A beginner’s guide to German whisky
Although not as well-known as Ireland or Scotland for its whisky distilling prowess, Germany is a big producer (and consumer) of some of the finest whiskies in the world. If you, like so many others, are not aware of Germany’s flourishing whisky industry, then keep reading to discover the delicious, flavourful world of German whisky.
A history of German whisky
For a country that has more distilleries capable of producing whisky than Scotland, Germany doesn’t really have a long relationship with the drink. Compared to German beer, German whisky is almost unheard of. It only really became popular in Germany after the Second World War, after it was introduced to the country by American soldiers. Before that, Germans were fond of other alcoholic spirits, such as Obstler (fruit spirit) and Korn (grain brandy).
Nevertheless, whisky became increasingly popular in Germany, with lots of people trying their hand at producing the drink in existing distilleries around the country. Following this rise in popularity, it wouldn’t be long before one German man, by the name of Robert Fleischmann, opened his own whisky distillery. Fleischmann began producing whisky from his “Blaue Maus” distillery in 1983, in the Franconia region of Bavaria, which is now known as Germany’s first-ever single malt distillery.
Since then, the art of producing fine whiskies has gripped Germany and in the 1990s the trend really took off. There are tens of thousands of distilleries in Germany that mainly focus on producing fruit spirits and grain brandy. However, a small yet growing number of these distilleries have diversified into producing whisky on top of their usual alcoholic drinks, and there has even been a mounting number of “whisky distilleries” popping up around the country.
German whisky's reputation
German whisky has divided connoisseurs throughout its short history. Many don't like the fact that German whisky producers don’t always follow the strict rules and guidelines that are followed by makers in countries like Scotland and Ireland. Having said that, German distilleries do collect and store their product for at least three years in oak barrels, which is an absolute requirement for the distillate to be considered whisky.
While some may take umbrage with their methods, a few German whisky producers are actually held in high regard by connoisseurs and experts. In fact, esteemed whisky writer Jim Murray, author of the world-renowned Whiskey Bible, gave the Derrina Schwarzwälder Einkorn Single Malt from the Fitzke distillery a score of 96 out of 100 points, ranking it alongside some of the finest whiskies on the planet. Another highly-rated German whisky is the Willowburn – Exceptional Collection from the Hammerschmiede distillery in Lower Saxony.
Whisky experts have recommended that drinkers consider German whisky as a distinct drink, which should not be compared to its Scottish or Irish counterparts. Since producing whisky is a relatively new art in Germany, distillers experiment with new recipes and ingredients all the time. However, German whisky distilleries are small, and other distilleries focus more on the sale of fruit spirits, so production can be limited, and a lot of whiskies are sold at a relatively early age. Also, because the production (and therefore supply) is limited, and distilleries usually produce smaller, handmade batches, prices for whisky in Germany can be high.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is no standard spelling for whisky in Germany, with distillers using both “whiskey” and “whisky” on their bottles. One distiller based in Hesse quite cleverly markets its drink as “whesskey”.
Whisky distilleries in Germany
There are around 29.000 fruit and grain distilleries in Germany. It is most commonly estimated that there are over 250 distilleries that produce whisky in Germany, although German whisky website deutsche-whiskey.de records 319 whisky-producing distilleries. From these, about 130 could be described as “whisky distilleries”.
It might therefore surprise you to know that Germany has more than double the number of whisky-producing distilleries than Scotland and significantly more than Ireland (which only has around 32).
Below are a few examples of famous, whisky-producing distilleries in Germany:
Known as the first single malt whisky distillery in Germany, the Blaue Maus (Blue Mouse) was established in 1980 by Robert Fleischmann. Fleischmann produced his first whisky three years later (remember the liquor must be aged in barrels for three years before it can be considered whisky). The distillery is still open today and offers a wide variety of whiskies. Anyone visiting the distillery can take a guided tour of the premises, as well as eat in the on-site restaurant.
Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus
The Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus is a brewery that can be found in the heart of the Black Forest, in Baden-Württemberg. Founded on the lands of the Benedictine monastery of St. Blasien, it first started brewing beer in 1791. It is one of Germany’s most successful breweries, becoming famous for its Rothaus Tannenzäpfle pilsner. However, in 2005, the brewery’s master brewer, a man named Max Sachs, came up with the idea of producing a single malt whisky. Since the brewery does not have its own distillery, it partnered with the Kammer-Kirsch distillery to produce its line of Rothaus Black Forest whiskies.
The Hammerschmeide distillery was founded in 1985 in Zorge, Lower-Saxony. However, the distillery only started the process of making whisky in 2002, eventually bringing out its first batch in 2005. Of course, the site was used to produce beer, wine and brandy long before this, with the warehouse first being constructed between 1250 and 1270. The people of the Harz Mountains were given special “mountain freedoms” from as early as the High Medieval Period, due to mining, which exempted them from military service and allowed them to produce alcohol without having to pay the usual taxes levied on alcohol producers and sellers.
Now the distillery, run by the Hercynian Distilling Company, produces four different whiskies. Aside from the award-winning Willowburn, the distillery also produces The Alrick, The Emperor's Way and Elsburn, originally called The Glen Els. One of their whiskies, called The Journey, won Jim Murray’s Liquid Gold Award in 2014 (scoring a huge 94 points).
The story of the Latenhammer distillery goes back to 1928, when it was founded in Bavaria by Josef Latenhammer. The distillery mostly made brandies and fruit liqueurs, until 1999, when master brewer Florian Stetter returned from a study trip to Scotland and began distilling whisky under the name SLYRS. Since then, the distillery has continued to grow and now produces a vast array of alcoholic drinks. SLYRS whisky has also become a famous brand, with several labels winning awards. The "Fifty One” label won four awards in 2021.
Time for a wee dram
So, there you have it, a beginner's guide to German whisky. While perhaps not the most prestigious, or well-known whisky in the world, German whisky is fast becoming a serious entrant into the world’s whisky market, and is able to compete with some of the more famous and loved brands. Why not pick up a bottle the next time you fancy a wee dram? You might just find yourself pleasantly surprised. Slàinte mhath!
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