As a follow-on from previous Think Tasmania articles regarding Tasmanian whisky, I paid a visit to Knapp Lewer Contracting, the Hobart engineering company that manufactures pot stills and associated equipment for commercial whisky makers.

Knapp Lewer - Copper Pot Stills

Copper pot stills made in Tasmania: Knapp Lewer Contracting

Knapp Lewer Contracting: Unique Engineering in Hobart

by Roger Findlay

I have acquired experience of “cold calling” and how to gain access to workshops. In readiness, I had my hi-viz vest, safety specs, hearing protection and hard hat in the car as well as an official looking name tag that would probably get me into the press box at the MCG without question!

Knapp Lewer Contracting proved me wrong! I presented myself to the ladies at the reception desk in what turned out to be a completely different entity but they were able to contact my man who was working the other side of locked doors at the top of a flight of stairs.

Meeting the Maker: Peter Bailly

I had no idea what to expect as I climbed the stairs; and when I entered the room I could see no signs of life until from behind a cabinet appeared a gentleman who shyly introduced himself as Peter Bailly.

Without hesitation, I explained the reason for my visit and he proceeded to show me drawings and pictures of pot stills that he’d produced. The manufacture of stills is only a minor part of the business. Apart from general engineering, boiler making and sophisticated automation and process controls are the core.

Tasmanian Spirits: Copper Pot Stills

Do you know the purpose of a still? I had a vague idea but it was only after I’d seen one that I did a bit of research.

Knapp Lewer - Engineering

Knapp Lewer Contracting (photos by Roger Findlay)

In simple terms, a pot still is used for distillation and resembles an onion or kettle in shape. Copper is the preferred metal because it’s the only metal that removes some of the unwanted elements from the spirit. Size of the still and the neck also plays a critical role in the process to give the final product unique characteristics. By heating a fermented “wash” to a specific temperature, the alcohol separates from the water in the form of vapour that is rapidly cooled back to liquid form and a resultant basic spirit.

Knapp Lewer - Contracting

Copper stills (photos by Roger Findlay)

For whisky, the fermented wash is created by the release of sugar from barley that has been through several processes including: malting, grinding, brewing and fermentation. End of lesson!

Knapp Lewer Contracting

Back at Knapp Lewer I was taken out of the office area, down a flight of steps and into the workshop. A small copper still caught my eye. It had a capacity of 1,000 litres and I pictured it sitting in my shed. The copper didn’t shine. It had only just been formed into shape and welded. At a later stage, it would be dipped in an acid solution (pickled) before being polished to perfection. Each still is fitted with a unique cast name plate to identify the product or the customer’s business name.

Knapp Lewer - Casey Overeem, Old Hobart Distillery (Whisky)

Knapp Lewer copper pot still: Casey Overeem (Old Hobart Distillery)

Peter Bailly took me back to his office and proudly showed me a drawing of a large boiler that he’d designed and made for a power station. It was used once as a pre-boiler to a larger unit for an operational start-up. Having served the purpose, it was de-commissioned after just one use and great expense!

Making whisky and home brewed beer for the populace of Gerogery West has some potential with struggling farmers, unemployed and for those with visions of grandeur as my customer! Having just watched the movie Great Gatsby my wealth could escalate beyond belief. Bootlegger. I could add that to my CV.

Knapp Lewer - Pot Stills

Pot stills made by Knapp Lewer Contracting

The copper still in my shed would have an additional plate reading “Proudly Made in Tasmania by Knapp Lewer” and I would polish it frequently.

Thanks to Peter Bailly for giving me a guided tour, and providing behind-the-scenes access to Knapp Lewer Contracting. Photography includes images by Peter Jarvis and Nick Osborne, used with permission from William McHenry and Casey Overeem (see original articles for more details).