Whisky goes off-piste

26 March, 2018

If you want proof that alpine whisky is set for its place in the sun, then you need look no further than the 2018 alpine whisky competition held in February.

I’d like to tell you what country I was in but I haven’t got a clue – and that has nothing to do with tasting more than 40 whiskies. It’s down to the fact that we were in that area around Lake Constance where Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein meet, the borders are uncontrolled (remarkable in itself given that Switzerland’s not in the European Union), and you can change country by crossing the road or going over a bridge.

Like the region we were judging in (I’m going for Austria) the whiskies were served up without borders, with Indian, Taiwanese and a clutch of Scottish single malts going up against the best of what the Alpine whiskies had to offer.

It was a long day, but when the smoke had cleared and the results were in, the whisky which came top was from Switzerland.

We shouldn’t get carried away here: the top 10 were dominated by Scottish and world whisky. Nevertheless three distilleries from Switzerland stood out from the rest, and most of the Austrian whiskies tripped up not because they weren’t good, but because they tasted young compared to the whiskies from elsewhere.

I have argued for some time now that the Alpine countries are set to give the likes of Sweden, France and Australia a run for their money, and there’s a very good reason why. About five years ago the region’s leading distillers took advice from a company called Alpine Spirits Producers on the science of making whisky. It has been distilling in this part of the world for centuries, but the methods used to make genever, brandy, schnapps and fruit liqueurs just didn’t work for whisky. Once it got the process right, the rest would follow. And it has.

The winning whisky was Langatun Quinta do Zambujeiro, a single malt finished in Portuguese red wine casks, and its victory shows three things: that the Alpine region really is making world-class whisky; that some distilleries are learning quickly from the Scots on how to pep up spirits with special wood finishes; and that a region that has traditionally been inward facing is starting to reach out to other countries, both for resources and as export markets.

Langatun had a highly impressive afternoon, with its Port Cask and Old Deer cask strength whiskies finishing in the top 20. But Säntis, with its delicate incense-like smoke also did well, while two of Swiss Mountain’s whiskies performed strongly.

There are other Alpine whiskies which were absent from the competition but have turned heads. Austria’s Bröger has won acclaim in America for its peat bomb malts, and Santisblick, whose distiller has an adventurous and experimental soul, is a hit and miss affair but when it gets it right can produce delightful whiskies.

There are more than 100 distilleries in the Alpine region, and top quality whisky is still rare. But the nations are starting to think big, and the whisky is coming. New World whisky continues to go from strength to strength.

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