Whisky in the Eurozone

“I like my American colleagues a lot and some of them have produced astonishing spirits,” he says. “ But their business models with outside investors are radically different from our European business financing, often bringing more pressure on fast return on investments. 

“Most European producers, like us, are family businesses that are less interested in short-term return on investments and more in building long-term quality image. Quality is key, the rest will follow,” says Zuidam.

The standard of European whisky has progressed rapidly. In the past five years, for instance, the Alpine region in particular has made giant steps forward. 

The Germanic countries have a long history of distilling of course, stretching back centuries. But when it came to making whisky, there were teething problems. Making whisky is entirely different to making fruit liqueurs – a lesson the distillers learned fast.

Remarkable changes

Arthur Nãgele is an Austrian trainer and consultant who works alongside distilleries across the Alpine region, and he heads up the European Craft Distillers’ Alliance. He says the changes have been remarkable.

“Our distillers learned from their mistakes,” he says. “In the early days of Alpine whisky, maturation and cask management were weak points. Fruit distillers are mostly used to using new oak for a very short time. That’s totally different to the way whisky is made. Generally speaking, Alpine whisky is totally different to scotch.

“Fruit distillers are the cleanest in the world and have a different approach to the Scots. They use other grains, have different distillation methods and cleaner cut points, which make the product closer to Irish or Canadian whisk(e)y. Due to the extremely clean cuts, Alpine whiskies do not need such a long maturation in wood as scotch.”

Further north the issue of maturation time is one of the areas that Swedish distillers are looking at closely. Box is using Hungarian and eastern European oak, for instance, which imparts taste and colour to the spirit at a much higher rate than French, Spanish or American oak.

And it’s an area that Hven’s Molina is interested in, though he thinks that European whisky should not push the boundaries too far.

“I always think there is room for something new and for thinking outside the box (no pun intended),” he says. “However, there are creative people who tend to think so far outside the box they forget where they actually put the box in the first place. It is fun to play with new ideas, but the question is how far can you twist a whisky before the consumer does not recognise it any more?”

What all European distillers agree on is that the future is very bright for whisky from non-traditional European countries. Part of the reason is the way that Scotland is arguably shooting itself in the foot with a double whammy of a series of price hikes and the move to whiskies without an age statement. “Every time the Scots talk about age not mattering, my job gets that little bit easier,” commented one English distiller recently.

David Roussier of Distillerie Warenghem agrees, and says there is a seismic shift in attitudes towards new world whiskies.

“We appeal mainly to a standard whisky drinker but one who is open to new things,” he says. “It is really getting easier now. People understand that good whisky is not dependent on the location of the distillery. For people who love whisky, the origin is becoming less important as long as the quality is there.