By Alex Kraaijeveld

From Eau-de-Vie to Uisge Beatha

Alex Kraaijeveld looks at the growth of alternative distillers worldwide – and he likes what he sees
A revolution is spreading through the whisky world. Not on a scale of the introduction of the Coffey still in the course of the 19th century, but it does involve a new type of whisky still. The last decade has seen a blossoming of distilleries making whisky in stills designed for other spirits. At least 20 distilleries around the world which distil eaux-de-vie and other fruit spirits have employed their stills for making whisky. Join me on a tour of these distilleries and let me introduce you to the people behind them and the wide variety of whiskies from eau-de-vie stills.Perhaps not surprisingly, the cradle of this new family of whiskies stands in the heartland of fruit schnapps production: German-speaking central Europe. One of the very first people – in the early 1980s – to start producing whisky in a schnapps still was Robert Fleischmann (www.fleischmann-whisky.de). The Blaue Maus Distillery in the village of
Eggolsheim in Frankonia, southern Germany, is part of his nautically-themed tavern and this is reflected in the names of some of his single malts. Besides Blaue Maus, the distillery presently produces Schwarzer Pirat, Krottentaler and Spinnaker. All Fleischmann’s whiskies are distilled twice from non-peated malt and matured for about eight years. Behind the different whiskies, Robert tells me mysteriously, are “different types of malt and different casks”. For whisky from a second Frankonian distillery we have to wait rather longer. In Reiner and Ursula Mößlein's distillery in Zeilitzheim (www.weingeister.de) a single grain whisky is maturing in French oak casks; it won't be released until it’s at least 10 years old.In Schwabia, southwest of Frankonia, we find the highest concentration of German schnapps distilleries producing whisky – Schwäbischer whisky, of course. In Köngen, the Zaiser family (www.obstbrennerei.de) distil their whisky from a mixture of malted barley and unmalted grains. The village of Owen is home to Christian Gruel who produces a single grain from malted barley and wheat. “The whisky is matured in sherry casks, bourbon barrels, a few casks from Bruichladdich and toasted Schwabian oak casks”, Christian says. In the same village, Thomas and Monika Rabel (www.berghof-rabel.
hoffrisch.de) store their single grain first, quite unusually, in earthenware vessels for two years and then up to six years in oak casks. Further to the west, Volker Theurer’s distillery near Tübingen (www.lamm-tuebingen.de) produces Black Horse Ammertal whisky. Also a single grain, it is distilled twice, then matured for two years in German oak casks, and finally for another six years in sherry and bourbon casks. “The whisky’s name comes from a family story,” Volker tells me. “My grandfather had a black horse, called Prinz. One day, Prinz was angry with my grandfather for spending all his time distilling schnapps and not riding him. When my grandfather left the barn for a short while, Prinz took big swigs of the mash. The result was that Prinz got very happy and grandfather got very angry!” A final whisky from this area is simply called Whisky aus dem Steigerwald. At 13 years old, this is the oldest German whisky, produced on a small scale by Erna and Roland Brasch in Unterscheichach. “A land as mystical as the Scottish Highlands,” Johann Haider says of Austria's Waldviertel (meaning ‘Wood quarter’). At the Roggenhof Distillery (www.roggenhof.at) in the village of Roggenreith, he and his wife Monika distil several award-winning single malts, one (Gersten-Malzwhisky) from 100% malted barley, another (Roggen-Malzwhisky) from 100% malted rye. Both are matured for three years in Manhartsberger oak casks. Nearby, in Kottes, Oswald Weidenauer (www.weidenauer.at) distils another award-winning whisky. Waldviertler Hafer-Whisky is unique as the only whisky today distilled from 100% oat and is matured in new oak casks. Though unique today, Oswald’s oat whisky harks back to the past, as oats were once commonly used for making spirits in
Scotland and Ireland.Distilling from grain was illegal in Switzerland until 1st July 1999. But when the ban was lifted, the Swiss were quick to seize the opportunity! Ernst Bader started distilling whisky in Lauwil at the stroke of midnight and trials are under way to find the most suitable cask type. In Stetten, Lorenz Humbel (www.humbel-brand.ch) distils a single malt exclusively for a
brewery in Basel. A third whisky distilling operation takes place once a year on board of a ship in Zurich. None of these spirits can legally be called ‘whisky’ yet, as they have not matured for the required three years; the first Swiss single malt whisky will come on the market later this year.On the other side of the big pond, distilling whiskey in eau-de-vie stills has found a home along America’s west coast. In Oregon, at the Clear Creek Distillery in Portland (www.clearcreekdistillery.com), Steve McCarthy distils a three-year-old McCarthy’s from malt peated to Islay-esque phenol levels of 35 ppm. A second Oregon distillery is Edgefield in Troutdale (www.mcmenamins.com/Edge). It is part of a larger estate, including a restaurant, brewery and winery. Official release of its single malt is scheduled for spring 2003. Lee Medoff, Edgefield’s Distiller, says: “The whiskey is the most exciting program at the distillery. I use non-peated barley and double distillation. Most of the whiskey matures in bourbon barrels, but I also have a good amount in red wine barrels.”Further south, California offers another pair of single malts. Peregrine Rock is distilled by Jim Busuttil’s St James Distillery (www.saintjamesspirits.com) in Irwindale from peated malt and is matured for three years in bourbon barrels. In Alameda, San Francisco, we find Jörg Rupf and Lance Winters at the St George distillery (www.stgeorgespirits.com). Their three-year-old St George is distilled once and is unique in using malt dried with the smoke of alder and beech wood. “We were trying for a sweeter style of whiskey,” Lance explains, “In barbecue-style cooking, wood smoke and sweetness work together beautifully. We began wood smoke experiments and that yielded an original and stunning whiskey.” Maturation takes place in bourbon barrels, French oak casks and a small proportion of port pipes. One of a few places in America where eau-de-vie still whiskey trials are on-going is the Local Color brewpub in Novi, Michigan (www.localcolor.com). They hope to be distilling rye whiskey by the end of the year, for sale exclusively in the pub.From Fleischmann to the Michigan pub, all distilleries mentioned so far use similar eau-de-vie stills, often called Holstein stills after a manufacturer in Germany: a relatively small pot (St George’s pots have a content of 65 gallons, for instance) with a column on top. The column contains a series of plates which allow fine-tuning and control of the reflux, essential in capturing the fruity aromas and flavours which are the raison d'être for eau-de-vie. In some places, (Canada, the Czech Republic and Australia) whisky is distilled in other still types used for distilling fruit spirits.In 1992 John Hall took over the old Rieder Distillery in Grimsby, Ontario. He inherited two quite large fruit brandy stills, one of 600 litres, the other containing 6,000 litres. In the renamed Kittling Ridge Distillery (www.kittlingridge.com) he uses these two fruit brandy stills for his Forty Creek whiskies: Three Grain is a vatting from whiskies distilled separately from barley, rye, and corn; Barrel Select combines whiskies matured in casks with light, intermediate or heavy char and sherry casks. The two stills suggest a possible Scottish-style wash and spirit still set-up, but this is not what happens at Kittling Ridge. “I distil all my whiskies only once, to maintain flavour,” John says. “I use the two stills separately, depending on which grain I am distilling.”The stills at Tesetice (www.goldcock.cz), near Olomouc in the north-east of the Czech Republic, were originally used for distilling slivovice and other fruit spirits. “These stills are more than 30 years old and information on producing whisky was really rare in the Czech Republic,” says Josef Kvapil, the Manager of Likérka Dolany (the company which owns Tesetice and its nearby sister distillery, Dolany). The stills vaguely resemble an old Soviet space capsule, but have produced whisky for well over a decade now. A 12-year-old malt, Gold Cock, is presently top of the range. Although the label doesn’t state it, it is a true single malt. “All our malt whisky is distilled and matured at Tesetice; only bottling is done at Dolany.” Josef explains.
At the Lark Distillery in Hobart, Tasmania (www.larkdistillery.com.au), Bill Lark and his family distil a spirit from pepper berries, apple schnapps, and, of course, whisky! “Our single malt whisky is distilled twice, using lightly peated malt,” says Kristy Lark, “matured for four years in casks of 50 or 100 litres and always bottled from a single cask.” Bill adds: “The still we use was scaled up from a much smaller one which produced the kind of spirit we wanted to make, which was a bit of a gamble, of course … ”By now, you're probably asking ‘What about the whiskies themselves?’ Irma Adriaanse and Thomas Berendonk join me for a comprehensive tasting; tough job, but someone’s got to do it!Robert Fleischmann’s single malts share a dusty mouth-feel. Blaue Maus has notes of vanilla and biscuits and becomes drier towards the finish. Spinnaker is quite similar, but a bit sweeter, with faint candle-wax in the nose. The three Schwäbischer whiskies are quite different from each other. Gruel’s has a leathery nose (like walking into a shoemaker’s shop!), giving way to a palate with marzipan and chocolate. Rabel’s is a bit rough on the edges, with burnt (but not smoky) notes and a hint of sweetness. Zaiser’s has a full, honeyed mouth-feel, with notes of apple crumble and cream-toffee. Black Horse is very light, with notes of fructose, vanilla and fudge. Steigerwald whisky is a bit harsh and bitter after a nose with custard and chocolate.The Austrian whiskies are quite light in character, but that is where the similarity ends. Gersten-Malzwhisky has leather on the nose; the palate has notes of liquorice, vanilla and fructose. Roggen-Malzwhisky is more delicate, with hints of praline, fruit and mint. Weidenauer’s oat whisky is the lightest of the three and has an almond and marzipan nose and oat flakes in the finish.Not surprisingly, McCarthy’s shows its high phenol levels. The peat is mixed with an acidic fruitiness and spicy, buttery notes. St George is remarkably smooth and very fragrant, with fructose-like sweetness and more nutty notes. The malt used for the present bottling is lightly smoked, but a heavy wood smoke experiment shows how much sweeter and more fragrant wood smoke is compared to peat smoke. Peregrine Rock is light and smooth with a vanilla-sweet nose and dry finish.The Forty Creek whiskies share a wonderfully warming mouth feel. Three Grain is crisp, with notes of vanilla,
chocolate, toffee and popcorn. Barrel Select is slightly fuller-bodied, with notes of dark chocolate, caramel and nuts. Gold Cock is a velvety-smooth and quite full-bodied whisky, with a buttery nose and a palate reminiscent of toffee apples. Lark’s single malt, finally, is a light whisky, with fruity notes (raspberry) and a whiff of peat.An ambition that emerges from talking to these distillers is one of wanting to make something new, unique, not a variation on an existing theme. Though Christian Gruel was inspired by travelling in Scotland, he wants to make whisky with its own unique character. Oswald Weidenauer’s choice of oat came from his desire to make a whisky like no other. John Hall prides himself on being a first-generation distiller (refreshing in an industry which puts so much emphasis on tradition), and set out to create a completely different Canadian whisky. As Lance Winters says: “I’m trying to make a new style of whiskey.” Why not try some of them and discover new favourites?