A spirited endeavour | Photos

AT WORK: Corra Linn Distillery's John Wielstra gets up close and personal with his still. Picture: Phillip Biggs
AT WORK: Corra Linn Distillery's John Wielstra gets up close and personal with his still. Picture: Phillip Biggs

It started as most great ideas do: with interest.

John Wielstra had always appreciated and been interested in whisky.

After watching the progress of Tasmania’s whisky greats Bill Lark and Sullivan’s Cove’s Patrick Maguire, that interest was sufficiently piqued.

He began tinkering around on a still that his wife, Karen, and daughters Emily and Claire bought him for his birthday.

“I started playing about, just with some simple ingredients and became more and more interested in it and I thought ‘I could do this’,” Mr Wielstra said.

“When I started I was a big novice, so for two years I was reading, working and going to lots of places and asking a lot of different questions.”

With a background that included an accountant business degree, with a specialisation in commercialisation and entrepreneurship, all that was left to do was find the right tools for the job.

He transformed a shed in his backyard into a distillery, and invested in a state-of-the-art still – the likes of which aren’t seen much in the whisky world.

“My still is very different to a lot of other stills around Tasmania. And it is different to the usual Scottish still,” he said.

The traditional Scottish way, Mr Wielstra explained, was to run the product through the still two, sometimes three, times to reach the desired alcohol level – known as double or triple-distilled.

With Mr Wielstra’s still, the product only needs to run through once to reach the same effect.

He said it enabled him not only to produce the product much quicker, but also granted more flexibility.

The rise of Tasmanian whisky is well documented, and Corra Linn Distillery is the latest of three in Northern Tasmania to open recently.

“The Tasmanian whiskey industry is still in its infancy and there is a lot of good will and potential around where it’s going,” Mr Wielstra said.

Mr Wielstra has ensured that his whisky is not only made it Tasmania – it’s made from parts of Tasmania.

He grows his own yeast on site, uses water from the North Esk River – visible from the distillery – near Blessington, and uses a barley that has been developed in Tasmania.

Macquarie Barley was developed by Professor Meixue at the University of Tasmania in 2013.

Soon, Mr Wielstra will add another point of difference to his whisky through smoking his own malt on-site.

While he is not ready to reveal the exact details yet, he said he will be one of the first ones to do something different.

“A lot of people use an apple wood to achieve smokiness but I will have something that will be unique and a world first,” he hinted.

Mr Wielstra walked through the several steps that transform the aforementioned ingredients into one of the world’s favourite sips.

It begins with the barley, which is lulled into germinating.

The barley then goes through a grist mill, where it is churned up into about four to six pieces – “you don’t want it to get too fine because then it’s like flour”.

It then goes into the mash-tun, which Mr Wielstra described as “a big stirring pot where you’re making porridge”.

This process, through adding hot water and stirring, extracts the sugar from the barley.

Once the maker is happy with the mash, it’s cooled down from about 80 degrees to about 20 degrees, and tipped into a wash back or fermenting vat.

Yeast is then added – or “pitched”, in industry terms.

After that, it’s into the still.

“It sounds pretty straight forward but it can all go horribly wrong – especially with the live properties of the yeast,” Mr Wielstra said.

The barley to mash stage can take a few hours, the fermenting process can take about five days, and then the still process takes about 10 hours.

The big wait is when the product is added to the barrels.

To sell the product as whisky, it needs to be aged in a barrel for a minimum of two years.

Any less than that and it could be classed as moonshine.

Mr Wielstra uses sherry barrels, port barrels, and custom barrels, which have both sherry and port.

Before they are filled, the barrels go through a charring process.

As it sounds, they are burnt inside to different degrees – similar to toasting a piece of bread – to produce a different style of product when its ageing sentence is complete.

In a separate shed on the Relbia property, Mr Wielstra has about 100 barrels tucked away, their sweet scent permeating the small space.

Some of them bear what the industry calls “angels’ share”, which happens in the early stages of cask maturing, as the product evaporates through the wood.

A handful of the barrels have already been sold to buyers in Malaysia.

He is also in talk with a supplier in Germany, who is keen to secure the rights as the sole distributor in his country, all before the first barrel has even been tapped.

Then there are his connections in China – a country that is enamored with Tasmanian whisky – that he has developed through his business background.

But for now, it is a waiting game as the first lot of whisky ticks away in its wooden tombs.

For a distiller just starting their journey, the two years, which often passes without a monetary gain on their initial investment, can seem like an eternity.

But, as Mr Wielstra says, it will all be worth it.