There’s no better time to visit a maltings than during harvest. And as I made my way to Whitton Malt House, the new state-of-the-art maltings, adventure park and hospitality space that’s aiming to revolutionise the way Australian distillers and brewers select grains, I drove past endless plains of barley, wheat and rye that would soon be added to Australia’s second biggest crop on record.
When I eventually pulled off the highway and into the malt house, which rises dramatically out of the surrounding country like a stainless steel oasis, the scale and energy of the place instantly hit me.
Utes and trucks were zipping in and out of the facility. A group of revellers were sipping wines and beers under the awning by the restaurant. Golf balls were being thwacked into the dark blue lake filled by irrigation water that’s fundamental to the region. Landscapers were tending gardens. Orders were being issued to workers in high-viz. The smell of fresh grass and grains was everywhere, and behind all this, a groaning crane was slotting steel into place where the maltings is located.
I’d visited distilleries, breweries and maltings in the UK, Europe, the U.S., Japan and right across Australia. But I’d never come across anything quite like this before.
When I stepped into the cellar door and restaurant, again, another mind shift. It was cool and clean, with afternoon light spilling into the space. Craft beers were being poured from taps. Local breads, pastas, sauces and meats were proudly displayed throughout the cafe.
Off the restaurant area, a moody, glowing whisky bar housed barrels of NSW whisky made with grain supplied by Voyager Craft Malt. Voyager was started in 2014 by childhood mates Stu Whytcross and Brad Woolner to supply specialty malts to the brewing and distilling industries.
The growth and development of Voyager’s business spawned this mind-boggling project. When Stu and Brad needed to build a new facility to cope with increased demand for their malts, a search for the most sustainable practices possible lead them to a biochar facility operated by Southern Cotton on a nearby farm.
A partnership was then struck between the two businesses, with Southern Cotton taking a minor share hold in Voyager. The new maltings was then built next to Southern Cotton to utilise their gin trash – a waste product that can be turned into fertiliser for grain crops – and also harness the heat generated by the plant to kiln Voyager’s malts.
‘A lot of engineering and design has gone into getting this up and running,’ says Stu Whytcross, as he takes a group of visitors and me on a tour of the massive site. ‘Finding more sustainable ways of doing things is really important to us, so it’s worth the headaches, and it’s been a great fit for both businesses.’
Stu walked us through one of the main storage areas and then over to the purpose-built maltings he and the team designed.
Traceability is one of the core tenets of Voyager’s project, with the malts processed at the facility remaining in separate streams. It gives brewers, distillers and consumers the ability to identify where specific malts came from, right back to the farm and the field where they were grown.
Most importantly for Stu and Brad (both from grain farming families), they get to show people who the farmers are behind their favourite whiskies and beers.
‘Farmers often get the raw end of the deal – there’s so much risk involved from harvest to harvest,’ says Stu. ‘So for them to be able to see where their grain goes, to taste what it ends up in and see their name on a beer or whisky label, you can’t underestimate how significant that is for people out here.’
Stuart Whytcross and Brad Woolner. Photo – Sam Boneham
Farms throughout the region, often family and friends of Stu and Brad, will now be kept busy supplying Voyager with rare and heritage grains, some of which have already found their way into whiskies released by Backwoods, Corowa, Riverbourne and Archie Rose distilleries. The extra processing capacity at Whitton will enable Voyager to move from 850 to 4000 tonnes a year, with much of the extra malt headed straight to Archie Rose’s high tech new distillery in Sydney for their individual malt stream process.
Plans are also in the works to develop specialty smoked malts using native woods to create Australian smoked whiskies. Forests of native trees sit right next to Voyager’s grain fields, taking the possible ‘terroir’ angle to an entirely new level. Native grains are also undergoing trials for viability.
Rosewood forest (Dysoxylum fraserianum) next to Whitton Malt House
Back in the cellar door, I got a taste of the paddock to bottle to plate ethos underscoring the project. The vast majority of the produce served in the cafe and restaurant is grown in the local region. The provenance story even extends to the shirts and sheets for sale in the retail store – you can trace where the cotton was grown to create the shirt you might want to buy!
Kate O’Callaghan, the CEO of Whitton Malt House, loves that the space can unveil all these stories about the agriculture behind some of our favourite products.
‘There’s 200 beers and dozens of whiskies that now contain malt grown in this region,’ says O’Callaghan. ‘So when we decided we were going to build the factory here, we also thought, well, why don’t we put a cellar door on the front of the plant that showcases the grains that go into all this produce. A place that tells the story about how that whisky you’re drinking now was grown in that paddock over there.’
From there, the offerings that Whitton could play with and develop kept snowballing. Because the malt house is located a short distance from town, the team decided onsite accommodation needed to be built. Quality villas have now been added to the property so you can enjoy a few whiskies after your round of lake golf or Murray Cod fishing and then retire in style.
After a day touring the entire site, I was exhausted by the scale and ambition of the place. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a similar facility like this anywhere in the world. It’s a staggering achievement, and in whisky terms, we’re still years away from appreciating just how important this project will become to the flavour of dozens of Australian whiskies produced in NSW and beyond.
As Stu Whytcross says, it’s the start of a journey that will inspire new ways of thinking about and making Australian whisky.
‘We want to help distillers here to create uniquely Australian whiskies,’ he says. ‘We’re excited to play a role in helping to push Australian whisky to new limits, and we’ve got all the ingredients right here to do that.’