Friday, December 8, 2023

Organics finds whisky farmers

Neal Wallace
The Styx Valley is in a remote southern corner of the Maniototo basin in Central Otago where the seasons can be harsh. But that isn’t stopping John and Susan Elliot from running an innovative whisky distillery alongside their farm. Neal Wallace visits Lammermoor Station.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The story of Andrew Elliot discovering a copper whisky still on his Central Otago station early last century is family folk lore that resonates with John and Susan Elliot.

It is a link to the latter part of the 1800s when the Otago hills, rivers and valleys were crawling with gold prospectors, swaggers and opportunists. 

John never forgot his grandfather’s find on what is now Lammermoor Station.

The story says John’s father Bob later found a small stone hut close by the still, possibly the home of the miner/distiller.

To get to Lammermoor Station at the end of a gravel road in the Styx Valley, 40km south of Ranfurly, means driving past the now closed Paerau School.

It was once the smallest school still operating in New Zealand but it closed in 2012 after 97 years when there were no children left in the district.

The Styx Valley is on the historic Dunstan Trail which, during the 1860s Otago gold rush, was the main access route between the Central Otago gold fields and Dunedin.

In 1863 the Serpentine gold claim was home to 3000 Chinese miners.

Now just six farming families live in the valley.

John is proud of the district’s history and when he had a chance meeting with Bill Lark, a Tasmanian whisky distiller who is also known as the Godfather of Australian whisky, a plan began to hatch.

Their farm bounds the upper reaches of the Taieri River and John’s wife Susan took exception to an article in an international fishing magazine complaining about the colour of the river.

She wrote to the publication pointing out it is naturally tainted by the area’s peat soils. The magazine made it letter of the month and sent her a bottle whisky from Lark Distillery.

They later approached Lark for advice about building a distillery on the farm and in March 2017 the boutique Lammermoor Distillery opened.

Making whisky is an exacting science refined by the Scots over thousands of years.

John Elliot religiously follows the Scottish production process and terminology and for someone yet to bottle his first batch of whisky the details and exacting requirements of each stage roll off his tongue like a veteran distiller.

One tonne of barley will produce about 400 litres of alcohol.

The process starts by drying the barley to encourage germination and the production of sugars.

Elliot has repurposed big vats from various industries including one from the now closed Bell tea factory in Dunedin that was built about 1900.

He can enhance the flavours by adding smoke from manuka chips or peat to create a unique taste. The smoke is sealed in the tank with the barley.

The next step is to crush the barley, an exacting process that must leave a mash of 70% grist, 20% husks and 10% flour.

Hot water is then slowly run through the mash to draw the sugar, a lengthy process to produce the liquid extract, wort.

The remaining mash makes excellent stock feed and generates about 40 tonnes a year.

Yeast is added to the wort, which, over five to seven days, converts the sugar to alcohol.

It is then transferred to the copper still where the initial wash run produces low wine, a liquor containing about 20% alcohol.

The next distillation produces new-make or whisky.

Elliot says monitoring the alcohol dripping out of the still is vital to the cut of the whisky as the alcohol strength reduces throughout the process.

The first alcohol to be drawn off is 75% strength and called foreshot. It is too strong to be used.

Next comes the optimum alcohol from 64% to 74%.

It is then stored in the barrels for at least three years and when bottled will be reduced to drinkable strength and quality.



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