Posted 07 January 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Ask a whisky enthusiast to name a dozen distilleries in Scotland and they’ll reel off a list in no time at all. But ask the same enthusiast about Swiss distilleries they’ll likely stumble from the off, only being able to name one (Langatun) or possible two (Santis). But nevertheless, as of writing there are upwards of 60 whisky-producing distilleries across Switzerland. Far from a shabby achievement considering that the distilling of grain-based spirits was outlawed from 1932 all the way until 1999.
Global whisky production is not always quite as ‘world stage’ as it seems. There are countless producers in countless countries who are not operating at a sufficient scale to break from their local roots. And this is the way drinks producers have operated for centuries. Some have grown in scale and capacity to export nationally and internationally, whilst some have only sought to serve their local communities – rarely heard of or sighted outside of a particular village, town or region.
This runs in stark contrast to Scottish distilleries where even the smallest have some recognition outside of their localities and many are renowned the world over. Much of this stems from history and globalisation – when Beam Suntory owns you, you can be assured that you’re going to be shipped and sold far and wide. But equally, some of it derives from tradition – communities still to this day make up the bulk of distillery workers for many sites and thus are inherently, and importantly tied to local economies.
The Swiss distilling scene is older than one might think. And indeed, when one mentions Swiss spirits – it’s likely not single malt that springs immediately to mind.
Val-de-Travers, an hour west of Bern is the birthplace of Switzerland’s best known boozy creation – absinthe. Considered to have been invented by Mere Henroid in the mid-18th Century, absinthe was built on the region’s longstanding history of distilling fruit brandies and eaux de vie. These were often made in-house on individual farmsteads using local fruits as a base for fragrant and sometimes potently distilled liquids. The best known of these – and exported as a style considerable throughout Europe is ‘kirchwasser’ (cherry water) – frequently shortened in name to kirsch. But then there’s absinthe – which whilst usally always associated with bohemian France was a product of Swiss invention – similarly to kirsch, created from ingredients found nearby – namely wormwood – a plant that at the time was recommended for the treatment of digestive disorders – bolstered with flavours of anise and fennel seeds. The rest is history. Infamous history.
This longstanding family/farm-based distilling tradition has translated into modern Swiss alcohol culture. Whilst the distilling of grain spirits was banned by law from 1983 until 30th June 1999, it was the very next day on the 1st of July that the Bader family at Holle distilled their first whisky – on their dairy farm, which perhaps unsurprisingly also contains 600 cherry trees that were used for the production of Kirsch. Useful.
Since then the scene, whilst highly localised has exploded with a combination of eaux de vie producers and breweries all looking to the powers of grain with which to craft spirit. And there’s now quite a lot of them – Rugenbrau, Humbel Brenerrei, Hollen, Johnett, Zurcher, Santis and of course Langatun. And these are just some of the better-known producers now operating across the country. There are many others that you'll only find if you really go hunting.
Switzerland is a whisky drinking country. The annual import of whisky is notably high at 1.9 million litres for just 8,500,000 inhabitants. And the average to high purchasing power of Swiss nationals has likewise helped to drive both the country’s import and latterly export of whisky. Visiting the country now, not only will you find an array of well-apportioned whisky bars, you’ll even discover dedicated (but not cheap!) whisky cruises down rivers and lakes as well as luxury whisky-themed train journeys. Think of a rather less dystopian Snowpiercer.
Langatun as far as the Swiss whisky scene goes is a relatively young entrant. The distillery was founded in 2007, however draws it roots to an original brewery/distillery owned by Jakob Baumberger which was founded in 1857. 150 years later, Hans, great grandson of Jakob now continues the business with a particularly wide range of products – many of which are not commonly seen here in the UK.
Whilst Old Deer and Old Bear – the subject of today’s reviews – are exported to a variety of markets, Old Woodpecker (organic whisky) and Old Eagle (rye whiskey) are much more rarely seen. The distillery is based 30 miles north-east of Bern in the village of the same name – it still makes its whiskies in the manner which it did back when it was founded in 2007, but is increasingly diversifying its wood policy and expanding the size of its batched releases. Swissky business indeed.
Bottle Name: Langatun Old Deer Classic
ABV: 46% Distillery: Langatun Region: Europe
Langatun’s unpeated Old Deer Classic has received something of a makeover since the last time it crossed my path. As well as distinctive decanter style glassware the expression has had its ABV uplifted from 40% to 46% - whilst as far as I can tell, the price has remained largely the same for the retailers who are stocking it. Nice. You’ll still find the 40% edition on the shelves and will also, similarly to the distillery’s other bottlings note a higher ABV ‘Cask Proof’ version – though stocks of this in the UK don’t seem to have been updated to the new bottle design as yet.
Old Deer is triple distilled, fermented with English stout yeast (not a largely common sight) and has been matured in a combination of ex-sherry and ex-chardonnay wine casks. You’ll find, as of writing, just one bottle left at Master of Malt for £52.95
Nose: Fermenting wash, yeasty buns and rolled dough are joined by dried apricots and prunes, whilst chestnuts and a combination of fresh barley and barley water sit with a scattering of currants and a touch of dry parchment paper. Dilution offers greater fruity aromas with redcurrants and raisins alongside French crepes.
Taste: A surprisingly impactful 46% which develops into a real palate wallop. Opening softly with apricot and pineapple, this escalates quickly into chilli and white pepper whilst malt loaf and cream toffee come in support. The back palate has some umami and herbal qualities with gooseberry and vanilla oak joined by chopped chives and earthy mushroom paste. Reduction once again emphasises fruitiness – syrupy tinned fruit salad – considerably more saccharine than at 46%.
Finish: Medium in length with pepperiness alongside dry barley and damp earth.
Langatun Old Deer Classic is a very ingredients-focussed whisky. The malts, yeast and cask choices can all be palpably detected throughout. There’s still some youth and the simplicities that stem from it – but the results are both thought-provoking and quite tasty. The 46% offers much more whack than a 6% uplift would suggest – indeed, on the palate, this is fairly rousing stuff.
Review sample provided by Highfern on behalf of Langatun
Bottle Name: Langatun Old Bear Cask Proof
ABV: 58.5% Distillery: Langatun Region: Europe
Langatun’s peaty expression - Old Bear – is offered in two versions – a ‘standard’ 40% ABV edition and a ‘Cask Proof’ version whose ABV varies depending on the batch. All are triple distilled on the distillery’s combination of three (500L, 250L and 100L) Holstein stills – with the Old Bear matured in Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine casks.
Always a favourite vino for those heading to the supermarket for something reassuringly expensive, but with little real idea about wine itself. The style is produced by well over 300 separate producers in the region – resulting in a production volume of around 13 million bottles each year. The AOC allows for thirteen different grape varietals – but the blend must be predominantly constructed from grenache. As such, 95% of wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are red.
Nose: Savoury. Paprika sausage – chorizo – alongside smoked cured ham and a generous scattering of jammy red berries. Peat is faint, but runs throughout – swirling, crisp wood smoke – and is joined by pepper, dry paper, bread dough and a pint of English ale. Water reveals butter and pan fats as well as a much smokier aspect – it’s still a clean wood fire smoke but is joined by leaf mulch and fresh barley.
Taste: A forceful arrival of billowing, smouldering air-dried logs alongside potent wood sugars. The red wine influence comes through strongly with dried redcurrants and wild bush berries together with drinking chocolate – and some perceptible, but still pliable tannins. Toffee sauce, crème brulee and moist soils bring up the rear alongside mint leaves and malt cake. Reduction offers orange barley water alongside candied tangerine peels – it also considerable reduces the perception of smokiness. A role reversal from the nose.
Finish: Quite long with a combination of wet and dry peat smoke, pepper and persistent chocolate sweetness.
The peat influence of Langatun’s Old Bear Cask Proof is characterfully unique – it offers an aromatic idiosyncrasy that feels at the same time both and neither inland dry smoke, or/nor coastal moist smoke. This startlingly crisp and precise smokiness is at the heart of this very drinkable (even at cask proof strength) Swiss whisky. Sweetness levels counterbalance the peat successfully and stem from well-judged, integrated wine cask maturation.
Review sample provided by Highfern on behalf of Langatun