You'll miss one as you drive through Biel/Bienne. You could miss another one as you meander through the hills of Basel-Land, taking in the scenery. You're sure to miss one a third time, zooming past Interlaken on your way to the mountains. And you're most likely of all to miss one as you drive right past one of Switzerland's biggest kirsch distilleries, Etter.
Just what am I talking about? These are some of the many locations in Switzerland where whisky is distilled. Before you get upset or declare Swiss whiskies a tourist gimmick, hear me out. Swiss whisky is undoubtedly in its infancy. The distilling of grain alcohols has only been permitted since 1999, and that's not what Switzerland is renowned for. But this doesn't mean Switzerland doesn't have what it takes.
The aim of this article is to convince you that Swiss whisky is something worth exploring, if not because you are a great fan of whiskey, then because of the new places it will bring you to. Most Swiss whiskies are artisan products and only available in specialty shops or directly from the distillers. Even the ones currently aspiring to more still have a long way to go before they become as pervasive as their well known Scottish, Irish, or American cousins. This should not deter you, but rather encourage you to discover or re-discover Switzerland. Making a day of visiting a distillery should not be a problem, as many of the places have a visitor's centre, organize tours and tastings, and even host corporate/ group events.
Most Swiss whiskies are made either by brewers of beer or distillers of Schnapps. Meeting with these people has been great fun and refreshing, because they represent something rare in today's fast-paced world. They all are very patient people who value tradition and quality, yet have an open mind and the spirit to venture into uncharted waters. It was impressive to see how they all share an unconditional respect for their craft.
One of the strangest names for Swiss whiskies is Our Beer – the child of a union between the Basel-based microbrewery Unser Bier, and the Aargaubased distillery Humbel Brenerrei. The whisky is aged in casks using the Hungarian dessert wine Tokay. You can sample and buy the whisky by visiting the distillery in Aargau or the brewery and pub in Basel. The Unser the interesting possibility of becoming a shareholder, and creates 12-year-old limited editions of their whisky through crowd funding.
This came about when its owners tried to imagine how they could capture the flavours of more than 140 years of brewing. Säntis Malt is aged in casks that have been used for the delivery of Locher's Appenzeller beer for at least 70 and up to 140 years. The Locher Brewery and distillery is located in the centre of the town of Appenzell. There is a great visitor's centre where the whisky-making process is explained, tastings can be had, and tours of the facilities are provided.
Swiss Highland Single Malt
Rugenbräu is first and foremost a brewery, but has risen quickly with a whisky that's becoming increasingly recognized at international level. It's situated on the outskirts of Interlaken at the foot of the mountains, which provide spring water and storage space. One of their whiskies, Ice Label, is aged for part of its three years up in the tunnels of the Jungfraujoch train line, where the Alpine air and temperatures give it a distinctive taste. Rugenbräu organizes tours of the distillery and brewery, and are set up for hosting events. They also have their own Stübli where you can stop by to sample their whisky and beers. Rugenbräu also offers the possibility of owning your own cask that will be aged in their cellars.
Hollen Single Malt
At the far end of a Basel-Land valley is the village of Lawil. Off to the right as you enter the village is the Hollen distillery, where the first Swiss whisky was distilled …or so the Bader family proclaims. Mr Bader is a retired farmer/ distiller who has yet to stop distilling.
He ventured into the world of whisky after friends told him: "You make great beer and equally great Schnapps! Why don't you make whisky?" If you're searching for places off the beaten track, then this place is perfect for sampling whisky, Schnapps and other gifts from the land. Nearby, the Reigoldswill Wasserfallen cable car can take you uphill to enjoy hiking and other sports all year around.
One of the first distilleries I visited was the Etter distillery in Zug, which makes Johnett. Just as Johann Baptist Etter strayed from tradition in 1823 when he created the distillery, the Etter distillery strayed once more in 2003 from over a century of kirsch and Schnapps tradition. A sip of this whisky captures the craftsmanship, geography, history and flavours of this small canton. The mash is made by Baarer Brewery, the barrels for ageing the whisky come from a local winemaker, and the whisky is aged not in a warehouse, but in the humid Höllgrotten caves. If you visit the distillery, you'll discover a world far away from the corporate and luxury culture often associated with Zug.
This is the creation of the Zürcher distillery, located in Port, a suburb of Biel/Bienne. On the day of my visit I met with 3 generations of Zürchers passionately involved with the business. A limited quantity is distilled each year and when it's gone, it's gone. The whisky is only available by mail order or by visiting the shop attached to the distillery. But you can have your bottle set aside each year or mailed to you. A few times a year they host foodie evenings: they convert the pot stills into pressure cookers and use them to prepare local dishes.
These are just a few samples of the whiskies Switzerland has to offer. 10 years of whisky production has resulted in a very presentable Swiss product. I have my favourites, but have purposely not given my own opinion of the whiskies listed here. Just a hint: I sampled every one of them when I visited the distilleries back in February, I've sampled them many times since, and I sampled them again during the writing of the article. I leave the academic task to others, such as renowned whisky writer Jim Murray. He has given favourable reviews to some of them in his book Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.
If only I had more time to visit more distilleries, and more space to expand on a subject I'm so passionate about. I look forward to more whisky tasting in the years to come – because I'm convinced more surprises will be revealed, as many of the distilleries are preparing for their first 8- to 10-year-old bottlings. A new book on the subject, written by Tom Wyss, was published last autumn.
Author's note: The "angel's share" is the alcohol lost to evaporation during the ageing process, typically about 2% per year.