Meet the Distiller - Peter Bignell from Belgrove Distillery in Kempton, TAS
When we fall in love with an Australian craft spirit, it’s a lot more than enjoying the drink in the glass. It’s an adventure into finding out the beginnings of your favourite tipple.
This is where we get to Meet the Distiller - the opportunity to learn more about the people who breathe life into these remarkable spirits.
Peter Bignell from Belgrove Distillery in Kempton, Tasmania
It’s wrong to label Peter simply as a distiller.
For starters, like many Aussie craft distillers, he’s a farmer - a six-generation farmer in fact. But he’s also an artist and craftsman, and has a keen eye for recycling, up-cycling and the environment.
This last string to Peter’s bow comes from his loathing of waste.
Apart from hand-building his own distillery from scratch, Peter also grows his own grain for his whisky, which puts him in a very rare league to start with.
He also heats his still with biofuel (foraged fryer fat from local restaurants), harvests rainwater from his property, feeds his livestock with discarded mash grain and even uses the heads from his distillate in the wiper jets on his car.
And that’s merely the part of the iceberg we can all see. So let’s dip our toe further in the water and find out more about the man they call Hollywood.
1. How did you get started as a distiller?
Before I got into the whisky industry, I was a farmer and I still am. I was/am also a professional sand and ice sculptor.
I met Bill Lark and a few other pioneers in the Tasmanian whisky industry in about 2007 when I was restoring the old water-driven flour mill that was to become Nant Distillery.
While the distillery was being built, I became fascinated with whisky and the process of making it.
Back on my farm a couple of years later, I had just harvested a bumper rye crop. But to my disappointment I was unable to sell it because there was an over-supply that year, so I decided to build my own distillery and turn that surplus into whisky.
I hand built a small distillery. Much of the equipment was repurposed secondhand dairy and chocolate factory equipment.
I built the still from new copper, not from scrap copper as some have suggested.
I obtained a license and started production at the end of 2010.
2. What do you love about being a distiller?
I love being creative. For the last 25 or so years I have been creating sand and ice sculptures around Australia and overseas. I start with a block of ice or a pile of sand and create a work of art.
Whisky-making is another outlet for my creativity. On my farm I start with a paddock of dirt and end up with bottles of whisky that are being appreciated by consumers all over the world.
I also love problem-solving - as long as there aren’t too many! I am often finding ways to make things work better in the distillery.
Being a distiller has given me the opportunity to travel the world. I have been to the USA three times to speak at conferences, several times to China and Japan for marketing, and quite a few times to visit distilleries for ideas and inspiration in most major distilling countries, including Scotland and Ireland several times.
3. What makes Belgrove special?
Belgrove is one of very few whisky distilleries in the world to do everything on the one site, from planting the seeds to sending off bottled spirits.
Belgrove whiskies and spirits are for the consumers who want to explore different flavours. But just being different is not enough; those flavours must also be enjoyable.
Everything we do is to maximise exceptional flavours. Alcohol is treated as a by-product. The direct flame heating of the stills causes the Maillard reaction, which greatly increases the complexity of the spirits.
Over the years Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible has scored eight of my whiskies as “Liquid Gold - superstar whiskies that give us a reason to live”.
In the 2019 edition, my Peated Rye Whisky won Southern Hemisphere Whisky of the Year, scoring 96.5/100. The highest Jim has ever scored a whisky is 97.5.
Jim’s comment on another of my whiskies that year, which scored Gold 95.5: “a whisky of mind-blowing complexity from what is emerging as one of the world’s great distilleries.”
At the 2016 Delicious Magazine Produce Awards, I was presented with the inaugural “In the Bottle” award. Also in 2016, the world famous Noma restaurant set up a popup restaurant in Sydney. Five different Belgrove spirits were on the drinks menu.
Probably one of the best accolades I have received was a visit in 2020 by famous chef Gordon Ramsay and his film crew.
They were shooting for Season 2, Episode 1 of his series Gordon Ramsay Uncharted and it put Belgrove well and truly on the world stage.
I had Gordon shovelling shit (dried sheep dung), which we burnt to smoke a special batch of whisky: Wholly Shit Rye Whisky.
4. What is Belgrove’s flagship spirit and what’s your favourite way to enjoy it?
Rye Whisky is the best known spirit from Belgrove, although Oat Whisky is starting to make inroads.
I generally like drinking all spirits neat and not chilled because I enjoy tasting what the distiller has produced. But there really is no wrong way to drink whisky - as long as you enjoy in moderation.
5. What’s something we should know about craft distilling in Australia?
Craft distilling is very hands-on and labour intensive, making the spirits quite expensive. These small distilleries are not automated factories; all the flavours are tweaked by smell and taste.
6. Some people think that distilling is a dangerous pastime. Any near-death experiences?
YES. But in the words of Mark Twain: “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
A recent online search about a car crash on the highway near my distillery brought up a summary about Kempton. One extract was about me and the distillery, and the next about a road death.
It gave the impression I was the unfortunate who’d died.
Thankfully no real near-death experiences, but I almost got scalded early on when the still started foaming and the pressure release popped and hot foam hit my trouser leg.
No damage done, but it prompted me to completely redesign the pressure relief so to discharge outside.
7. If time, space and materials were no object, what would your dream project look like at Belgrove?
I don’t really think/dream too far into the future; I just tend to enjoy the moment. I have always let life take me where I see interesting opportunities right in front of me.
If I did find the time and money to build a much bigger semi-automated distillery, I would very much enjoy helping design and build it, but would quickly become bored with the routine when it started operating.
I have much more fun tinkering with many small projects.
You can explore Belgrove’s range of incredible spirits here, but remember that Peter’s always experimenting and tinkering.
He brings out new limited releases that range from the bizarre to the sublime.
My mind goes immediately to the Kissing a Stranger and the remarkable Ginger Hammer respectively.