How Ballykeefe Distillery makes whiskey from barley grown on its own farm

Jamie Baggott is the Master Distiller at Ballykeefe Distillery. Jamie – originally from the UK – is one of the most decorated distillers in the world and has over 40 international awards to his name.

One of his vodka’s won best in the world in 2010.

Jamie took time out to show AgriLand around Ballykeefe Distillery, which has only been in operation since last November. At the time of visiting, the plant was about to start a run of pure malt whiskey; Jamie described the process.

“We’re doing it in a more traditional way; it’s all about flavour. It’s all about the purity of the barley that we use and the story behind it.

“More commercial distilleries can become more focused on yields to get the maximum amount of spirit out of the barley,” he explained.

Jamie and Morgan Ging at Ballykeefe Distillery

Flavour was the topic of the day and Jamie explained that, while variety has an effect on flavour, Ballykeefe’s barley all comes from one field and this gives a consistent flavour. Olympus and Laureate are the varieties used at Ballykeefe.

“The barley comes from one big field; so the flavour profile from the barley is consistent,” he added.

Also Read: Tillage focus: Whiskey and beef from spring barley in Co. Kilkenny

The whiskey making process

Once the barley is harvested, it is malted in Minch Malt in Athy and brought back to the farm. The first step in the distillery is to mill the barley into a carefully calculated proportion of flour, grits and husk (called grist).

This is then transferred to the mash tun, where it is blended with pure mineral water from the farm’s own aquifer. This is followed by a three-stage heating and reheating phase that releases the sugar.

Jamie explained: “Heating converts barley starches to sugar. A test for full-sugar conversion is carried out using iodine, which shows if any starch is still left to be converted.”

The process takes approximately an hour and 10 minutes, before being transferred to the lauter tun (basically a very large sieve), where the sugary liquid (wort) is separated from the barley.

Barley beer

Once in the lauter tun, the porridge-like brew goes through a sieve. The sieve works out the turbidity and, when the liquid is bright enough, it will move across to the fermenter.

If the wort is too cloudy it returns to the lauter tun, where the husk from the barley acts as a filtration medium.

There are five fermenters at the distillery – each one with a capacity of 4,700L.

“In each batch, we half fill the fermenter which is 1,800L. The rest of the space is head-space for the fermentation to take place in.

“We ferment for around 72 hours. It is temperature controlled to give the yeast the best environment to convert all of the sugars into alcohol and we end up with, on average, probably around 6.5% alcohol.

“We essentially make a barley beer. Once we do that, we take the alcohol out of the beer; it goes into the still.”

When AgriLand visited, the distillery was being cleaned down between batches – so no whiskey was being produced.

The whiskey in Ballykeefe is triple-distilled. Having gone through the fermenter, what is essentially a barley beer goes into the first still and is boiled; this is when the first clear liquid is produced.

As Jamie described, the alcohol has a lower boiling point than the rest of the liquid. The cone shape allows the alcohol through, but condenses water vapour so that it returns to the still.

The clear liquid then goes into a holding tank before being transferred to the intermediate still.

At this stage, we’ve turned it from about 6.5% alcohol to 25% alcohol. We’ve maintained a lot of flavour. 75% of that is water, so it still has a lot of flavour from the original barley in there.

“Some distilleries will take it up a lot higher, but we’re trying to maintain the barley’s flavour profile all the way through,” Jamie explained.

The three stills at Ballykeefe Distillery

Once the clear liquid enters the intermediate still, the process is repeated. Once through this still, the alcohol content is up to about 50%.

Jamie tastes for the feints and the foreshots

Once the liquid goes through the third still, the foreshots and feints are separated. Jamie tests the liquid, allowing the methanol to pass through – before making the cuts to ethanol.

Directing the feints and the foreshots

Once the ethanol starts to run through, this liquid is moved to the blending tank at 82% alcohol and is blended with reverse osmosis water that was initially collected from a well on the farm.

The land is all on a limestone base and the water is naturally filtered beforehand.

The blending tank

The whiskey is then casked at 63% alcohol.

You will always lose a certain amount of alcohol to the ‘angel’s share’ through evaporation out of the cask.

“Whiskey must be bottled at an alcohol content of 40%. So, if you cask at 40%, by the time you take it out it might be 38%; it really wouldn’t be whiskey.

Jamie highlighted that it’s a tricky process.

“If you cask at too high an alcohol percentage, there’s such a volume of alcohol that more evaporation takes place. So you want a happy balance between it taking on flavours and not losing too much alcohol,” he explained.

“In Ireland, you lose about 2.5-3.0% per year. In hotter climates, you lose more by evaporation through the cask.”

There are currently 100 barrells of whiskey casked in Ballykeefe Distillery and each of these barrells will produce about 450 bottles.

The whiskey will remain in the cask for a total of three years. The casks are bourbon barrells and while Jamie might decide to use other casks at the end of the process in time – for different flavour – he is sticking with bourbon for the moment.

“Whiskey is barley spirit flavoured in a bourbon cask. If the barley spirit was flavoured in a cognac cask, it wouldn’t taste like whiskey.

The way the whiskey has been designed is to make a very good quality, three-year old whiskey.

“The flavour profile is not too heavy, so it doesn’t need loads of time in the cask for the flavours to come out. It’s not too light, so it’s going to pick up a little bit more flavour than a light whiskey,” Jamie concluded.