Referendum In or Out

Referendum In or Out

Whatever the outcome, there is a bright future for European whiskies

Thoughts from... | 15 Jul 2016 | Issue 137 | By Neil Ridley

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To those international readers, especially in the US, I apologise in advance. In fact you might want to skip this intro in the interests of international relations. For those who do feel so inclined, we're talking about the whole sorry saga of our recent national obsession: To stay, or not to stay…

I am of course writing this column in the run up to an EU Referendum on 23 June, the result that will have already been announced by the time you actually get to read this. Both sides of the debate gave it their all, but really only succeeded in resembling characters in a poorly played out pantomime, complete with ludicrous twitchy eyebrowed villains and plenty of 'oh-yes-it-is' and 'oh-no-it-isn't' style debating about numbers that no one really understands. At the time of writing, the vote was too close to call.

Still, what would the EU look like without the UK from a whisky production perspective? Quite healthy, as it happens. In fact, a cursory perusal of any specialist retailer reveals just how far central Europe has come when it comes to world class whisky making.

About 18 months ago I took a trip up to the chilly forests of northern Sweden to visit the futuristic looking Mackmyra Distillery and was amazed with what I found: a top flight distillery, well ahead of the curve in terms of innovation, passion and sheer bravado in the flavour department. I left with a head full of ideas and a suitcase full of its terrific expressions including Midvinter, a whisky matured in Bordeaux wine, sherry and mulled wine casks, which bought an unsurprisingly ace spicy note to the spirit.

A few hours drive later, I was pottering round a huge lake, which provides a perfect anti-stress vista for the Box Distillery, another progressive Swedish whisky maker. The optimism about European whiskies on display here, coupled with the detailed approach to distillation and maturation was enlightening.

In neighbouring Denmark, the progress at the Stauning Distillery continues, since receiving a £10 million investment from Diageo's Distilled Ventures funding programme. By the summer, the distillery should begin its expansion which will see it dramatically increase in capacity, by around 50 times.

In Germany, the reception of its now reasonably established whisky distilleries including Blaue Maus, Slyrs and Hammerschmiede continues to grow domestically, with Slyrs in particular beginning to turn heads on an international scale with its recent win at the World Whiskies Awards.

The same story applies in France and now in Italy, with the stylish Puni Distillery showing all the hallmarks of future greatness in its freshly made spirit.

So where does all this point? There's no doubt that Scotch will be Scotch, despite any future plans to potentially break away from the UK. Welsh whisky has yet to become a 'terroir' all of its own despite the domestic success of the sole distillery, Penderyn. In Northern Ireland, Echlinville have revived the Dunville's brand and we have seen recent movement from the historic Bushmills, whose ownership changed hands from Diageo to Tequila giants, Jose Cuervo.

That leaves good old England. Much has been written about the malts from St George's in Norfolk, Adnams, The Lakes Distillery and recent whisky-making experiments from urban operations. The London Distillery Company and East London Liquor Company demonstrate that the will to make an English whisky is still alive.

Break ups are hard to swallow at the start and if you're reading this and the BREXIT campaign has triumphed, time is probably a great healer. But for new UK distilleries, trying to compete on the big stage, facing the might of the EU without the UK as a member, I fear that it will take more than time to cement any future success.

As a movement, European whisky (excluding the existing might of Scotch) feels like it could be on the cusp of a genuine commercial breakthrough and you're either on the train to successville, or left blinking at the station, wondering what might have been.
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