Distillery Focus

Distilling with Swiss precision

Ian Buxton finds there's more to Switzerland than cheese, cuckoo clocks and cow bells
By Ian Buxton
Have you ever drunk whisky made from melted snow? Or from water drawn from a spring by the light of the full moon? Or whisky made with spelt (it’s an ancient strain of wheat)?

Chances are you haven’t. Well, now you can – at least, if you can get to The Whisky Castle in the tiny village of Elfingen, Switzerland. It’s roughly half way between Basle and Zurich and easily reached from either city by train and a short cab ride.

A short journey it may be, but The Whisky Castle is a world away from the bustle of the city. Here on their small farm, the Käser family grow vegetables for their shop at Viaduct 231 in Zurich’s Limmatstrasse and vines for the production of their own red and white wine. More importantly, they have been distilling fruit spirits here for many years, largely from their own produce, products which enjoy a high reputation and have won a number of prestigious awards.

But that market is in long-term decline and is highly price sensitive; whisky looked like a better option. After all, they thought, how hard could it be?

In 1999 they found out. Prior to that Switzerland did not permit distilling from cereal, which was reserved for food production, legislation which dated back to the Second World War. However, the law was repealed and Herr Käser senior decided to make whisky.

As they themselves will tell you the results were, to put it kindly, disappointing. (I’ve tasted this first distillation and even I would have been disappointed.) Nothing daunted, they looked into the problem and soon realised that their stainless steel continuous fruit spirits still, designed to produce a clean, refined spirit was the very opposite of a copper pot still, with its reflux and deliberately extended copper contact.

So, seeking to create Swiss whisky and not imitate a Scottish or American style, they determined to design their own. The well-known firm of Christian Karl built it and by 2003 it was up and running. It was the first copper pot still for whisky in Switzerland and, they claim, remains unique. The results were immediately apparent – the new make was clearly different from the product of the neighbouring still, which remains in production but is wholly dedicated to fruit spirits while all the whisky comes from the copper pot.

The whisky distilling has now passed to a new generation and is the responsibility of Ruedi Käser who has expanded production and begun a series of exciting experiments. In addition, the distillery is open to the public and a series of whisky dinners and other themed events are held regularly. For the serious enthusiast there is even a cask purchase scheme through the Castle One Private Whisky Club, though this is currently fully subscribed.

"Käser is trying to convert his countrymen to the joys of Swiss whisky; slowly develop visits to The Whisky Castle and continue to experiment and innovate"


The majority of operations take place in the Whisky Castle itself, which is a dramatic building styled somewhat after a Shaker barn with a prominent drum feature suspended over the entrance. A central area allows visitors to circulate and enjoy a welcome drink, while the stills may be easily seen to the left and a large picture window to the visitors’ right offers the sight of maturing barrels tantalisingly just behind the glass.(Incidentally, it’s not as some writers would have it the Cheese Castle; though Käser means ‘cheese’ in German the family have never made cheese – that’s what happens if you rely on Google to translate the phrase ‘the Käser’s Castle’!)

Behind the distilling area there is a small restaurant which can be booked for larger parties or corporate functions and in the first-floor gallery there’s a shop and a seating area. The mysterious drum holds a well-stocked bar where you may enjoy a cigar along with a selection of The Whisky Castle’s drams. If for some reason they don’t appeal a range of single malts from Scotland is also offered.

A small exhibition area has recently been added in an adjacent barn. Here the process of malting and distilling is explained with models and diagrams and the full range of whiskies is again displayed.

Though production is small, around 9-10,000 litres annually, the range is extensive. Ruedi Käser is keen to stress that everything here is hand-crafted, right down to the bottling and labelling. It’s an entirely family-owned, artisanal effort that remains close to its roots, and firmly rooted in its community.

Käser has no ambition to distil millions of litres annually, or to build a global brand or even to dominate Swiss whisky (there are around a dozen producers, though all are modest in scale). Instead, he is trying to convert his countrymen to the joys of Swiss whisky; slowly develop visits to The Whisky Castle and continue to experiment and innovate.

And that is where much of the joy of The Whisky Castle is to be found. Currently, some seven expressions are available (see tasting notes in panel), though quantities are limited and in some cases absolutely tiny. Look for The Whisky Castle’s distinctive bottles in the Duty Free shop in Zurich airport and in a few enterprising Swiss, German, Dutch and Austrian specialists. You might just be able to track down a bottle on line.

At the time of writing discussions were in hand to bring a few cases to the UK, most likely of the flagship Edition Käser, a beefy 5 year old cask-strength offering that will only improve with a few years more in cask. It’s worth looking out for and is a great deal more than a
simple curiosity.

The Whisky Castle is a great example of a new generation of whisky makers who are at once true to distilling’s landed roots, yet challenging convention with exciting experimentation and fresh thinking.

In the 1949 movie The Third Man, Harry Lime offered this classic put-down: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Whisky’s Harry Lime will need to think again. Cheese or no cheese.


Tasting notes



Edition Käser

The 5 year old, 68% ABV flagship. Very dramatic, spicy and herbal then fruit and honey come forward on the palate. Soft, smooth and creamy with a little water. Long, consistent finish.

Smoke Rye

A bold attempt at a classic rye style with a great dance between sweet and spice notes that will benefit from a few more years aging.

Terroir

Just 300 litres are produced annually of this 100% Swiss whisky using unsmoked Swiss barley and matured in a Swiss oak cask. Some ripe fruits; toasted croissant and vanilla notes.

Also available: Full Moon; Snow Whisky; Smoke Barley; Smoke Spelt and various special bottlings.