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14/04/2015

Skills with the still

DISTILLATION is not a completely forgotten extension of a winemaker’s skill set. Undergraduate winemaking students still take part in theoretical and practical lessons in distillation and there are several wine industry links to an emerging local ‘craft’ spirits industry.

Graham Jones, University of Adelaide adjunct associate professor, has guided many students through the process of distillation and says although it’s less common for graduates to put this part of their education into practice, this doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm.

“From a sensory point-of-view, winemakers are ideally placed to get involved in distilling because of that’s their training background,” Jones said. “I’ve always had a few people each year who would come to me really keen on distilling and fortifieds and there are always a couple who tell me they are determined to do something with what they’ve learned.”

Kevin Glastonbury has recently taken responsibility of “fortifieds and other such treasures” at Yalumba, since the retirement of David Zimmerman, and he said the modern-day reliance on table wine is the reason hardly any winemakers are involved in distillation.

“I’m sure many winemakers understand the basic principles of distillation, however it is certainly a specialised craft. If you went back 30 to 40 years, when distillation and fortified production was a much larger part of everyone’s life, I’m sure many more winemakers were involved and understood the process much more than today.

“With the passing of time and the decline in fortified sales, wineries and winemakers began focussing on table wine production more and more and distillation was left to the likes of Tarac. “However, now there seems to be small batch distilleries popping up and producing unique spirits and gins, which is really exciting.

“I wouldn’t say I completely know and fully understand the distilling process, as I have more experience in making fortifieds rather than the actual distilling process, but I’m up for a challenge. I have talked with Zim a lot over the last couple of years and he certainly has a lot of experience to pass on.”

One young winemaker who has been determined enough to complete the state and national requirements to gain a licence to distil is Adelaide Hills-based Sacha La Forgia.

He produces tiny batches of gin from carefully-selected botanicals using a home-built column and basket still. He has set up in a small room, behind an unassuming locked door in the corner of the contract winemaking facility he works for.

At the moment, La Forgia can produce up to 400 bottles of his 78 Degrees gin per week. He readily admits “some distilleries could do that in half a day”.

Having only just recently started selling his gin, he’s happy with that capability at the moment and said one of the biggest hurdles he’s had to jump had little to do with making it – just attaining the licence was a battle. Essentially, you can’t distil anything without a licence, but you can’t prove that you are ready for a licence without having all the appropriate equipment to not only start distilling, but to keep accurate records of everything you produce. There are both state and national components of the licence process.

“It takes a while to get and it is incredibly expensive,” La Forgia said. “But I’ve actually found the ATO better and easier to deal with than the state body.”

Producing alcohol via distillation is a highly-regulated and closely-monitored activity, which means very accurate record keeping is essential and distillers need to be prepared to be regularly audited. But there is a way around having your own licence, not that it’s necessarily much cheaper. You can make your own spirits in partnership with an existing licensed distiller and ‘bonded facility’.

“The university has a licence and a bonded facility,” Jones said. “If we distil something with a winemaker, as long as it’s in the bonded facility it doesn’t attract any excise. There are very strict regulations on measurements of alcohol, so the tax office knows how much tax you should be paying.

There are winemakers using bonded facilities at the moment. Jeffrey Grosset, is producing an Ea de Vie from Clare Riesling with Jones at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide; and Peter Althaus, from Domaine A in Tasmania, has been working with the Lark Distillery to produce a barrel-aged brandy.

Althaus said his experience with distilling began in the early days of his winemaking career in Switzerland. He’s taken his knowledge and his sensory skills in evaluating the “heads, hearts and tails” to produce a barrel-aged brandy.

“We worked with the Lark Distillery because they have the still and the bond store,” Althaus said. “Our brandy has spent eight years in barrel and the quality compares to top-end Cognac. The texture and ‘roundness’… it’s very smooth.”

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