7 countries you’d never guess make great whiskey

Browse the whisk(e)y section of your local bottle shop and you’d be forgiven for thinking the juice is made in only one of five countries: Canada, Ireland, Japan, Scotland, and the US. Indeed, you’re hard-pressed to find any shop in Atlanta carrying anything from countries outside of the Big 5 (perhaps the Swig 5?). 

But grains just so happen grow elsewhere in the world, and wherever grain goes, liquid gold is sure to follow. So while you may not have ready access to whisk(e)y from the countries in our list, you can always seek them out through awesome online retailers like Masters of Malt or in duty-free shops at international airports. Or, you can visit the distilleries themselves if you find yourself in one of the countries.  (That makes it sound like international travel is a sort of routing error on an afternoon hike, doesn't it?)

 

Czech Republic

Famous for ornate castles and excellent beer, you may not have known the Czech Republic also shares common ancestors with Ireland. Anthropologists have found that the Celtic people first appeared in the archaeological record in what is now the Czech Republic around 270 BC. (Around the same time the Celts showed up in the Land of Eire, too.) 

Karlštejn Castle
Karlstejn Castle in the Czech countryside.

And, like the Irish descendants of the Celts, Czechs have taken their mastery of beer a step further, into the domain of uisge baugh. 

Perhaps the most notable distillery in the Czech Republic is the Pradlo Distillery. (Another produces a 12 year-old single malt described by one reviewer as rather more like “an inexpensive blend than a 12-year-old single malt”.)

During the country’s Communist reign, the regime banned many foreign imports, including Scotch and Irish whiskies. The existing Pradlo Distillery thought it a safe bet to start producing whiskey in the pot stills that, until the 1970s, they had used mainly for plum brandy (slivovitz) and never for whiskey. After all, even Communist regimes have their elites, and even some of those elites are apparently partial to a fine dram. 

The challenge was that laws prevented Pradlo’s distillers from visiting other countries’ whisk(e)y-making operations to study. So Pradlo taught itself by way of musty books and tastings of their own experiments. 

You may be familiar with Scotland’s silver bullet in whisky-production, its peat bogs. But Scotland isn’t the only country with such swamps of compacted carbon. The plains of the Czech Republic have them, too. Only their peat apparently doesn’t play as nicely with whiskey, so they scrapped the plan in favor of importing peat from Scotland. (Why the regime permitted the importation of peat but not whisky remains a mystery.)

Their recipes perfected, they began to barrel the juice in casks of Czech oak in 1984, only to see Communism’s fall in 1989 bring down the distillery with it. Once again, delicious single malts from other countries were available, and Czech whisky was pushed to the backburner — really more like the back of Pradlo’s warehouses. 

So Pradlo’s stocks of whiskey bided their time for nigh twenty years, until London’s Stock Spirits bought the plant and discovered the casks. They soon released bottlings of the whiskey under the name “Hammerhead” — an homage to the giant hammer mill on the premises.

We had the opportunity to taste the 1989 cask and found it to be rather delicious. Alas, our tasting notes eluded capture by the pen, so we are left to recall it was rather malty and lemony with baking spice, or perhaps even fennel, gracing the palate. 

Many thanks to the Alcohol Professor for a well-researched article on the history of Pradlo to guide our writings here.

 

France

Just a 110 mph jaunt down the autobahn from the Czech Republic is a country of Gallic gourmands by the name of “France”. One of the more inspired producers of adult beverages in the world, France can legitimately claim some of the world’s best wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne), brandy (Cognac, Armagnac), and fruit brandy (Calvados, pommeau). (Or “fruit spirit”, as the EU requires distillers to call fruit brandy). 

But whiskey? Who knew. 

Turns out, we did, beginning in 2015. Not to say French whiskey hasn’t been around much longer than our knowledge of it, but we were fortunate to taste both Brenne and Michel Couvreur towards the end of 2015. (The first at a World of Whiskies event in Atlanta; the second in our team’s shared Whisky Advent calendar from Master of Malt.)

Both brands have unique finishing methods, taking their cues from cognac. Brenne is perhaps the first single malt to experience a finishing rest in second-use cognac casks. Michel Couvreur, on the other hand, maintains two wildly different cellars for aging its stocks, one humid and damp, the other dry. (Similar to the chais, or aging warehouses, of cognac, some of which reside in relative dryness on the hills above the Charente River, and some of which reside in damp cellars adjacent to the Charente.)

The result with Michel Couvreur is totally different stocks for blending — the “dry-aged” stocks gaining alcohol by volume over the years to result in a spicy dram, and the “damp-aged” stocks losing alcohol by volume, resulting in a round, smooth spirit.

As a craft whiskey maker, we can’t help but appreciate the forward-thinking approaches to finishing whiskey these two companies have found and wish them much continued success!

small standard barrels
A French chai.

 

India

Fact: India is the world’s top-consuming whiskey nation. 

Fact: Much Indian whiskey is made from sugar, which, in our eyes (and the eyes of the EU and the US) disqualifies it from being whiskey, which must be made from grain.

Fact: Despite Fact 2, two of the world’s best single malt producers call India home: Amrut and Paul John. (The latter’s website includes photos of a bottle of Paul John, a shipwrecked boat, and a palm tree. It’s rumored that the shortlist of names for the distillery, in addition to “Paul John”, also included “Robinson Crusoe”, “Swiss Family Robinson”, and even “Ringo George”.)

One explanation for such delicious single malts is India’s tropical climate in Bangalore (where both of the distilleries reside). Hot as the dickens and humid enough to make your sweat cling for dear life to your skin. 

In other whisk(e)y-producing countries, you find one of these two environments: Scotland is damp, Kentucky is hot. But India combines both to result in a truly unique dram.

Although we’ve never tried Amrut, we can attest to the quality of Paul John’s whiskey and hope to have a chance to try more of them in the future. 

Gandhi Setu Bridge in Patna, India.
The longest single-river bridge in the world, in Patna, India.

 

New Zealand

Japan. It’s hot. But we're not talking temperature like India—rather, in terms of the whisky departing its casks for the green pastures known as our Research lounge. But Japan isn’t alone when it comes to Pacific islands with distilling traditions. 

New Zealand, thousands of miles south of Japan, lays claim to the world’s southern-most distillery in the aptly named Southern Distilleries, Ltd., who seek to advance a whisky-making tradition around since before 1865, the year the government passed the Distillation Prohibition Act. (Spirits and senators have — since at least the Middle Ages — tangoed in a sort of two-steps-forward-one-step back kind of dance.)

As lore and legend agree, the Hokonui region of New Zealand’s south island had a particularly strong affinity for whisky. By the 1870s, Scotch and Australian whisky imports arriving on New Zealand’s docks were so watered-down “that a dram was often offered a chair as it didn’t have the strength to stand up.” (link) So Hokonui’s residents begged their local roughnecks to add moonshine to their repertoire. 

Mary McRae, a Scottish import far stronger than the Scotches of the era, agreed to take up the thirsty Kiwis’ cause. Her pedigree was top notch- she had trained at a number of Scotch distilleries before arriving in New Zealand in 1872 — so her distillate was bound to be good. She and her sons began producing a range of moonshines, allegedly bartering for the malt for their whisky with a finished bottle of their stocks. Much of their moonshine even wound up in local hotels, although in the 1930s, some found its way into the hands of a freshly appointed Customs Inspector, who brought forth a number of indictments. 

Eighty years later, New Zealand has righted the ship by permitting distilling once again. Southern Distilleries, Ltd. took them up on the offer and currently produces a range of single malts, blended malts, and moonshine. Not far away sits a freshly minted Hokonui Museum, with all sorts of memorabilia from a time when whisky-making was frowned upon in Kiwi Station.

219  New Zealand, day 6
The Hokonui Hills. 

 

Sweden

In the 9th and 10th centuries, Vikings roamed the plains of southern Sweden, fortifying their guts with beer and mead to celebrate conquests as far away as the British Isles. 

Knutrike.png

Swedish vikings sphere of influence circa 1000 A.D. Map courtesy of Victor Falk.

In the 15th century, the Swedish proceeded from mead into the realms of akvavit, a grain- or potato-based spirit that distillers flavor with dill, caraway seed, cardamom, and other botanicals. The Swedes often drink the spirit with smoked fish during summertime celebrations, and a popular Swedish saying suggests that akvavit “helps the fish swim down to the stomach”.

In the late 20th century, Sweden saw its first foray into whisky, when Swedish engineer Magnus Dandanell and friends banded together to form Mackmyra distillery. Since then, Sweden has enjoyed openings of at least 13 more distilleries, including Spirit of Hven (named after one of the Vikings of yore) and Box Distillery, the world’s northernmost whisky distillery. (They should consider a collaboration with Southern Distilleries, Ltd., no?)

Many of these distillers kiln their barley not only with peat, as the Scots do, but also with juniper, lending additional herbal notes to the drams. They also age many of their whiskies in Swedish oak, which lends spiciness to the final flavor profile.

http://www.whisky-pages.com/stories/swedish-whisky.htm

 

Taiwan

Dig into your memory banks and try to find the slimmest memory of the “bitter beer face” ad campaigns from the early 90s. Have you found it, this dusty memory, with its claim that bitter beer is the absolute pits? Now dig into the same memory banks for a company called “Sierra Nevada”. Ring a bell? That’s because they helped pioneer bitter beer with a suite of delicious pale ales through the years. 

The result?

Even as recently as 2010, craft beer only had 10% of the total beer market share by volume. But in the past 6 years, we’ve seen it surge from this rather pedestrian 5%, to a 12% in 2015. (Source.) That’s greater than 20% growth per year. And when you factor in that craft beer costs more per six-pack, you see its share of the total retail dollar value of beer at an effervescent 22%.

You might say the same thing is happening in craft spirits in general, and specifically in another Pacific Rim nation just a hop, skip, and a thousand-mile jump from Japan: Taiwan. 

The Taiwanese whisky tradition doesn’t span millennia like Scotland’s and Ireland’s, nor does it even reach back into the 1800s like Canada’s, Japan’s, and New Zealand’s. Rather, Taiwan’s first distillery, Kavalan, opened in 2005, put out its first bottle of single malt in 2008, and won World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards in 2015. 

A truly stratospheric ascent for the distillery, which is located in a rural county of Taiwan named after the indigenous peoples that pre-dated Chinese settlers by thousands of years. 

Kavalan Whisky Barel Aging Wherehouse
Unlike many bourbon & cognac warehouses (like the French chai above), Kavalan stores its casks upright.

 

Tasmania

My first introduction to Tasmania came in the form of the Tasmanian Devil by way of the four-season TV show Taz-Mania. If adolescent memory serves me correctly, the omnivore emitted multiple series of guttural grunts each episode while confronting the age-old cartoon quandary of how to find more food. 

Fortunately, Tasmania has far more to offer than a dim-witted creature the shape of a splatter-painting. The island lies just across the Bass Strait, a mere 150 miles from the Australian mainland and is, interestingly, the 26th-largest island in the world. Also, the winningest axe-wielder in history, David Foster, hails from the island. It’s conceivable he likes a dram.

Tasmania has a comparatively cool climate, similar to Scotland: Hobart, the capital of Tasmania has an average high of 62 and average low of 47, while Islay has an average high of 53 and average low of 44. Yet Tasmania has half as much rainfall as Scotland and one-tenth the sheep. (Though it does lay claim to a semi-famous woolly sheep named Shaun.)

Wooly
Shaun was far woolier than even this fur-meister.

As a general rule, lower rain yields lower humidity, which results in a spicier spirit, and Tasmanian whiskies are no rule-breakers in this regard. 

Sullivan’s Cove, Tasmania’s best-known distillery, produces a series of single malts with a flavor described as a “crescendo of dried spices, honey and fruitcake” with a “long, spicy, mouth-filling finish” (link). 

Oh, and as a side note, one of the distillery’s drams was delicious enough to receive the coveted title of “World’s Best Single Malt Whiskey” by World Whiskies Awards in 2014.