There is nothing hi tech about making malt whisky. There is no guild of mysterious malt makers with secret handshakes and the courses to teach the art don’t really require a science degree. There are plenty of blokes with degrees making whisky that is not as good as it could be, and quite a few with no formal qualifications making excellent whisky too.
We do things a little differently to your average Scottish malt distillery, but we are as much about what we don’t do as what we do. We are small scale and hands on, very small scale, and very hands on. You won’t find equipment run by computers or any blokes running around dressed in white lab coats, and you definitely won’t find any accountants in the distillery unless they are customers.
Malted barley is the raw material for making the liquid sunshine that is South Australian Single Malt Whisky. Our malt comes from the southern mainland states of Australia where typically the cool wet winters and long hot, dry summers provide farmers with the conditions, if their soil is right, for growing the world’s finest malting barley. Primarily we use Gairdner malt, but we have used Flagship and Schooner too. We are seeking a consistent high quality in our whisky, not a consistent taste.
The saying that “variety is the spice of life” was invented for whisky. Our long term goal is to conduct our own malting with barley sourced from specific paddocks within specific farms and regions.
The start of the alchemy is the gentle introduction of hot water to the crushed malt. After a period of time the starch in the grain is soaked out and converted to sugar by the enzymes in the malt. After draining off the process is repeated and most of the sugar is extracted from the grain.
The sweet, malty liquid is then cooled and yeast is introduced. We use different yeasts at different times of the year and these too give slightly different flavour profiles to the whisky. A few hours later fermentation commences and will continue for up to ten days.
Our stills are hand-made, by the distillers, so we understand fully what is going on inside the beasts. We can fix them when they break or wear out and we are not afraid to suggest and make a change to the design or construction if we think it will advance our cause, because we will be the ones making those modifications, to the stills we built in the first place.
The stills are low powered beats that require patience, especially since we double distil our spirit. The pay off for the patience is beautiful, sweet new make spirit that tastes just great straight from the still, albeit a little on the strong side!
When we make the cut to take the heart of the spirit we tend not to make it a wide cut. We use our senses to judge the best time. We taste the spirit, we smell it, watch the way it flows and it tells us when to make the cut. Sure we will run some checks with hydrometers and the like, but it is our senses that observe what the spirit is telling us and that are the final arbitrator. A narrow cut results in clean, crisp spirit that is the foundation of good malt whisky
The last part of the process is maturation of the spirit in oak casks. All of the colour of the whisky, and a large portion of the flavour profile is dependent on the chemical reactions taking place within the oaks casks, between the wood, the spirit and the surrounding air. Our favourite local cooper scours the country, and sometimes further afield, for port and sherry casks that he then refurbishes and reshapes into 100 litre casks for our whisky. The small, 100litre casks give us a higher ratio of spirit to oak than is common in Scottish distilleries. Our cool wet winters and long, hot, dry summers between the ocean and the outback, combine well with the crisp fruity spirit to produce outstanding single malt.
The last process is bottling. This we do when the spirit says it is ready. We use an in line filter to keep the floaty bits out of the bottle, and we bottle at 46% ABV so you won’t see any of the flocculation that you might otherwise see at a lesser strength, because we do not chill or carbon filter our whisky. We go to too much trouble to get the flavours into the whisky just to filter it out again!
There is just no point in bottling a whisky before it is ready. Because we are not run by accountants, with no shareholders to please other than ourselves, we can afford the luxury of bottling our whisky when it is ready rather than when we need to for shareholders’ dividends. The customer wants to drink the best whisky he can, and we want to make the best whisky we can, so why bottle before it is ready?
An average Scottish pot still malt distillery would produce more whisky before morning tea on any given day than we will produce in a year. Your average Scottish distillery produces about double the spirit that we do from a ton of malt barley and does it in half the time. The white coats and the accountants extract every drop of alcohol from every grain of malt, as fast as they can and along the way have lost a good deal of the flavour. We are of course biased in this view, so I invite you to try a dram of Southern Coast Single Malt and make your own judgement.