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Santis Whisky, Switzerland

By Dominic Roskrow

Of all the world regions to report on, the hardest by far is the German speaking region of central Europe. It's easier to speak to distillers in the High Veldt of South Africa, the wide open spaces of Australia or the horse farms of Argentina than it is to get any of the many of the whisky makers of Germany, Austria, or Switzerland to provide whisky samples or editorial information on new releases or other news.

big, brave, excellent whisky with a taste that is totally its own

There are various reasons of this. The language barrier doesn't help for a starter, and the sheer diversity and numbers of distilling operations make it difficult to get a handle on what's going on.

But the main reason is the fact that while there are dozens of whisky distilleries in theory, in practice the vast majority of them are not primarily whisky makers but spirits and fruit liqueur producers who once or twice a year put down some malt spirit in oak barrels. There are others who run a small garden shed distillery off their farm more or less as a hobby, or to make a whisky for their local community.

I once travelled to Germany to do a major distillery feature only to find that the 'distillery' consisted of something the size of a dustbin in an outbuilding. After the distilleries of Macallan, Buffalo Trace and Midleton, that doesn't give you a lot of scope for writing. Oh well, I said, putting a brave face on the situation, we can always do a tasting.

Actually, no, my host told me - all the whisky had been sold - but I was welcome to try the lemon schnapps and orange liqueur.

And this brings us to another reason as to why many of these whisky producers are publicity shy. Not only do they not need the publicity, and have no incentive to seek it, but too much attention causes them a headache because they either don't want to, or can't, meet an increase in demand.

I have no evidence but I suspect there's one other factor in play here, too. Most of the producers from this part of the world come from a long line of highly regarded and well established producers of liqueurs and other spirits and take pride in producing fine examples of them. Whisky on the other hand, is something of a secondary product - and the producers are aware that that they are not masters of this craft and their versions of it won't stand scrutiny on an international level.

And in many cases they're right - much of it is not great at all. Look hard enough, though, and there are some fabulous whiskies coming from the Germanic countries. Germany in particular has the potential to offer world whisky several great malts and whiskies made with other grains in the coming years.

And in Switzerland and Austria there are a number of very serious whisky makers who are fine tuning their whiskies and offering something very different and new. None more so that Swiss producer Santis.

A whisky maker from outside the recognised territories has one fundamental choice to make - is he going to make a version of the malt whisky which we all know and recognise from Scotland, or is he going to seek out a unique whisky taste in the same way that Irish whiskey or bourbon has? I tell people at world whisky tastings to be prepared for something new - and if the taste of a world whisky is different to Scotch, that doesn't mean it's inferior.

There can be no better example of this than Santis - it makes big, brave, excellent whiskies with a perfumed incense and burnt charcoal taste that is totally its own - although Balcones Brimstone from Texas comes quite close - and which offer us a totally new take on whisky.

In a country with a love of spirits and whisky and which now produces its own Whisky Guide, Santis was named Swiss distillery of the year last year - just the latest in a long line of awards for the distillery. In a region where many distilleries are contented to tread water, Santis looks set to join the likes of Slyrs, Blaue Maus and The Whisky Castle intent on joining the frontline of new world whisky.

Like many whiskies from this part of the world, Santis is produced by a brewery with a long and distinguished beer making reputation.

Locher in Appenzell was purchased in 1886 by the Locher family, and is now the last remaining brewery in the Appenzell region. An independent, family-run business, it is famed for its beer specialities.  

Legal restrictions on the production of spirits meant that until a few years ago whisky production in Switzerland was not allowed and the country has some catching up to do. When the laws were changed Locher was not only quick to be at the forefront of the fledgling whisky industry, but was foresighted enough to quickly establish a distinctive and impressive flavour profile.

With an abundance of high quality and cool water, the conditions for making whisky here are ideal. But the brewery turned to its other local ingredients to enhance its spirit. "Thanks to the altitude and extreme weather conditions, grain grown here is stronger and more vigorous," says the company.. This quality is ultimately reflected in the final product, noticeably increasing the exquisite flavour. In addition, this project has contributed to sustainably reviving mountain agriculture in Switzerland."

The distillery produces four whiskies, and with a combination of casks including ones used for beer, and its own take on drying barley, the finished products have the potential to bring a whole generation of new drinkers to whisky - as it proved at the Pure whisky and music festival in London last year. The event attracted a large number of non-whisky drinking but curious drinkers aged 20 to 30. Of the 15 or 20 whiskies on my world whisky table it was Santis which proved to be the most popular whisky by a distance.

There are four expressions of Säntis, each named after a different Alpstein rock formation: Säntis, Sigel, Dreifaltigkeit and Marwees . Each is distinctly packaged and bears a label designed and cut out by hand by the managing director.

It's not easy to get hold of Santis but if you do get the chance, try it. But be open minded. Give it a chance and you'll discover a beautifully crafted whisky.

And don't take my word for it. This is how Jim Murray describes the whisky:

Edition Santis 40%

Aged in oak barrels, and with a subtle aroma of apple-wood smoke, this whisky has a pure, graceful and enticing freshness. In the background, there’s the merest hint of green figs and a subtle touch of phenol. Gentle, oaky, and wonderfully satisfying bitter touch. Faintly fruity and extremely impressive.

Edition Dreifaltigkeit 52%

It’s truly amazing: the oily film is mild on the palate, and yet there’s enough of it to cover the mouth. Then comes a smoky mixture, both woody and earthy, followed by a faint taste of caramel. A hint of undefinable fruitiness emerges, whilst the tongue is tickled by spices. We’re dealing here with something of such controlled, enormous magnitude and pure class that you can do nothing but sit back and enjoy this whisky.

Edition Sigel

Although this edition ages in oak barrels, it still seems to leap out the glass at you. As soon as you catch a whiff of this exclusive aroma, your mouth will quite literally start to water. A pure malt that melts on the tongue, combined with a juicy fruitiness and a few spices. Plenty of vanilla underscores the oak companionably.