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Swiss brewers turn their talents to whisky

Swiss brewers have responded enthusiastically to the relaxation of laws banning the production of certain types of alcohol. Last year, the government lifted all restrictions, encouraging numerous producers to start brewing their own whisky.

This content was published on March 27, 2000 - 11:06

Swiss brewers have responded enthusiastically to the relaxation of laws banning the production of certain types of alcohol. Last year, the government lifted all restrictions, encouraging numerous producers to start brewing their own whisky.

The laws prohibiting Swiss brewers from making whisky were lifted on July 1, 1999. That same day, Ernst Bader became the first person in Switzerland to start brewing single malt. Aware the law was changing, he had prepared his distillery in advance so he could start making whisky the moment it became legal.

Eight months on, Ernst Bader is producing about one hundred litres daily. He sells and markets it as "single malt" because under rules devised in the birthplace of whisky - Scotland - the liquid must be left to mature in barrels for at least three years before it can be called whisky.

Bader has a small distillery on his farm in Lauwil in canton Basel Country. He sells some of his single malt immediately after brewing; the rest goes into oak barrels, previously used for wine. There it will remain until at least July 2002, when he will be able to sell - or better still drink - the first-ever bottle of Swiss whisky.

The barrel-ageing process gives whisky both its unique flavour, as well as its colour. Whisky drinkers will know that, in its natural state, their favourite tipple is as clear as water. Bader's single malt, made only from organic ingredients, derives its colour from the wine-stained oak of the barrels.

As far as flavour is concerned, the single malt tastes very much like typical Scotch whisky, but has slight sweetness, more commonly associated with cognac. This will disappear once the liquid has been allowed to age.

The verdict on Switzerland's first attempts at making Scotland's national drink has not been too enthusiastic. Claudio Bernasconi is a whisky expert and owner of the world's largest whisky bar, which - surprisingly - is in the Swiss alpine resort of St Moritz.

He stocks some 2,000 Scotch whiskies, as well as several hundred brands from other countries. At present, he doesn't sell any brands from the distilleries of his fellow Swiss.

"None has been properly barrel-aged because the law only changed eight months ago. You can taste this immediately. I won't be selling - or drinking - the Swiss variety until it becomes whisky. And even then, I'm not too confident. Perhaps in ten or 20 years, brewers here will master the technique."

Ernst Bader's single malt may not be barrel-aged, and he may still be finding his way, but the product has an appeal quite its own.

Someone looking for the "real thing" would naturally be better off staying with their Scottish or Irish brands, but those without preconceptions may just be pleasantly surprised by the results of this particular Swiss experiment.

By Jonas Hughes

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