Although famed for its fine brewing pedigree, Germany is also developing a fearsome reputation in the whisky world, thanks largely to the country's many fanatical connoisseurs of the spirit. In fact, in Limburg, about 45 minutes by car north west of Frankfurt, you'll find perhaps one of the most popular whisky gatherings in Europe.
The Limburg Whisky Fair, which occurs every April attracts around 6 - 7,000 whisky drinkers over a weekend and is geared towards the more discerning whisky fan - many of whom perhaps border on the obsessive. But rest assured, Limburg is not as intimidating as it sounds. Although you won't perhaps find 'every day' expressions of your favourite distilleries, that is not really the point. Expect to be amazed by the sheer - no wait - staggering number of rare, old long-lost and unique single cask bottlings you have always wanted to try, alongside many newly released expressions from independent bottlers from across Europe. There are also plenty of specially bottled festival drams too, ranging from a millennial Glenfarclas offering to a 1995 Imperial. But alongside the wealth of quality Scotch, Limburg is as good a place as any to start exploring the growing number of domestic German whisky distillers too.
Like much of Western Europe, distilling spirits has been popular in Germany for centuries, but has largely focused on the production of fruit brandies. However in the last three decades, a few brandy producers and true German whisky pioneers have turned their attentions to distilling using grain and there are currently over 20 distilleries who are regularly producing whisky of some kind: from traditional single malt, through to other more experimental spirits using rye, corn and wheat.
Of these, two distilleries continue to attract the lions' share of the attention from the whisky community: Blaue Maus, 40km drive north of Nuremberg (www.fleischmann-whisky.de ) founded by Robert Fleischmann in 1980 (but making its first whiskies in 1983) and Slyrs (www.slyrs.de) which nestles comfortably near the Bavarian Alps.
Blaue Maus can perhaps consider itself a pioneer in the German whisky making scene and continues to evolve, with Fleischmann's son Thomas building a brand new distillery facility back in 2012, specifically to cater for the demands on his innovative, personality filled single malts. Each whisky released (from the classic Blue Mouse expression, full of lighter, more tropical notes, through to the heavier, spicier and drier woody tones of Spinnaker) is bottled as a single malt and usually sits around 6-8 Years Old, but despite some tender ages, a unique complexity lies at the heart of the entire range.
The Slyrs distillery built in the Bavarian Alps has been successfully producing whisky since 1999, playing on the importance of the purity of the local spring water. But the water source isn't the only thing that makes Slyrs unique. Locally grown malted barley is kiln smoked using beech wood, which gives the resulting mash a subtle sweet nuttiness. Under the tenure of Managing Director Anton Stetter, the distillery has finally released a long awaited landmark age statement expression of 12 Years Old, which sits alongside the entry level 3 Years Old, plus some excellent cask finishes and has a light, fruity - almost Lowland - style, with vanilla and fresh Bourbon notes. Later this summer the distillery will release a Sauternes finish, which promises to build on the delicate fruitiness of the core spirit style.
Although far smaller in stature than its contemporaries Slyrs, the Hammerschmiede distillery, established in 2002 near the densely forested Naturpark Südharz has been making a single malt called Glen Els on a batch-by-batch basis. Alongside some interesting single cask releases, the distillery has produced a core 'Journey' range, focusing on a combination of wood types (from sherry through to other fortified wines such as Madeira and Marsala) as well as some experiments with using wood smoke.
Alongside the growing interest in producing domestic whisky, Germany is also home to the Carl Distilling company - arguably one of the most important names in the international craft spirits market. Carl has been fabricating copper stills since 1869 - from truly artisanal 60 litre models, through to fully automated 6,000 litre industrial units. In fact, such is Carl's global significance that you are more than likely to find one of its innovative designs installed in many of the emerging new craft whisky and gin producers - from The London Distillery Company in Battersea (London's first whisky in over 100 years) as well as across the Atlantic at the New York Distilling Company.
Germany's bar scene has always been a wonderfully vibrant and world-class environment for cocktail excellence and it is keeping resolutely in touch with the current drinking trends across Western Europe. Of these, the Highball (a tall serve, with ice and soda water) is without doubt one of the most refreshing ways to enjoy a spirit and The Boilerman in Hamburg (www.boilerman.de) is well and truly ahead of the curve, specialising in high-end versions of this classic drink, alongside a venerable list of American whiskeys.
In Berlin, Buck & Breck, www.buckandbreck.com has taken on the bold step of refining the now clichéd speakeasy movement. But far from ushering guests through a vintage themed clandestine entrance, drinkers are greeted by a bar that resembles an ultra-modern kitchen, which would certainly look the part in an episode of Grand Designs. In fact the architecture of one's drink is very much left in the hands of the 'architect'; the lack of a discernable back bar means that drinkers have to trust the judgement of the bartender, a concept that might jar with some, but one which is more than worth it when the drinks eventually arrive.
The German cocktail scene isn't just about the zeitgeist. If classic cocktails and a 'full-fat' spirits list are your thing, head to Munich and make Schumann's your first destination. This simple, yet beautifully laid out bar puts one in the mood of the great cosmopolitan hotel bars frequented by Hemingway and company and the multiple bottles of Campari give a nod to the Italian 'Aperitivo' style of drinking. The whisky list is particularly strong, with at least 40 - 50 different malts, blends and American whiskeys on offer.
The whisky traditionalists amongst us needn't fret too much either. In the town of Aschaffenburg, which lies to the south east of Frankfurt, you'll find the Dead End Whisky Bar (www.deadend.de), an absolute must see for the malt enthusiast. The menu lists over 100 Islay expressions, ranging from Feis Ile festival only bottlings and long since departed independent single cask offerings… And that's just for starters. All in all, there must be over 500 different whiskies behind the back bar, alongside 'Scotch Corner' a separate room in the bar, where full bottles are also retailed. From vertical flight tastings of Slyrs whiskies, to in-depth talks about Ardbeg releases, Dead End is anything but.
Similarly, the Whiskey Bar at Brachmanns Galeron restaurant in Hamburg (www.brachmanns-galeron.de) offers a surprisingly robust list of excellent single malts, alongside an equally impressive array of local craft beers - all accompaniment for some of Hamburg's finest dining. A perfect way to begin one's visit to the Limburg Fair in 2016 - if you feel brave enough.