A Tour of Europe's Whiskies
February 21, 2023 –––––– Jonny McCormick
Geographically, Europe is a whisky powerhouse. This continent combines the storied pedigree of scotch and newly revived Irish whiskey with a flourishing Nordic scene, but beyond these leading areas, there lies a host of European distillers also worthy of acclaim. Mainland Europe is home to some of the finest spirits in the world, and is steeped in centuries-old distilling traditions. Many distilleries are modest family-run operations making fruit-based spirits, and they have harvested crops for distilling for generations. In this century, whisky distilling on the mainland has gathered momentum, as distillers have expanded their repertoire with pot, column, and the Charentais stills.
European whiskies are not so widely available, so you will need to keep your nose to the ground. Quantities available in the U.S. are often limited, without distribution to every state. The good news is that a small but vibrant coterie of importers with a flair for singular spirits is seeking out these gems for U.S. consumption. Here, we bring you our 12 stars from mainland Europe.
Austria now has at least 50 distilleries producing single malts, ryes, and blended whiskies. When tours re-commence in the aftermath of the pandemic, check out the Whisky World of Experience about 75 miles west of Vienna—home to Austria’s first whisky, Waldviertler Whisky J.H.—and one of the country’s most popular whisky attractions, with annual visitor numbers that exceed many scotch whisky distilleries.
Reisetbauer, located just outside the Austrian city of Linz, is now one of Europe’s most modern distilleries following a complete rebuild in 2019. If you can’t get to Austria, instead head to GOZU—a Wagyu-focused restaurant in San Francisco—where chef Marc Zimmerman offers a pairing of chawanmushi with Reisetbauer & Son whisky.
Reisetbauer & Son 15 year old48%, $15490 points
Need to know: Distilled from local winter barley and matured in barrels that held chardonnay and trockenbeerenauslese, a sweet dessert wine.Tasting note: Red pear, walnut, five spice powder, strawberry, and chocolate
While passionate about their beer, Belgians are also enthusiastic and knowledgeable whisky lovers. Several Belgian distillers have added whisky to their repertoire only in recent years, including gin and genever specialist Filliers, which received its distilling license in 1880 but only began making whisky in 2008. Visitors can tour their very interesting facility to see a multitude of distilling equipment from different eras. Filliers added a rye called Sunken Still to its whisky range in 2016, named after the desperate time during World War II when distillery workers attempted to hide stills from occupying German forces by jettisoning them into the river.
Several Belgian whiskies are sold in the U.S. Gouden Carolus, a single malt whisky produced at Distillery De Molenberg from a mash of Gouden Carolus Tripel beer, is readily findable. There is also Owl Distillery, which uses barley grown locally in Hesbaye for its Belgian Owl bottlings—a variety it says gives the best expression of the local terroir. Distiller and founder Etienne Bouillon filled his first cask with new-make spirit in 2004, and in 2013 installed stills from Caperdonich Distillery, which closed in 2002 and was demolished in 2011. Among the range of Belgian Owl whiskies, it’s hard to beat Identité, their bourbon cask-matured 3 year old.
Belgian Owl Identité 3 year old46%, $9591 points
Need to know: Distilled from 100% unpeated Belgian barley, double distilled in reclaimed stills from Caperdonich Distillery and matured in first-fill bourbon casks.Tasting note: Zested lemon, vanilla sponge cake, toffee, orange zest, and chocolate
France may be famous for its gastronomy and fine wines, but whisky is extraordinarily popular there. In fact, more scotch is exported to France than any other country in the world. The French, meanwhile, have been accelerating domestic whisky production over the past 25 years, with the Fédération du Whisky de France reporting 100 distilleries in operation, a combined production of 2 million liters of alcohol in 2020, and sales of 1.1 million bottles. To put that in context, France's industry’s annual output is still only equivalent to that of Bruichladdich Distillery at full capacity.
French single malts have cultivated an admirable reputation for quality and diversity. Here you will find organic whiskies like Domaine des Hautes-Glaces from the French Alps and Brenne, aged in cognac and limousin oak casks. There is also Rozelieures single estate whisky, produced among the barley fields in the eastern region of Lorraine. Combining the expertise of whisky blending with the savoir-faire of the cognac cellar master, Alfred Giraud’s whiskies are stimulating the conversation about luxury, exclusivity, and the pursuit of rare casks. In Alsace and Brittany, the country boasts two geographical indicators which protect the whiskies from these regions. The Glann Ar Mor Distillery, founded in the late 90s, secured its future in 2020 under new ownership and a new name: Celtic Whisky Distillerie. Kornog’s peated whisky stands alongside other well-regarded smoky French whiskies, including Armorik’s Triagoz and Yeun Elez Jobic from Distillerie Warenghem, where the distillery and visitor facilities were upgraded in 2019.
Although the U.S. imports a greater variety of French whisky than those from other mainland European countries, France has even more to offer, ranging from rye, corn, and rice whiskies to a host of finishes thanks to its envious supply of wine barrels. The wine may be old world, but in France, the whiskies are lively and new.
Armorik Double Maturation46%, $6593 points
Need to know: An expression of Breton terroir from Warenghem Distillery, this is initially matured in Breton oak casks then finished in first-fill oloroso sherry casks (No. 6 in Whisky Advocate’s 2018 Top 20).Tasting note: Fruit salad, hard candy, roasted spices, viennoiseries, and creamy caramel
G. Rozelieures Subtil Collection40%, $4692 points
Need to know: Unpeated single malt matured in new French oak, bourbon, and cognac casks from the Rozelieures Distillery and maltings run by the Grallet family.Tasting note: Honey, sherbet, summer florals, apple Danish, and spicy oak
Kornog Roc’h Hir46%, $15091 points
Need to know: Artisanal peated Breton whisky from the direct-fired stills at Celtic Whisky Distillerie which has been fully matured in bourbon casks.Tasting note: Smoked fish, waxed lemon, vanilla, ginger, and smoke
Alfred Giraud Heritage45.9%, $16090 points
Need to know: Demonstrating the expertise of the cognac cellar master, this is a smooth blend composed of three unpeated French single malt whiskies.Tasting note: Bartlett pear, vanilla, cognac, pâtes de fruits, and light spices
Coperies Single Malt40%, $6090 points
Need to know: Double distilled in a copper Charentais still at the cognac region’s Merlet & Sons Distillery and matured in French oak casks.Tasting note: Clementine, wood spices, hazelnut, milk chocolate, and baked orange
Only a handful of German whiskies are exported to the U.S., but that should not discourage whisky lovers from seeking them out. The country has many world-renowned breweries and distilleries, the latter producing mainly fruit and herb-based spirits. Those making whisky favor single malt, rye, and single grain styles. It’s a relatively young whisky scene, and many of its releases are bottled between 3 and less than 10 years of age—with maturation taking full advantage of the availability of local wine casks in addition to sherry, port, and bourbon barrels. Eifel Whisky, founded in 2008, distills with column and pot stills and has a meticulous cask regime, such as conducting initial maturation in red wine barrels, using casks with alternating oak and acacia staves, and casks with the original ends switched over to new German oak. Fans quickly snap up its single malt and rye creations, as they are exported in fixed quantities. From Bavaria, Kiki Braverman, founder of Pür Spirits, created Pür Geist, a whisky distilled from a malty bock-style beer flavored with hops that works equally well as a neat sipper but is also devilishly good in cocktails. From the same region the first Slyrs whiskies arrived in the U.S. in 2021, made from locally grown Bavarian barley and alpine spring water. Yet to be exported to the U.S., Slyrs releases a broader range of top-notch finished expressions and single cask whiskies domestically that we’re eager to try. Let’s hope our liquor stores are planning to reserve more space to stock German whisky in the years ahead.
Eifel Whisky German Peated Duo Malt (2021 Edition)46%, $9094 points
Need to know: This 7 year old combines 2 parts malted wheat, 2 parts malted barley, and 1 part peated malted barley at 35 parts per million phenols. The peated malt is matured in red wine casks customized with new cask ends of heavily charred German oak, while the remainder is aged in red Bordeaux barrels.Tasting note: Nestle Crunch bar, woodsmoke, cherry gummy bears, dark toffee, and black currant
Pür Geist42%, $5092 points
Need to know: Kiki Braverman’s creation makes spirit from bock-style beer flavored with hops and matures it in bourbon barrels with a finish in vintage grappa chestnut casks.Tasting note: Zingy hops, lemongrass stalks, strawberry bubble gum, ripe melon, and panna cotta
Slyrs Fifty One Single Malt51%, $9591 points
Need to know: This high-strength whisky benefits from a long fermentation and slow distillation, and its flavors are enhanced by the use of port, sherry, and sauternes casks.Tasting note: Blood orange, pepper, pears, black cherry, and praline
Italy may still be in its infancy as a whisky maker, but the evidence indicates their efforts are being carried forth with a characteristic Italian flair for beauty, passion, and style. A decade ago, the Ebensperger family founded Puni Distillery in South Tyrol, building one of the most spectacular-looking distilleries in Europe. That design-led focus extends beyond the distillery’s architectural cube of latticed brickwork to their pot still-inspired bottle. The range is traditional, with unpeated and peated expressions, and a focus on classic cask styles including bourbon, sherry, and wine casks.
Puni Vina43%, $10590 points
Need to know: Italian single malt matured for 5 years in marsala casks.Tasting note: Cinnamon, rye bread, worn leather, dry spice, and black grape
Most Dutch distillers come to whisky from the world of genever, gin, and liqueurs, or from making beer. Zuidam Distillers is the only Dutch establishment to have attained true international recognition, and it’s where its charismatic owner Patrick van Zuidam has carved out a niche for his highly regarded Millstone single malt and rye expressions. Zuidam Distillers has been making remarkable whiskies for more than 25 years, giving us a view of how Dutch whiskies might fill our glasses in the coming decades.
Millstone 100 Rye50%, $10093 points
Need to know: Made from 100% rye, matured for 100 months, and bottled at 100 proof.Tasting note: Fresh plum, chocolate, cinnamon, assertive spices, and allspice