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Few products possess a unique and thrilling sense of time and place quite like whisky. The expression of terroir – a term usually reserved for fine wine, and which refers to the finer details of the landscape and climatic condition in which the spirit was made – is said to hold asignificant influence over the character, flavour, and aromatic qualities of a whisky… and when we think about the kind of images a top-quality Islay Scotch conjures up, for example, this makes perfect sense. Whiskies from this part of Scotland really do capture the brisk and bracing saltiness of the sea air, and the intensity of the peat which comes through on the nose and palate is a wonder to behold, and an unmissable reminder of the land from which the spirit hails. Terroir, it would seem, is not just a figment of whisky aficionado’s imagination.
What then, of whisky distilleries based in terroirs and landscapes which sit outside of the unexpected? The exponential growth of the craft spirits industry has led to all kinds of weird and wonderful operations popping up across the globe, with many of them taking a rather extreme approach to location and terroir-driven taste. We’re all accustomed to the image of the windswept Scotch distillery, the Irish whisky houses nestled in lush green valleys, the golden cornfields of Kentucky… but what about those modern and edgy distilleries which push the envelope of possibility?
In this week’s blog, we’re taking a closer look at five unique and distinctive whisky distilleries based in deeply unusual locations, or housed in awe-inspiring buildings which hint at the future of the industry. Perfect for any whisky fan’s bucket list, they are clear indicators of a whisky scene poised for recovery following the devastating impact of Covid-19, and of the boundless imagination that this wonderful spirit never fails to inspire. Passports at the ready!
Whiskey Del Bac is one of the most innovative distilleries out there at the moment, and the producers have set themselves the – somewhat bizarre – mission of producing single malt whiskey made from mesquite-smoked grain out in the blazing heat of the Sonaran Desert. Inthis dry and arid landscape, where summer temperatures regularly sizzle at 118 degrees and humidity bottoms out at 5%, the process of distillation comes up against a series of unique challenges unlike any other spirits production line on Earth.
In order to make their characterful and terroir-driven whiskey, the incoming water must be industrially cooled before mashing takes place, the fermenters are wrapped in glycol jackets,and malting undergoes the dramatic swing between cold mornings and searing hot afternoons. The weather is erratic – monsoon storms and heavy blasts of winter rain play havoc with humidity, which needs to be stable for most distilleries to do their thing, and evaporation is, unsurprisingly, much higher than you’d find anywhere else in the world. As one might expect, the owners are unpeturbed – they claim that the 27% evaporation (that’s one heck of an angels’ share) helps to concentrate the flavours and character of the whiskey,resulting in more expression of this wild and difficult terroir.
There was plenty of excitement at the start of 2020 surrounding the unveiling of Aurora Spirit Distillery, the world’s most northerly whisky operation. Housed in a fort that has a history of conflict in one of the world’s most extreme environments, this Norweigan distillery is spearheading a new Nordic whisky scene which is set to dominate the industry in the years to come.
It isn’t difficult, however, to see the appeal of setting up a distillery in this stunning location. The Lyngen Alps of this part of Norway boast mineral-rich waters which run off the nearby glaciers, lending the whisky a distinct arctic characteristic which has thrilled critics across theworld. The distillery ages its whisky in a deep underground military bunker, just thirty feet from the icy sea, which helps to mitigate the sub-zero conditions. With both peated and unpeated expressions on offer, there’s a clear Scottish influence… but the Norweigans are keen to emphasize that the single malts made at Aurora are in a category all of their own.
Caves have been used in the wine industry for centuries, and the world-beating Champagne houses of France claim much of their success to the use of underground caverns which offerthe perfect conditions for the aging of their sparkling wine. It should come as no real surprise, therefore, that sooner or later subterranean landscapes would become central to new whisky pioneers, too. This has finally come about in the form of S.D Strong Distilling, a bold Argentine operation which operates entirely underground, in a cavernous network of caves 65 feet below the surface of the Earth.
Every day, at around 5pm, the whisky distillery is shaken by the boom and blast of dynamite emanating from the nearby limestone mines which surround the stills. This hasn’t been off-putting for the producers, however, who claim that the constant humidity and atmospheric conditions of the caves lead to simplified aging and fermentation. Who knows? Maybe cave distilleries will soon be a major trend in the ever-surprising world of whisky!
From the lowest to the highest – the Breckenridge Distillery is perched at a dizzying 9,600 feet above sea level in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, a truly awe-inspiring location in which to produce a traditional American whiskey. While this location has plenty of advantages; the quality of the mountain water is simply unparalleled, and the freshness of the mountain air lends a clarity to the whiskey that cannot be denied, there are certain interesting downsides, too. The high altitude has a profound effect on the process of fermentation, and the low levelof moisture in the air leads to rapid evaporation that needs to be carefully monitored.
There’s always been a connection between whiskey and outlaws, ne’er do wells, and rebels,
and the industry has been frequently rocked by high-profile heists and thefts. However, thieves would have a hard time breaking into Southern Grace Distillery in North Carolina, which is housed in a former high security prison.
The disused dormitories and cells have been converted into fermentation spaces, distillation centres, and aging rooms, and the owners have taken full advantage of the atmospheric location, turning it into a key tourist attraction in Mount Pleasant. No doubt the whiskey tours have plenty of stories to share!
There you have it – five unique and unexpected whisky distilleries, demonstrating that, with a bit of verve and imagination, there’s simply nowhere on Earth that cannot be transformed into a whisky distillery capable of producing characterful, terroir-driven, and unique spirits! Which one would you visit first?