Whisky in the Eurozone

While Orma is high on the hills with a lonely goatherd, others are making whisky in remote sawmills, in underground caves, in old stables and in disused armouries on offshore islands. 

It’s not just the locations that set the Europeans apart. It’s normally assumed that malt refers to malted barley, because that is what is used, and how it is defined, in Scotland. But other countries question that and are malting oats, wheat, spelt, triticale, rye, and even quinoa – all grains and permissible in whisky production.

They are experimenting with different woods to mature their spirit, and they are using casks which have contained locally-produced wines and spirits. Indeed, the regionality of the whisky-making process is becoming a key factor. Peat varies massively from country to country so drying barley over different peats will impart different flavours. Local smoking methods, such as using juniper twigs in Sweden and, er, sheep dung in Iceland, also influence taste.

The results of all these adjustments are a range of whiskies from across Europe that often don’t taste like Scottish single malt whiskies, and don’t want to. Some of them – Mackmyra in Sweden, Belgian Owl in Belgium, Penderyn in Wales, Zuidam in The Netherlands, St George’s in England – are now not only established in international markets, but are picking up awards and demanding to be taken seriously at the very highest level.

But there are more, many more, which are either just making their first tentative steps on to the world stage, bottling for the first time and servicing localised markets, or still maturing their spirit.

And there are clear centres of influence for the European whisky market. There are established producers in France, Belgium and The Netherlands, developing whisky from a tradition of beer or genever; there are the intensely scientific producers from northern Europe and particularly Sweden, such as Spirit of Sven and Box; and there are the plethora of distilleries scattered across Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Liechtenstein and Austria, many of them with roots in fruit liqueur, beer and even wine production.

Diverse production

As we have seen, the whiskies they are producing are diverse and often have little in common with each other taste-wise. But what they all have – and what sets them apart from many American craft distillers – is quality.

“We have not really seen the extremely poor quality in Europe yet, and hopefully we won’t,” says Henrik Molina, owner of, and master blender at, Spirit of Hven in Sweden. 

“I think one of the reasons is the three-year rule. This keeps some of the less serious distillers out. Another reason is that the legislation generally is a bit stricter in Europe, especially with regards to health and safety. This makes the general investment a bit larger, and also sorts out some of the less serious ones. The downside to this is that we rarely see the really weird and funny stuff.”

Patrick Zuidam, managing director of Zuidam of The Netherlands, which markets a range of whisky under the name Millstone, argues that European distilleries are family owned, unlike those in America.