Distillery Focus

High Veldt Drifter

Dave Broom gets a whirlwind tour and finds a man with whisky passion
By Dave Broom
Did you know that there’s a whisky distillery here?” I was asked at Whisky Live Joburg five years ago. “Indeed,” I replied. “James Sedgwick, they make Three Ships.” The response was a shake of the head. “No. Here. Down the road in Pretoria. It’s just opened.” The next day I headed to Silverton in search of the Drayman’s brewery which is where my informant told me whisky was being made.

Along a strip of light industrial units was a tiny shop containing bottles of interesting looking beer miles away from the standard (and awful) SA standard brews and owner/brewer/distiller Moritz Kallmeyer who whisked me off on a whirlwind tour of his new baby.

Although a scientist and a man with a forensic attention to detail, his head seemed barely capable of linear thought such was his excitement. Facts, figures, capacities, conjectures flew around the pristine brewery/distillery as we ran from mash tun to still, back to the mash tun to the fermenters and lagering cellar to whisky aging cellar to mash tun again and, finally, exhausted to the drops of clean new make dribbling from the condenser. The spirit fragrant, intense and, most importantly, clean. Clearly this was a man who knew what he was doing.

Now, returning to Silverton I find Kallmeyer exactly the same, his eyes blazing with whisky passion. Clearly however he hasn’t been idle. There’s new equipment (a lovely boiler for example), a large aging facility, a growing local reputation and a new definition: High Veldt whisky. ‘High’ incidentally is the operative word. At 4,000 feet [1219m] Drayman’s can lay a fair claim to be the highest whisky distillery in the world.

It is also following on from an old, and forgotten tradition. Pretoria sits on a huge aquifer whose pure water wasn’t just perfect for brewing but tanning leather (the original use of the Drayman’s site) but also the site of what was claimed to be the new 19th century republic’s first factory, a distillery in nearby Eerste-fabriken making whisky from maize.

The lack of whisky distilleries in South Africa is another story, involving failed experiments, John Duff who founded Longmorn tried his hand here first, and a Government policy which, until recently, gave tax breaks to brandy production at the expense of cereal-based distillates. Whisky making was simply not economical.

Kallmeyer, like so many craft distillers came to whisky through beer and he came to beer with an evangelical desire to create what he calls “a true South African beer culture” where flavour, sharing and quality are the watchwords. He wants to see beer take on the same role as it plays in Germany, where it is a part of daily life, not a beverage you unthinkingly consume for effect.

His first attempt, at Pretoria’s first brewpub, was too far ahead of the game and after it closed in 1997 he retreated to his garage and began brewing in 25L buckets before opening Drayman’s in 2000.

In more recent times he was also consultant brewer at the nearby Bavaria brewery and this juxtaposition between brewer and distiller offers some insight into his approach to whisky making. “My affinity for beer is beginning to wane,” he said to me on that first visit. “There’s a classiness about being in whisky that isn’t there in beer, as far as South Africa is concerned. We are 500 years behind Belgium or Germany.” Now, heartened by the start of a small craft brewing movement, that ‘classiness’ is beginning to emerge. In the meantime, whisky has continued to grow.

He still runs around his distillery spraying statistics around. The open top mash tun holds one tonne of local Caledon barley mixed with some imported peated malt. He only uses two waters in the three hour cycle and works off a very low gravity clear wort. “I don’t make high gravity mashes, because it restricts ester levels. Although I only ferment to 6%, which is low for Scotch, it is important for flavour. If I made a beer, Belgian style, at 8% to 9% it would be intensely fruity, cloying and sweet. I don’t want that coming through in a distillate. It might be OK when matured for a long time, but I don’t have 10 years to clean it up.”

“You have to have vision and imagination. If you have these then you can do it”

It’s no surprise that a brewer-distiller pays such in-depth attention to mashing and fermentation, which kicks off with pitching in his own ale yeast followed in time by dried distiller’s yeast. The ferment is long, three days, and relatively cool. He then lets the wash rest for a further two days to allow the yeast to precipitate out and a secondary lactic fermentation to take place, which helps create esters and mouthfeel. As he says: “You have to ferment for longer otherwise you end up sacrificing unique distillery character and ending up with malt schnapps.”

Initially it’s hard to spot his still. Attuned to a world of pots, the stainless steel tank and spidery arm snaking up along the back wall is unlike any distillation set-up I’ve ever encountered. The story of its construction sums up Kallmeyer’s approach.

“I used to drive past a scrapyard every day and look at this thing (he gestures to the pot), which turned out to be an old bacterial fermenter. It was too big and too thick for the brewery but when I was thinking of distilling I looked at it again and thought: aha! A Pot Still!”

He then adapted everything: adding a steam jacket, legs and bottom section, a neck containing bubble cap plates and a high lyne arm which also contains a copper rich condenser of his own design “the only thing made specifically for me”.
Although the still is stainless steel, the amount of sacrificial copper in bubble caps, sacrificial furballs in the lyne arm and condenser is massive and cleans the spirit up highly efficiently. It might not look like a Scotch distillery, but this jumble of bartered and adapted equipment has been linked together to make an efficient and effective distillery. Proof? The cleanliness and quality of the spirit. It’s not fermented beer, neither is it malt schnapps, but high quality new make.

Though the aging cellar seems to offer a return to normality after the bewildering oddity of the still it too has highly personal quirks. Only 250L ex-South African red wine casks are used. All are made from French oak and have been scraped of tartrates and given a M+ toast prior to being filled with new make. The evaporation rate, a combination of temperature and maybe altitude, of five per cent per annum means both a good uptake of oak influence but also, Kallmeyer feels exhausts the casks quickly.

One of the racks contains the casks which he uses as a solera for his blend. “I believe it to be the only true Spanish-style solera whisky system in the world.” Two starting casks at the top contain a mix of 60 per cent three years old Drayman’s mixed with bottled imported Scotch. Every six months, he’ll move 50 cases worth from the bottom layer of mother casks and top up accordingly. “It’s not just the movement of the whisky, but the oxidation, the splashing and the overflowing of the casks which helps build the character,” he says. “It’s very dynamic and labour intensive.” Why though use bottled blended Scotch? He grins. “It’s cheaper than buying a cask” But will you make it 100 per cent South African?

He sighs. “People here think a blend should be cheap and there’s no way I can hit the right price by just using my own whisky, so it has to be this way.” He pauses for a second. The eyes gleam again. “I’m hoping to make grain whisky in a column still.” Scrap merchants in the High Veldt must be rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation.

His 100 per cent own distilled Drayman’s High Veldt single malt is aged, reduced and then placed into marrying casks before bottling. It is already showing a precociously advanced complexity with a distinct sweet spiciness combined with a lush fruitiness behind and, in some casks a high-toned floral element. It is delicious.

I ask him where the inspiration comes from, of whether he thinks that a quieter life as a brewer might be easier than the very different demands placed on a distiller. “You have to have faith,” he replies, “you have to have vision and imagination. If you have these then you can do it.”