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The Highlands of Helvetia

Swiss whisky Scotland, Ireland and the USA are regarded as great whisky nations. But in Switzerland, too, grain has been allowed to be distilled into schnapps since 1999. A visit to a distillery - and four drinking tips.

The high room has something sacred about it. It is slightly cool, quiet, with a restrained smell of the 200 or so wooden barrels stored along the walls to the left and right. When he talks about his distillates, Andy Bössow's voice echoes in the room: "Worldwide consumption of whiskey is on the rise - an opportunity for Switzerland, since the Scots can hardly keep up with distilling anymore."

In 2007, the entrepreneur started producing whisky in the no-man's land of Thurgau. "Over in the old cheese dairy, where we now still distill with wood fire," says the head of Macardo. The barrels in which the whisky matures were originally distributed to four locations, he said. Last year, they were finally able to open this central warehouse here in Strohwilen, where it now stands.

If you take a closer look, you'll discover high-tech: Sensors measure the weight of each barrel to within three grams every day. Humidity and temperature are also recorded in the individual areas of the room; they are regulated with spring water. "And all this data," says Bössow, "we then later meticulously compare with our sensory impressions during the tasting."

Whiskey production is a learning process: Bössow points to a single barrel that is obviously dripping - a brown stain has formed underneath. "We experimented with a lower cask stave thickness, 19 millimeters instead of 25 - it was the wrong place to save money." It's not for nothing that good barrels come at a price, says the Macardo boss: "You can easily pay a thousand francs for a Pedro Ximenez barrel."

Bernese were pioneers

The market is fueled by the numerous producers in the major whiskey nations. These are still the USA, Scotland and Ireland; Japan has also joined them since the turn of the millennium. In Switzerland, whiskey has only been produced at all for about twenty years; until then, neither potatoes nor grain could be distilled into schnapps because the food supply for the population after the Second World War was the top priority.

In 1999, the regulations were relaxed, and Rugenbräu in the Bernese Oberland was one of the local pioneers: In no time at all, Kurt Althaus and his comrades-in-arms launched a beer spirit, i.e. whiskey without barrel aging, so to speak. In a next step, they bought a 500-liter wooden barrel, and in 2003 they bottled the first single malt from it. "I sold around 700 bottles among friends in just two months," Althaus recalls.

More casks were filled, and in 2008 the official launch of a whiskey called Swiss Highland Single Malt followed. However, Scottish producers intervened immediately, so that the word "Highland" - a quality label, as it were - had to be replaced with "Mountain." "At least we knew then," says Kurt Althaus with a smile, "that they had taken notice of us in Great Britain."

Where are the Swiss whiskey producers now? Initially, they were ridiculed at trade shows, but acceptance among fans has grown significantly. It's no coincidence that there are already over 50 Swiss producers, from the Orma Distillery on Corvatsch in Graubünden to the Sempione Distillery in Brig in the Valais.

What's missing, Althaus notes, is centuries of cultural background. "But because of our fruit brandy tradition, we know very well how to cleanly separate the pre- and post-distillation phases. "A very big advantage that should not be underestimated is that because precision is not always the top priority in distilling in Scotland, Swiss whiskey is often ready to drink three or four years earlier.

Kurt Althaus and his peers assume that a good two-thirds of the aroma comes from aging in wooden casks: If a sherry or port wine barrel is used, you can taste it in the finished whiskey. American bourbon barrels provide vanilla flavor. If a container from the Scottish whisky region of Islay is used for the second time, you can expect the peaty notes typical there. "Since they shouldn't stand empty for long, you have to grab them when good barrels are offered."

A good story is central

Scottish brands such as Ardbeg or Jack Daniel's from the USA show the way: Marketing is central. The Swiss Mountain Single Malt, for example, owes a large part of its fame to the fact that some casks for the so-called Ice Label are stored on the Jungfraujoch. And that tourists get to see them in the minus-4-degree ice caves. "That sticks with visitors," Althaus says.

In Appenzellerland, too, people know how important a good story can be in business: Karl Locher of the Appenzeller Brewery produces Säntis Malt there, which is stored in the usual containers in old beer barrels, at least until the finish. "They used to be commonplace for storing and delivering beer. In some cases, they're over 100 years old." In a way, he says, the entire DNA of a brewery is stored in them, over several generations.

Are such beer barrels, analogous to wine and sherry barrels, not leached out? No, explains Locher, because it was customary to line them with resin. On the contrary, they even absorbed the beer aroma through the finest cracks in the coating. "When tasting, this provides a characteristic sweetness that you don't get with conventional barrels."

So is Switzerland really becoming more of a household name among all the whisky connoisseurs on the international stage? "Origin is not a priority with whisky," says Karl Locher. "What's in demand is high quality." And anyone who thinks of chocolate, watches or sack knives should know that people in Switzerland really do understand about refinement, precision and quality, i.e. here in the Highlands of Helvetia.

Author: Daniel Böniger

Photos: Andrea Zahler

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Macardo Distillery - Distilling with wood
Macardo Swiss Distillery barrel warehouse