Some of you may (or may not) have noticed my absence from this site over the last month or so ……. distressing, I know!…. but there’s a very good reason for my radio silence! While I might describe it as an extended bit of whisky “research”, really it was a vacation that my wife and I took to Australia…and a great vacation it was, too! We spent time in Sydney, Perth, Hobart (Tasmania) and Melbourne. We saw some wonderful country, Teri got to pet a live Koala and see a Tasmanian Devil up close, we visited Mike D, our intrepid Aussie reporter and his wife at their home in Perth, and along the way Mike and I managed to fit in some wonderful whisky adventures, as well!
One of the whisky highlights of the trip was my first-ever distillery tour! Mike is an owner of a cask of Nant whisky and he arranged a tour of the distillery when the four of us were in Tasmania!
The Nant Estate
For those of you not familiar with Nant Whisky – sadly it is not yet imported to the US – Nant is a distillery that got it’s start in 2004 when Keith Batt, the distillery’s founder, purchased the historic Nant Estate, a milling facility situated just outside Bothwell in Tasmania’s central highlands. The original Nant mill was established in 1821 by Edward Nichols, the third son of a Welsh milling family, who, as third son, was not in line to inherit the family business. So, with a family gift equivalent to $1.5 million AUS, Edward set out to establish his own fortune.
Edward chartered the ship ‘Grace’, and after a stop in France to pick up a pair of burr millstones, he and his family arrived in Tasmania in 1821. As one of the first European settlers in the Bothwell region, Edward received a land grant of approximately 80,000 acres in the area then known as Bark Hut Plains on the Fat Doe River (now Clyde River). He named his property ‘Nant’, a word meaning ‘a valley’, after the family home he left behind in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, in South Wales.
Using convict labor, construction of the first mill on Nant began in 1823 and was completed in 1825. The present mill was built in 1857 (according to a date stone set in one of the walls) to replace the previous mill, and operated till 1890. (blouinartinfo.com) The Nant mill is the only water-powered flour mill still commercially operating in Australia and is more than just a decorative feature of the estate. The mill retains the original French burr millstones from 1821 and is still used to grind the barley that goes into the making of Nant whisky.
After acquiring the Nant estate in 2004, Batt undertook an extensive renovation and conversion that began in 2005 and was completed in 2008. The main distillery building houses the current still room, the mill, the mashing area, a small tasting room, offices and a beautiful small restaurant with a gorgeous view of the highlands.
The Nant Distillery
Following the completion of the renovation work undertaken by Blatt after acquiring the site, the distillery finally began operation, producing its first distillate in 2008.
The distillery is surprisingly small, operating with two primary rooms and a single still room, and is operated by just two full time distillery employees (plus the restaurant staff). Nant’s Master Distiller, Jack Sellers, led our tour and offered both general information and “geeky” details, answering any and all questions I asked, and genuinely showing his passion for his job and pride in their whisky.
In the top photo, Jack is describing their milling process – incredibly, they still use a hand-operated winch/lift system to hoist the bags of barley from the storage room to the milling area! He told us how the gears for the mill are a mix of both metal and wood wheels (to avoid sparks!), and that the millstones are still the original ones from 1825!
At the opposite end of the main room (yes, this is quite a small room – this photo is taken standing next to the mill) sits the mash tun, made of stainless steel with a wooden “wrap”. The mash tun has a 2,000 liter capacity and a stainless steel rake.
Nant uses only Tasmanian barley for their whiskies, and currently their barley is malted to their specifications by a Tasmanian brewery, however Nant is in the process of expanding their facilities, which will include a malting floor.
For each batch, Nant uses 500 kilos of grist. There is a first steep of 1600 liters of hot water (heated to 64 degrees Celsius) before the mash tun is drained, then there is a secondary rinse with an additional 400 liters, resulting in a total of 2,000 liters of wort.
The liquid is piped from the mash tun to the washbacks, which sit on one side of the Still Room – the second of the two rooms in the distillery used for making their whisky.
Nant has a mixture of both wooden and stainless steel washbacks with a 2,000 liter capacity in each. The typical fermentation period runs 6-7 days.
As you can see from the photo at left, Nant has two relatively small stills. The Wash Still sits in the foreground and the Spirit Still is in the background. The barrel is the Low Wines receiver (photo below right). According to Jack, the stills are modeled on the shape of the Balvenie stills, which he believes contribute to the rich, dense body and flavors of Nant whisky.
The Wash Still has a fairly wide, relatively short neck,a descending lyne arm and a condenser. The shape of the still is designed to create a bigger body and an oilier mouthfeel. The Wash Still has a total capacity of 1,800 total liters, however each run is made with just 1,000 liters, a 55% fill rate. The wash distillation runs about 9 hours producing approximately 400 liters of low wines with an abv of between 21% and 22%. They also redistill the foreshots and feints in subsequent distillation runs.
Fortunately for us, they were in the midst of a distillation run, so we had the chance smell the distillate as it fed into the Low Wines receiver. Visually the low wines are not particularly attractive, but the smell was rather nice, sort of a cross between apple cider and apple vinegar, ale and some lemons.
The second of the two stills, the Spirit Still is quite a bit smaller than the Wash Still, with a capacity of just 600 liters. The Spirit still has narrower neck with a small onion ball at the base to generate more reflux which thus increases the copper contact and adding more flavor. For this secondary distillation, the Spirit Still is filled with 300-400 liters – so a two-thirds to three-quarters fill rate. Similar to the initial distillation, the duration of this second distillation runs approximately 9.5 hours. Nant takes a fairly narrow cut – they don’t disclose the actual cut percentages….Company Secrets! – but the overall percentage is 72% abv. In total, after starting with 500 kilos of grain and 2,000 liters of wort, each distillation run produces approximately 100 liters of spirit.
The final distillate is reduced to a standard 63.5% abv for casking. The water used by the distillery comes from a retention pond that sits just outside of the main entrance. Believe it or not, the water used for the mill, and now the distillery, comes from the River Clyde, which runs approximately 10 kilometers from the distillery. When Edward Nichols was building the mill, he used convict labor to divert the river to supply water to the mill.
The casks used at Nant are primarily 100 liters, and are remade from 200-225 liter barrels by a Tasmanian cooperage. Nant does have some larger casks that are being withheld for potential future use. They currently use casks consisting of American white oak (new), American white oak ex-bourbon, French oak, Port pipes and some ex-Pinot casks, which I believe are made of Australian oak.
The Nant Distillery sits at an elevation of approximately 352 m (1,155 ft) above sea-level. The elevation combined with Tasmania’s southerly location, leads to moderate temperatures. As a result the “Angels Share” of loss at Nant consists of equal parts water and alcohol.
The current annual product rate for Nant is approximately 70,000 liters using just the existing pair of stills and the two full-time personnel, but tied to their success in establishing their whiskies, Nant is expanding their facilities. There are plans to repurpose an existing outbuilding for a new still house and they will relocate the existing stills plus they plan to add two additional pairs of stills. With the resulting three pairs of stills they expect to quadruple their total annual production, reaching 280,000 liters per year. They are adding warehouse facilities and, as I mentioned above, they want to also add a malting floor, although they may not malt all of their own barley. Quite exciting news!
Nant does not release any age-stated whisky and Jack indicated that they had no plans to do so. Standard releases of Nant whisky are bottled at 43%, and they also produce a line of cask strength bottlings. The current line-up includes single cask offerings matured in Bourbon, Sherry, Pinot, and Port casks, and limited releases including a “White Oak” release matured in 50 liter casks made from virgin (new casks, not previously held other spirits) American Oak, and the Old Mill which is a combination or sherry and bourbon-cask matured whiskies.
Finally, if you have the opportunity to visit the distillery, be sure to plan on staying for lunch! The distillery has a beautiful little restaurant. Enjoying a lunch full of interesting menu items, including regional specialties, while sipping on a glass of Nant whisky and taking in the Highland view completes the day!
I had the Small Plate Venison Terrine and my wife had the scallops. Both were fantastic!
Bothwell is about an hour drive out of Hobart, and GPS is recommended, although not entirely necessary as highway signs are prevalent. There is not much to do in Bothwell beyond the distillery, well, unless you feel like playing golf on the oldest golf course in Australia in continuous use….just don’t expect too much! The Ratho Farm Golf Course plays to a max 5175 meters, but it looks like quite an adventure. The holes play through, across and in the midst of meadows, sheep grazing, and small farm plots. The first hole is a Par 3 playing across a small, fenced yard and you have to walk through gates. A few players we met while exploring told us the biggest challenge is just finding the next hole! But they looked like they were enjoying it despite the unique nature of the course!
Anyway, to wrap this long overdue,and just plain long post, my first distillery visit was a great experience, for so many reasons! But the best part is that Nant makes some seriously good whisky….let’s hope it starts to reach the US soon!
*Note: 11/14 – If you read this before this date, I received an email response from Jack Sellers adding some additional information as well as a couple of clarifications of errors I’d made!
Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014, Ingvar Ronde, MagDig Media, Ltd.