A Taste of Spain

A Taste of Spain

A guide to Spanish whisky — the distillers to know and bottles to buy

Places | 16 Jul 2021 | Issue 176 | By Felipe Schrieberg

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Within the whisky world, Spain is often thought of in somewhat mythical terms. It’s a kind of tannic paradise, thanks to the casks produced in the so-called ‘sherry triangle’ around Jerez. Made-to-order, seasoned sherry casks and their almost-extinct, ex-export butt brethren are the sources of flavours and aromas ranging from dark fruits and spices to leather and nuts, with velvety or even syrupy mouthfeel and more besides imparted to the spirits, traditionally Scotch and Irish whiskey, matured within.

However, in recent years the country has become host to many new distilleries and brands representing a swelling Spanish whisky wave. As new distillers have started releasing tiny quantities of bottles, the number of Spanish whisky fans has been growing and they are now connecting online to form a thriving community. It is a small, pioneering group of innovative producers leading the way. They are bound by their status as independent businesses and their common challenge to establish themselves in a crowded whisky market. Their success depends on distinguishing themselves from Scotch whisky imports that are growing in popularity amongst Spanish whisky fans.

These new brands also must work to emerge from the shadow of Spain’s largest whisky distillery, Destilerías y Crianza del Whisky. Known primarily as DYC (pronounced ‘deek’), the Segovia distillery has been the main producer of whisky in Spain since 1958 and is the country’s only large-scale operation.
The DYC distillery.

Founded by drinks businessman Nicomedes García, Beam Suntory bought up the distillery in 2006. Long known for producing blends – DYC makes both grain and malt whiskies – attention from whisky fans is growing on account of its production of quality releases, including single malts at cheap prices. On the whole, DYC whiskies are fruity, fresh and accessible, and the price of its releases are competitive in comparison to the Scotches that dominate the whisky aisles in Spanish shops. Its budget-friendly offerings generally outclass cheaper Scottish blends for the same prices in terms of quality and DYC therefore sets the standard for new producers.

Whisky blogger Emma Briones, who has run her site todowhisky.es for more than nine years, has enjoyed observing the evolution of the new Spanish whisky scene. “For a while, whisky consumption in Spain was pretty straightforward,” she told me. “You had J&B, Chivas, Cardhu, and Macallan. Sometimes Glenrothes. Now there’s a huge explosion of available brands, which is similar to what has happened with gin here, too.”

To Briones, that explosion has led local distillers to try making their own whiskies: “It’s similar to what’s happening everywhere in the world. You’re getting so many new distilleries starting up because the information on how to do so is more accessible now, and it can be done relatively cheaply with a small still.” Indeed, all new Spanish whisky producers are using small stills. They are tiny operations, with little uniting them in style and substance. The variety is part of the charm and it has led to a fascinating, if embryonic, whisky ecosystem.

One of the relative newcomers, Basque Moonshiners, sits outside Bilbao. In addition to whisky, it makes bitters, gin, vodka and potato spirit matured in oak casks. The operation is the project of three childhood friends and, according to one of them, they were inspired early. “There was a still in the village where we grew up, built during the Spanish Civil War,” explains managing director and co-founder José Luis Navarro. “The locals built it to learn from Italian soldiers stationed there how to distil alcohol from potato scraps. It fascinated us and was an inspiration for the distillery.”
The Basque Moonshiners stills.

Basque Moonshiners focuses on using local ingredients for its whisky, which is branded as Agot. Its maltster is located 90km from the distillery and most of its spirit is matured in red wine casks brought in from a nearby producer of Rioja in the region of Alavés. Virgin oak and ex-Bourbon are also used for its main releases, though it has released experimental whiskies matured in ex-sherry, including oloroso, palo cortado, and Pedro Ximenez (PX). In 2020 it was awarded the title of Best Spanish Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards, bringing extra attention to the distillery.

A three-hour drive to the west is Picos de Cabariezo in Cantabria, another microdistillery which will soon launch its first single malt in addition to the wines and liquors already available. Though the only thing close to ‘whisky’ currently on offer is Picos’ new make, managing director Javier Blanco, who founded the company with three friends, is confident of the quality of his upcoming sherry cask–matured whisky.

It has taken intense work, and some MacGyver-style solutions to be able to produce it. Blanco and his team decided to build their own malting and fermentation systems after arguing with the brewery that was making their wash, which had delivered to them a batch of substandard quality. “We had to modify our equipment to make things work,” he said. “We jury-rigged something together that would raise the temperature of the water to help extract as many starches as possible when making the wort.
Emma Briones, founder of TodoWhisky.es.

“We also built a chiller so when our wort emerges we can immediately control the temperature so we can quickly add the yeast and start fermenting, giving the wort as little contact with the air as possible. We had to create a custom piping system ourselves – it was a pretty hard job!” Fortunately, the results so far are promising; Blanco is excited for the final test, when the newly minted whisky is taken out of his high-quality casks.

Meanwhile, drinks production consultant Santiago Bronchales is responsible for helping to create two quite different whisky brands. Somehow, he convinced two family distilleries at opposite ends of Spain, both of which go back multiple generations, Destilerías Acha in the Basque Country and a rum distillery on the Canary Islands, Destilerías Aldea, to also try producing whisky. The latter, under the brand name Drago, has released a five-year-old grain whisky and a blend.

The grain whisky is made of malted wheat created in collaboration with a local brewery. On paper, the blend resembles an Irish pot still whiskey; it uses a combination of barley and wheat spirit, both malted and unmalted, which is all matured in virgin Pyrenean oak from Spain. Bronchales is pleased with the result: “Malted wheat is very gentle and bready. We know it’s quite different to what you find in typical whisky-producing countries. The result gives us a whisky that is soft and fresh.

“Our blended whisky is something more ‘mainstream’, aiming to replicate some of the flavours you get in Scotch. We sent it over to the 2020 London Spirits Competition and we got a silver medal! It was a nice confirmation that we’re doing something interesting that’s worth tasting.”
A closer look at the DYC distillery.

In the Basque Country at Acha, Bronchales has older stock to play with and has been working there since 2006. Its malt whiskies are released under the brand name Haran (‘valley’ in Euskadi, the Basque Country’s native language) at a variety of ages. There are eight, 12 (three 12-year-olds, each finished in a different sherry style), 18, and 21-year-old releases. The latter is currently the oldest available Spanish whisky on the market.

However, Bronchales isn’t sure that Haran’s older 18- and 21-year-olds feature spirit that was originally distilled at Acha or even in Spain. This means that, DYC aside, Destilerías Liber in Granada has likely been producing whisky for the longest time in Spain. It has only one whisky option among its many spirits: a single malt called Embrujo (‘magic spell’). Managing director Fran Peregrina admitted that it hadn’t bewitched consumers since its launch as a four-year-old in 2007; however, he has been vindicated over the years, applying painful lessons learned as Embrujo has evolved.
“I was at a beach hotel in the Costa Brava recently during the brief window when travel was allowed here during the pandemic,” he said. “I stopped at a restaurant and saw that they had a bottle of our first ever Embrujo edition, which means the bottle has been there for 13 years. So I ordered it, opened it and tried it. I couldn’t believe how bad it was! It was a bittersweet moment. I was ashamed that I had released such a whisky… but I could also appreciate how far we’ve come and how we’re now producing something special.”

The distillery matures its whisky in a wide variety of casks, encompassing larger sherry butts sourced from Bodegas Herederos Nicolas Martín as well as smaller casks that previously held Cognac, Bourbon, and port. Some Spanish whisky brands are finding success without necessarily distilling their own whisky. According to Peregrina, Destilerías Liber’s redemption beyond Embrujo also includes companies that are finding success using whisky produced there. One is the Spanish Whiskey Club (founded by a Dane, Jan Vistisen), which buys up single casks from Liber and bottles them. These are the oldest and some of the only single-cask whiskies produced in Spain, which are mostly sold in Northern Europe. Another whisky brand, Sack Man, also works with Liber to release 8-year-old and 12-year-old malt whiskies.
The core range of whiskies from DYC.

Basque Moonshiners is planning something new as well. It will import whisky from other countries to mix with its own stock for a new brand. The first release will use unpeated and peated Scotch whisky, and further Spanish-Irish and Spanish-US whisky combinations are in the pipeline.

Bilbao-based Manu Iturregui is the owner of the Residence Café, a whisky bar now in business for 18 years. He also works with Basque Moonshiners as a brand ambassador and as part of the blending team. Three years ago, to celebrate the Residence Café’s 15th anniversary, he collaborated with Berry Bros. & Rudd to bottle a 15-year-old single cask from an Orkney distillery, which is possibly the first independent Spanish bottling of single-cask Scotch.
While the whiskies vary in production and flavour, these micro businesses face common challenges – and advantages – involving changing consumer perceptions of whisky and the competition they face in the market.

Advantages first: Spanish consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about whisky, in part due to evangelists like Iturregui and Briones, reflecting a wider pattern where consumers want to know more about quality spirits. Iturregui said his whisky menu has expanded steadily over the years: “We started with a small selection. As brands saw that we were serious, they made more whiskies available to us. We also were able to start hunting for bottles that we thought were special. Distributors are also better these days, and are able to bring in a wider selection here.”
Manu Iturregui, owner of the Residence Café.

Whisky fans have also connected online, enabling non-English-speaking enthusiasts to become more educated about whisky. Briones has noted an interesting trend: “As Spanish whisky fans have connected via groups on Facebook, people will curate whisky news articles in English they think are interesting, translate them into Spanish, and post the translation on the group page so it’s accessible for everyone. It’s now much easier to access information.” These whisky fans are also becoming more interested in the new Spanish brands – and for the most part are willing to pay to try their products.
However, producing whisky anywhere isn’t cheap and these small producers must be careful not to price themselves out of the market given the relatively cheap prices of Scotch whisky (including single malts) and DYC’s releases. That increases the pressure on brands forced to keep low prices despite the relative cost of production.

Another challenge is presented by the fact that no law defines ‘Spanish whisky’ beyond the European Union’s relatively flexible rules. (Fun fact: before EU regulations replaced Spanish rules, whisky legally could be spelled ‘güisqui’ on labels.) This leaves some scope for bending certain widely accepted definitions, not unlike the problems that bedevilled Japanese whisky, where non-Spanish spirit is brought in and labelled as ‘Spanish whisky’.
Javier Blanco, managing director of Picos de Cabariezo.

Iturregui said this has been a problem with some brands: “We’ve been talking about perhaps instituting some kind of industry-wide agreement. We’d need DYC at the table though, because when the big guys say something, the smaller ones will listen. We’re hoping for something similar to what happened with vermouth, where a small producer starts the initiative, and convinces bigger brands to jump onboard and therefore drive change.”

Regardless, things are looking rosy for the future of whisky in Spain. A growing fanbase and pioneering producers mean the category is set to thrive. If this new craft industry can grab the bull by the horns, Spanish whisky fans will have plenty to be excited about in the years to come.
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