When it comes to New World whisky, weird and wacky come with the territory, so perhaps nothing should come as a great surprise.Nevertheless, ask Swiss distillers Pascal Mitter and Rinaldo Willy how they make a living outside whisky and their answers are well and truly off piste. “I make diamonds out of dead bodies,” says Willy, who speaks Romanisch, a sort of Latin and French language spoken by a few thousand local folk in this corner of the Swiss Alps.
“Or at least I make diamonds from the 16% of carbon left after cremation. It’s quite common to wear your deceased loved one as jewellery rather than just scatter their ashes.” Wow. And Pascal Mitter? “See that building there?” he says, as he drives his classic Jaguar through a typically pretty Alpine valley, and he points to a nondescript grey building with some barbed wire on it. “They make nearly all of Europe’s euro notes in there.”
Notwithstanding the irony of Switzerland producing euro notes, how does he know? “I am in IT security,” he says, “and that is my main client. And now that I have told you, I will have to kill you.” He is smiling. Mitter and Willy may have day jobs, but when it comes to making whisky they are not playing games. They have invested substantially in their whisky company, which is called Orma, are distilling at Telser distillery in nearby Liechtenstein, and have several caves high up in the Alps where they’re experimenting with maturation, making these the highest whisky ‘warehouses’ in the world.
And they’re thinking big. They are putting their whisky into an expensive and stylish bottle. Their logo is a goat, a symbol of the region, with long horns and tail so that it looks like a number eight. Read the Orma logo upside down and the three lines that make the M and the inverted V that acts as A, together look like the Roman VIII – eight. The strength of the whisky is 44% – which adds up to…you guessed it. So why? “We are looking ahead to exporting our whisky,” says Mitter. “Eight is a lucky number in Asia.”
Orma isn’t the only whisky producer in Europe that is turning production on its head. There are only two ways of making malt whisky. Like the Scots do, in which case you’d better be really good at it, because Scotland is. Or by doing something radically different.
There are strict rules about making malt whisky in Europe. You can only use malted grain, yeast and water, for instance, and you must mature it in wooden casks for at least three years.
But within those confines there is plenty of room for manoeuvre, and Europe’s new wave of distillers are proving remarkably adept when it comes to taking whisky production into new and exciting areas.