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Pot, Kettle… Copper?

Pot distilled spirits are unique in the world of distillation, but what does it take to create a still that will produce the exact sort of spirit that a distillery is after? We spoke to Australia’s leading stillmaker to find out.

Still-making is an intricate business, albeit a lucrative one, especially with the Australian craft spirits market on the up and up. However, Tasmanian-based Peter Bailly – the man behind some of the best known stills in the country – wasn’t always involved in the industry. In fact it wasn’t until 2000, when a safety issue saw him called in by the authorities to help fix an issue on an existing still that was manufacturing spirits at a distillery in Tasmania that Bailly became involved in the business.

Through his company, Knapp Lewer Contracting – specialising in electrical boilers and steam and hot water boilers – Bailly fixed the issue, and in doing so met Bill Lark. It was a serendipitous meeting – the Australian whisky legend was on site at the distillery to help the team with managing their quality control and was, according to Bailly, in the market for someone to build him a larger still.

“He had a small one and a 500L one that he used already and he wanted to upgrade his production,” he says. “He needed someone who could design him a still to his specifications, with workshop drawings and all the rest of it. So I offered our services, and did the job, and when I handed him over all the paperwork, I asked him who he was going to go to get to quote.”

It turned out that Lark wasn’t quite sure where he was going to go to, so Bailly asked if he could provide a quote for the manufacturing job.

“That’s where it started,” says Bailly. “I gave him a quote and he accepted, and I built the first still. It’s still in use – it’s Bill Lark’s 1800 litre wash still.”

Customising a Still

Like a lot of distillers, Lark was specific on his still design when he requested the engineering specifications to be designed by Bailly. In order for a still to be created in the workshop detailed designs need to be created including the heating, the electrical elements, the cooling, and more.

“He had sort of a sketch that he had drawn up, where he pointed out that he wanted this and that, and measurements,” says Bailly. “More or less the shape of the still he had drawn up but he needed engineering work outs. That’s what we handed him over. And then of course we got it back.”

The stills Bailly creates are totally customisable and are designed to reflect the preferences of the client in terms of what style of spirits they want to create.

“I will work to whatever the client wants,  but by the same token if someone comes in and they haven’t got a clue, they will now be able to get some guidance,” he says. “I sort of have a standard design now that I show everyone and I say look this is what you’ll get and it will cost you so much, but feel free to change – stretch it this way, stretch it that way, cut that out, and that’s how we arrive at the different designs for everyone. They all look similar but they all have changes – some people want a longer neck for a lighter spirit and so forth.”

One such customer, who speaks very highly of Bailly and his still making, is Archie Rose’s [distillery pictured above] owner Will Edwards. He was seeking a very particular style of still and had struck out with other manufacturers due to their inability to customise to the level of detail that Bailly offers.

“The diameter of the neck, the height of the neck, the way the swan neck sort of curves over, the length and slope of the line arm. All of those things contribute to the final flavour profile,” says Edwards. “So in that regard, [Bailly] being able to do everything from the ground up was perfect. They’re hand built. All the curves are hand-hammered. I mean, you can do anything. So the necks are a little shorter, and sort of squatter than – there is no standard still – but a ‘standard’ still.”

The “Perfect” Still

Bailly went on to research stills after his initial work with Lark, creating a database of information from which he could create a wide variety of stills.

“After the first one for Bill, I of course did some more refined research and I relied on history,” he says. “Alcohol making has been going on for a long time so I went to libraries, on the internet – whatever I could find to read and see what has been done. And that’s always a good start because these products that have been used for centuries are good, so I based all future design and shaping on those historic designs.”

He also travelled to the home of whisky distilling to see some of the stills that have been used for centuries in action, and to learn more about the shapes. He says that Scotland was “eye-opening”, allowing him to accumulate a large amount of material, impressions, photos and more to form ideas about the shape of the stills he now creates.

According to Edwards, still owners tend to be rather cagey about their dimensions, but Bailly is not one to be put off easily.

“He went around trying to find the perfect still dimensions,” he says. “So he was trying to get the dimensions of 20, 25 of the most famous stills in the UK.”

After recreating them from the photos that he collected on his trip, Bailly now has a range of still options that he can offer to prospective distillers.

“He’s sketched these stills and, knowing what styles of whisky they produce, he can think about the flavour profile you’re looking for in your whisky, how that then translates back into the shape of the still,” says Edwards.

It’s a complicated process, with every detail carefully thought out and articulated to create the best possible whisky. Though it should be noted that the urban legend about the Scottish distilleries
recreating every bump and dent from an old still into a new one is just that – a legend. With the price of stills already at eye watering levels, there is no sane person who would deliberately damage a brand new copper still.

The Process

While Edwards says that his still “took a year less a day to build”, the initial consultation period can add time – especially if a new distiller hasn’t really settled on the style of spirit they want to produce. Bailly says that with most clients also working their own full time job on top of opening a distillery, the process from the initial meeting to sketches to final sign off can stretch out.

“It goes forwards-backwards several times but it can be all done within a week or it can take a few weeks, even a couple of months,” he says. “Until everything is finalised.”

After the sign-off the final still design drawings are completed, sent for approval, and then the copper has to be ordered – which can be an unfortunate spanner in the works, depending on a few different factors.

“As far as I know there are no copper mills in Australia any more so the copper comes from overseas, and if there aren’t any stocks, then the wait can be lengthy,” says Bailly. “Recently, stocks have been pretty good, I didn’t have to wait very long until I had the copper coming into the workshop. I get the copper cut in Melbourne, so it goes from the supplier to a cutting company and then we get it, that process usually takes three to six weeks before I receive the copper.”

As with most metals, there are different grades of copper that can be ordered and worked with. Bailly uses food grade copper – for obvious reasons – though there is also electrical grade, and structural or architectural grades on the market.

From there, the construction begins in earnest, with very careful guidelines to be followed to ensure the integrity of the final product.

“There are some engineering guidelines in that it has to be a minimum thickness – you want the vessel to hold its volume of liquid,” he says. “It’s the thickest on the bottom and as it goes up, strength is not so much needed closer to the top so the metal gets thinner.”

It’s also a cost saving measure – remember the mention of eye-wateringly high prices – as copper is not a cheap material.

“We have to scrounge everywhere we can,” Bailly says.

All that effort and expense is not a lifetime investment, however. That said, the stills will last a long time, depending on how they are used of course. As Bailly points out, the 24 hour, seven day
a week, production that takes place in some of the Scottish distilleries is out of reach of the smaller distilleries that are currently functioning in Australia, so the discrepancies in age will be significant.

“In Scotland I think they’re talking 25-30 years,” he says. “If it’s used in the cottage industry down here, where the still is firstly not run 24 hours a day, and secondly most of them don’t run every day, then it will last a lot longer.”

The Craft Spirit Movement

Unsurprisingly, with the upswing in demand for locally produced spirits and the incredible heights to which Australian spirits are rising on the international scene, Bailly has seen an upswing in demand for his services. And while most of the demand is in the whisky arena, there are plenty of other spirit stills rolling out of the workshop as well.

“The majority is whisky, but I have been asked to produce a few stills that are going to be used for gin, vodka, and other spirits,” he says. “It’s always when you start up in the spirits business as a new distillery, when you do whisky, you have nothing for sale for a minimum of three, four, or five years. So you have to bridge that time and that is usually done by spirits that are manufactured in a shorter time.”

A few of the distilleries Bailly has manufactured stills for include: Archie Rose and Lark, of course, as well as Distillery Botanica north of Sydney, the Sydney Distillery in the Hunter Valley, and Stone Pine Distillery in Bathurst. In Victoria there is the New World Distillery in Essendon Airport, and Timboon Railway Shed Distillery. Then Great Southern Distillery in Albany, WA, and Tamborine Mountain Distillery in Queensland.

Just don’t ask him to pick a favourite.

“Oh no. I couldn’t say that. There’s no favourites,” he says. “I like them all – they’re all my babies.”

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