell is not your average distiller and Belgrove is not your average distillery. His was the first true rye whisky in the country, made solely from rye, rather than barley.
But it’s the “green bit”, as Bignell calls it, that marks Belgrove out as an industry leader. It’s the only biodiesel-powered distillery in the world, and a model for a sustainable, closed-loop farming and distilling operation; however, initially the motivation to change was less about ethics and more about economics.
The genesis of the very first Belgrove whisky was a bountiful rye harvest at Bignell’s Kempton farm, north of Hobart.
“What really got me interested was doing some work at Nant Distilling Company. They offered me a job as their distiller. But I had a farm to run and didn’t want to work for anyone else,” he says. “Then a couple of years later I got a really good crop of rye and couldn’t sell it.”
So he bought welding equipment and copper sheeting to fashion a still. That still was later joined by a second continuous still and a drum malter – constructed out of an old clothes dryer.
“The sustainability thing was to try and do everything on the cheap. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I just built a lot of stuff and reused what I could,” Bignell says.
“The green bit came about when I was on an American distilling forum. One day I quizzed people about using enzymes to get improved yield and I was criticised for not being completely natural. It made me think about what I was doing. So going green was not my initial intention.”
He starts a new batch with a plentiful supply of high-quality rye, grown in Tasmania’s pristine environment. Water – a vital component of whisky production both as a base and to cool stills – is all drawn from rainfall harvested off the property.
All waste water then goes back to irrigate rye crops for the next season, with the leftover rye waste used as feed for the sheep he keeps on the property.
A key input to most distilleries is energy, particularly for heating the stills. Bignell has created a unique solution for this demand by utilising biodiesel. There’s a roadhouse near his farm, and every two weeks he collects the leftover frying oil used for the house specialty, fish and chips.
After filtering the oil, he uses it to not only heat his stills but also to power much of the machinery on the farm and heat his house. In doing so, he’s extracting all possible energy from this valuable resource that would otherwise be discarded.
Shipping and the carbon footprint are also kept to a minimum, with the rye grown, malted and distilled on the one farm. And recently Belgrove had solar panels installed, bringing the external electricity use down to almost nil.
When it comes to ageing, Bignell sources a range of barrels previously used for beer, wine and whisky – for additional complexity – saving them from the scrap heap. He then retoasts the barrels on-site before refilling them with new spirit.
It comes as no surprise that like the man, Bignell’s range of whiskies are complex. They’re also delicious.