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Basel Whisky

Whether Baslers or expats – on the right occasion, at the right time – both might like to enjoy a glass of good Single Malt Whisky. But why should you enjoy a drink from a country far, far away? For the last few years whisky has been distilled in the area around Basel as well. 

 By Martin Pütter, Photography Katrin Horn

Whisky, Single Malt: most likely nine out of ten people, unless they are either of Irish or American origin, will immediately associate these two terms with Scotland. “Swiss whisky”, on the other hand, these same people would have regarded as an oxymoron. However, as weird as it may sound for many people, there are quite a number of local whisky brands on the market in Switzerland – “from 20 producers in the early days, the number grew quickly to almost 60 today”, as Tom Wyss writes in the preface to his book “Swiss Whisky”.  And Swiss whisky can claim what neither Scottish whisky nor Irish whiskey can: it can trace its origin back to a precise day.

“And so it happened that on July 1, 1999, the first baby whisky was flowing at the Bader Distillery”: those are the words (translated to English) that Ernst Bader had written on his website, “Hollen Single Malt Swiss Whisky”. Thus the now 81-year-old farmer from Lauwil (Baselland) was the first in Switzerland to produce a Swiss single malt. It had been the law that had stopped him from doing so before that day. From 1914 until June 30, 1999, it was illegal in Switzerland to use potatoes or grain as basic ingredients for producing spirits: for Switzerland, those staple foods were vital elements for (the illusion of) self-sufficiency. 

Wiskey_2Whisky lovers, brewers, distillers

The Hollen farm in upper Baselland was not to remain the only whisky distillery in Switzerland. Others followed. A small portion of them consists of whisky lovers who just fancied producing their own favourite tipple themselves. Others were or still are mainly breweries. Very simplified, whisky is just distilled beer without the addition of hop before the beginning of the distillation process. The third group that turned to producing Swiss whisky was the distillers. Producing spirits – mostly with either fruit or herbs as basic ingredients – has had a very long tradition in Switzerland. And it had been the distillers in particular that seemed to feel a competition coming from whisky. Just a few years after the turn of the millennium, “the amount of whisky imported to our country in one year was higher than the whole annual production of Swiss spirits”, explains Konrad Schär, who produces his own whisky at the Weidhof farm in Ormalingen (upper Baselland).

No competition

Maybe competition does not seem to be the appropriate word. “Whisky has a completely different clientele than spirits made of fruit”, says Schär, who distilled his first whisky at the end of 2006. Tobias Sturzenegger takes a similar position. “A lover of whisky was, is and always will be a lover of whisky”, says the branch manager of drinks retailer Paul Ullrich AG. And the consumer, too, should not regard Swiss whisky as competition to brands from Scotland or Ireland (or the USA or…). “Swiss whisky will always be a niche product; you should try and taste it as a Swiss whisky and refrain from making comparisons”, Sturzenegger continues.

Swiss whisky also cannot be in competition against other whiskies when you look at quantities produced. “The stills in Scottish distilleries have a capacity of at least 3,000 litres: the biggest still in Switzerland only has a 1,000 litre capacity”, says Tom Wyss. The large Scottish distilleries do nothing but whisky, and that on an almost daily basis – whereas many distillers in Switzerland are producing other spirits or beverages on their premises as well. Or as Konrad Schär puts it, “Making whisky is a nice pastime”.

The owner of the Weidhof farm explains that he has about 8,000 litres of whisky maturing in his casks. This is a rather tiny amount compared to what malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are producing annually. The situation is similar at the Hollen farm. Ernst Bader has about 100 casks on stock. “I only ever produce as much as I can sell”, he says.

Peculiarities

In his book “Swiss Whisky”, Tom Wyss lists five producers from Basel and the surrounding area – although in a couple of cases you might be a bit hard stretched to apply a strict definition of the term “producer”.

Those five are the following:

  • Brewery “Unser Bier” Basel – with “Our Beer”, aptly named.
  • Hollen farm Lauwil – with “Hollen Single Malt Swiss Whisky”.
  • Weidhof Ormalingen – with “Weidhöfler Single Malt”.
  • Restaurant “Alte Brennerei” Nuglar – with “Schwarzbuebe Singlemalt” (sic).
  • Pentapharm Aesch – with “Spirit of Pentapharm”.

Each of these producers has some peculiarities, some distinctive features – and probably none more so than “Spirit of Pentapharm”.  A team of employees at the pharmaceutical company Pentapharm in Aesch had this whisky produced by “Biervision Monstein” in Davos and by Ruedi Käser from Whisky Castle in Elfingen (Canton of Aargau).  Tom Wyss has kindly given “The Basel Journal” permission to quote from the entry about this whisky in his book:

“After a visit to Davos Monstein the Pentapharm team decided to have a cask of whisky produced, on a private basis, but in cooperation with Biervision. Wash made from malted barley by Biervision Monstein was distilled to spirit wine in 2008, by Ruedi Käser from Whisky Castle at the Biervision premises in Davos. For the first two years the cask was stored in Davos. In the next step the single malt was transferred to Aesch where the cask was stored at the Pentapharm premises for another year”.

The last steps then came in 2011, which included bottling. Now anybody looking to get their hands on a bottle, please note: “All 290 bottles have been sold out. Unfortunately no further production has been planned”, ends the entry about “Spirit of Pentapharm” in Tom Wyss’ book. The question now is how many people might also come to the conclusion that this whisky could give the term “industrial alcohol” a whole new meaning!

Wiskey_3Delay

When it comes to the Restaurant “Alte Brennerei” in Nuglar, the case is completely different: “I’ve only got 30 litres of whisky; that’s not enough to enter the market with it”, says owner Martin Klotz, who also brews his own beer on the premises (cf. The Basel Journal, issue 5, June/July 2012). His biggest problem is finding a distiller nearby. And whisky plays second fiddle to another important project this year: “I am going to expand my brewery”. However, he has not given up having his own whisky in the not-so-distant future: “That’s next in the cards.”

“Our Beer”, the whisky by brewery Unser Bier in Basel, has one thing in common with the whisky that Martin Klotz has produced so far. They both make their own wash, but neither of them distil it – they have this done by someone else with the proper equipment. “Each year we’re holding a whisky seminar, usually around mid-November. That evening we also brew the mash for our whisky. This will then, as wash, be sent to a distiller in Stetten, canton of Aargau – the “Spezialitätenbrennerei Humbel”. There it will be distilled, stored and refined. After three years our whisky will then come back to us, already bottled”, says Luzius Bosshard, managing director of the brewery. Unser Bier did not start making whisky quite as early as Ernst Bader with his Hollen Single Malt, but still early enough. “We made our first whisky in 2000”, Bosshard continues. One thing is sure: it will never replace the beer brewed there. “The ‘Our Beer’ whisky is just an addition – both for us as a brewery, but also for those lovers of whisky who would like to enjoy a Swiss whisky”, Bosshard explains.

 

Three in one go

Strictly speaking Hollen und Weidhof are the only ones in the area around Basel that really distil their own whisky – not only just make their own wash – but also distil with their own equipment. However, the equipment reveals a big difference to Single Malts as they are made in Scotland, for example. Both Ernst Bader in Lauwil and Konrad Schär in Ormalingen are using column stills. “This enables us to distil our whisky three times in one go”, says Schär. Single Malt from Scotland, on the other hand, is in most cases distilled only twice, and Scottish distillers use pot stills. First the “new wine” is made in the wash still. This “new wine” will have an alcohol content of around 20 percent. It will then go to the “new wine still” and come out with about 60 to 75 percent alcohol content. That will be partly reduced by the addition of water before going into casks.

 

This, it seems, is a point that gets the purists going into overdrive. “There is a movement that says that only whisky made in pot stills (and not in column stills) should be allowed to be called Swiss Single Malt”, explains Tobias Sturzenegger. For him, however, the casks are one of the most important elements of making whisky, if not the most important. “If you have good casks, and you do a decent storage, then you can still turn an average spirit into a very good whisky”. But when it comes to casks, both those already producing whisky in Switzerland and those who still want to enter the market are at a disadvantage compared to the established whisky nations: “Anybody who wants to join the whisky business now will have problems getting decent casks.”

 

Thorough

The whisky expert of Paul Ullrich AG also believes that producers of Swiss whisky still have a lot of catching up to do. “After all, they have only been distilling whisky since 1999: they still lack a lot of experience”, says Sturzenegger. But catching up is what they are doing, and fast. “They are continually improving their products”. Even if the hype around whisky comes to an end he still believes that Swiss producers can stay in the market. “Those who were there at the beginning, with good marketing, can survive. Those who want to join the market now should have good ideas, good marketing, and above all, patience”. And what quality as criteria? Sturzenegger points out the many awards that Swiss whiskies have already won at exhibitions in the recent past – some even have been named the best European whiskies (outside Scotland and Ireland. “If we Swiss do something, we do it thoroughly. We’re perfectionists”. There only remains one thing to say about Swiss whisky: “Slainte mhath”.

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