Whisky is produced all over the world and there are some splendid distilleries in unexpected places, as Colin Hampden-White discovers
When we think of whisky we think of Scotland: rugged hills, heather, tartan and bagpipes. Scotland is the largest producer of whisky in the world, but many other countries make it. Japan started making whisky in the 1920s; Taiwan’s Kavalan whisky is justly celebrated, and there are whisky distilleries everywhere from Sweden to Wales via Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
Distilleries are usually in beautiful natural landscapes; here are five producers that are well worth a visit – and none is in Scotland
Mackmyra Whisky, Gävle, Sweden
Mackmyra, just outside the town of Gävle, about two hours’ drive north of Stockholm, has two distilleries; one of them, a seven-story building in the woods, allows visitors. Much of the whisky making process is run by gravity, which is unique in whisky distillation. The modern architecture set in luscious green surroundings, new technology and a warehouse full of whisky next door all make for a rewarding visit. Mackmyra’s master blender Angela D’Orazio produces many expressions of whisky; they have an excellent 10-year-old, matured in ex-bourbon, Oloroso and new American oak casks for at least a decade. With the short days of winter in Sweden it’s best to visit during the summer months.
Balcones Distilling, Waco, Texas
There’s not much to see in Waco, but the distillery – with its own cocktail bar serving creations designed to show the diversity of the whisky – is well worth the effort. Balcones is in a refurbished 1920s warehouse, with a walkway giving you bird’s eye view of the stillroom. There are large outdoor fermenters, and a viewing platform that gives a spectacular panorama over Waco. Their single malt whiskey is certainly different, but worth trying, and is available from specialist whisky shops and online. Spring time is a great time to visit Texas as the cold winter has passed and the sweltering heat has yet to arrive.
St George Spirits, Alameda, California
Across the bay from San Francisco, St George Spirits is a wonderland of experimental drinks. They make an exceptional single malt as well as several gins, vodkas (including a chili vodka), vermouth, absinthe and a pear brandy, the spirit that launched the distillery in 1993. It’s based in a large hangar with views directly over the water to San Francisco, and the atmosphere is California cool: deep funk jazz plays as you wander around the stills and casks. It is a quirky place: an enormous shark lurks among the casks (even the head distiller, Lance Winters, can’t remember why it’s there). St George Spirits makes an excellent single malt which is available through Master of Malt.
Yamazaki Distillery, Mishima-gun, Osaka, Japan
Whisky has been made in Japan for nearly a century, and it all started with the construction of the Yamazaki distillery in 1923. With this much history, the tours are well worth the JPY1,000 (about £7) for a basic tour and JPY2,000 for a tour that includes stories interwoven with history and cultural references. Yamazaki is equidistant between Kyoto and Osaka, and there is plenty to do and see in the area – including the new Kyoto Distillery where the country’s first gin, Ki No Bi, is made. It’s a cosmopolitan place: the owners are European and the head distiller is Welsh. Yamazaki 12 year old is a classic Japanese single malt; Yamazaki (which is owned by the enormous Suntory group) also distributes a good non-age whisky. Winter is a great time to go, as well as visiting the distilleries, this is also the time of year the best sake is made, and a sake brewery is fascinating to visit. For both distilleries, reservations are essential.
The English Whisky Company, Thetford, Norfolk
Whisky distilling in England has a long history: in 1887 there were some half dozen distilleries in operation. Production stopped at the beginning of the 20th century but it has burgeoned in the last ten years. While gin is popping up everywhere, there are also some fine whisky distilleries. One of the first to open, in 2006, was the English Whisky Company in Norfolk – the owners persuaded Iain Henderson of Laphroaig to postpone his retirement to oversee operations. It’s not far from the Norfolk broads, so you could combine a visit with a boat trip on the famous waterways. It’s a lovely place, with groves of cricket-bat willows leading down to the slow-flowing River Thet. As the website recommends, “You can take a stroll through the willows and along the river or simply sit and reflect on the fact that history is being made along with whisky as it is once again produced in England.”
Colin Hampden-White is the Editor of Whisky Quarterly magazine