It’s never a great idea to put a number in the name of a group of nations – G5, G6, G7, G8, G7 again; Four, Five, Six and maybe more Nations rugby… Same with whisk(e)y. The Big Three – Scotland, Ireland and the USA – became the Big Four with the rise of Japanese whisky. It may soon be necessary to add a few more.
These days, some of the most chased-after bottles come from Taiwan (Kavalan) or Denmark (Stauning). Dawn Davies, buying director of The Whisky Exchange, predicts world whiskies will be one of the trends of 2024.
‘Consumers are ready to explore the unexpected frontiers of world whisky as the spotlight shifts towards a diverse range beyond the familiar territories,’ she says. ‘We’re delving into surprising places.’
So, get ahead of the trend and choose something that pushes the geographical envelope among your festive whisky selection…
A number of years ago, the head of the largest wine and spirits company in Romania, the 200-year-old Alexandrion Group, decided that brandies, fruit liqueurs and vodka were not enough. Dr Nawaf Salameh wanted a whisky in his portfolio. The first Carpathian release came in 2021; he now has 13 and counting, and several have won awards.
To assist them, the producers recruited someone whose Scotch whisky background is impeccable: Allan Anderson. He spent 18 years as distillery and engineering manager at Loch Lomond distillery, famous for its unusual range of different still styles – so that was a serious challenge to maintain quality.
While Anderson has introduced a number of technical innovations to the distillery in the Carpathians – a terroir not dissimilar to The Trossachs of home – it is the maturation that marks out these whiskies. Romania is vineyard country first and foremost, and Carpathian has access to Alexandrion’s wine barrels, including those from its foreign vineyards, in which it finishes its whiskies after they have developed sweet vanilla notes in ex-bourbon barrels.
The breadth of offering is remarkable – from Italian finishes (the Amarone is a celebration of the dark – blackberry jam with black pepper), to a range of Iberian flourishes, including Madeira, Tawny Port and Pedro Ximénez sherry. The most Romanian expression is the Fetească Neagră finish – an ancient native red-grape varietal whose influence brings raisins and cloves to the mix, but also surprisingly tropical notes – banana and pineapple.
At The World Whisky Masters 2023, run by British trade magazine The Spirits Business, three Carpathian expressions – Cognac, Ruby Port and Amarone – were awarded gold; Fetească Neagră, Madeira, Burgundy, Vradiano (Greek) and Commandaria (Cypriot dessert wine) all took silver.
When Churchill talked about a nation being ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, it was a surprise he was referring to Russia rather than France. One thinks of the French as being fiercely patriotic. Yet, while the country world-famous for its cognac consumes less than 5 per cent of its own national spirit, France was only recently supplanted as the number-one Scotch-whisky-consuming nation. The heart wants what the heart wants.
In recent years, however, patriotism and single malt have come together with the rise of some extremely good French whiskies. The two heartlands are on opposite sides of L’hexagone – Brittany and the Alps. However, they are regions with traditional links of sympathetic culture (a remarkable number of ski instructors are Breton). In the north-east, Kornog and Armorik are distilleries to look for. But the best is Domaine des Hautes Glaces, just south of Grenoble in the Isère département.
As well as a distillery, Hautes Glaces is an organic regenerative farm, and seriously committed to sustainability. Even the bottles are made from “wild glass” – mismatched recycled glass run through the furnaces between other batches, hence the slightly green colour.
Indigene is not a long-lost Jean-Michel Jarre album, but a single malt made in a way that would be familiar to cognac connoisseurs: malted barley from specific local parcels of land is distilled into individual eaux de vie and aged separately in a selected barrel – different sub-species of oak, first-fill, ex-cognac or ex-wine – before being vatted after three years and left to mature longer. Lots of floral notes on the nose give way to cereal and chocolate in the mouth.
Antipodean whisky has already been established as the real deal by Australia’s Starward, so, along with the fact that 20 per cent of Kiwis claim Scottish heritage, it’s no surprise New Zealand is among the coming whisky nations.
The two most interesting are at opposite ends of the country: Cardrona, down near Queenstown in the Southern Alps, and Thomson, up near Auckland on North Island. This small, innovative distillery’s ethos is best displayed in an amazing regional take on smoky whiskies – not using peat smoke to dry the malting barley, but burning manuka wood. The smoky notes are subtle – more akin to toasted bread and dry-fried spices – and there is a distinct manuka honey aromatic sweetness to it.
Yes, Mexico. If you have a whisky bore in your family (for example, you are related to the writer of this piece), you can trump any talk of esters and phenolic levels by mentioning nixtamalization. While corn is an essential part of many American whiskey mash bills, including some 100 per cent corn, there is something special about this being made from an ancestral varietal called cacahuazintle corn.
Located northwest of Mexico City, Destilería y Bodega Abasolo puts part of this corn through an ancient Aztec cooking technique of boiling in a solution of calcium hydroxide to remove the husks – this is nixtamalization.
Abasolo whisky really does give you buttered popcorn on the nose, but with more tannic notes of leather and black tea. It has a touch of the abrasiveness of youth to begin with on the palate, but mellows into toffee apples and vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
China has been an important consumer market for Scotch whisky for some time. Now, it is making moves on the supply side. Baijiu is the biggest-selling spirit in the world, so the expertise is certainly there. Big players such as Diageo and cognac producer Camus have begun building distilleries. But one is already producing fully aged whiskies. Goalong Whiskey (they’ve opted for the Irish/American “e”), from Hunan province, produces a blended whisky that is pleasant and sweet – catering to the local market somewhat. Its single malt has more going (along) for it. Five years in ex-bourbon casks ensure it shares the approachably sweet and creamy character of the blend, but with more complexity – toasted nuts and honey, with malty richness and even a whiff of wood smoke on the finish.