Whisky: an international phenomenon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 4:27pm

Most people with merely a casual interest in whisky are probably aware that the spirit is distilled in Scotland, Ireland, the United States, Canada and Japan.

Those with a more active interest will know it is also produced in other countries, but may be surprised to discover in just how many.

Whisky Opus, a guide to whiskies from around the world and published for the first time in 2012, lists producers in 23 countries and territories - it counts England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as separate entities - including such locations as Liechtenstein and Pakistan.

The list - which also comprises Sweden, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Taiwan - is not exhaustive, despite its length.

Whisky is also distilled in Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Turkey and a growing number of other locations.

But not all spirits described as "whisky" or "whiskey" in the countries in which they are made conform even to the liberal definition offered by the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia - "Any of several distilled liquors made from a fermented mash of cereal grains".

Thai "whiskeys", for example, are essentially herbally infused rums. The best known internationally, Mekhong, recently changed its labelling and is now marketed simply as "The Spirit of Thailand".

Other whisky brands, while they may be entitled to be described as such, are less than frank about their origins. Producers in both Wales and the Isle of Man have been known to bottle spirits, originally distilled in Scotland but locally reprocessed in some way, as Welsh or Manx.

Such anomalies aside, what is clear from a perusal of books such as Whisky Opus and the annual Jim Murray's Whisky Bible - or from a little internet browsing - is that the world of whisky is becoming wider.

As Murray likes to point out, Antarctica is now the only continent on which the spirit is not distilled.

Furthermore, whisky lovers, who only a short time ago might have been unprepared to try any spirit using that name emanating from a country other than Scotland, are finding that whisky of real quality is being produced in some surprising locations.

At least one country now emerging as a whisky producer is in fact re-emerging. In the 19th century England had a number of distilleries that sent whisky to Scotland for blending. By the early 20th century production had ceased, but the establishment in 2004 of St George's Distillery in Norfolk heralded a revival in English whisky.

At least four distillers are currently active, although two won't be able to sell their spirit until it has matured for several more years.

St George's single malt whiskies have been highly praised by critics, as has a Cornish single malt from Hicks and Healey.

The Welsh Whisky Company's Penderyn single malts have had a mixed press, but Whisky Opus praises its Penderyn Port Wood single malt.

For some, emerging whiskies from Europe are particularly interesting. Jim Murray praises several rye whiskeys from Austria, France's Eddu Gold single malt, Germany's bourbon-style Hessischer Whiskey, and Switzerland's Swissky single malt, among others.

Few, if any of those, are available in Hong Kong.

The Angels' Share whisky bar on Hollywood Road has a fine Scottish single malt list offering a selection of spirits from North America and Japan. But even there the one seemingly European whisky, Michel Couvrer Overaged Malt from France, is a blend of Scottish malts, barrel matured in the Burgundy region.

That may be about to change.

Ida Lovaas, who visits Hong Kong occasionally from her base in Shanghai, is hoping to persuade us to try Scandinavian whisky.

Lovaas, brand manager Asia for Mackmyra Svensk Whisky AB, represents the first single malt from Sweden, one of the most commercially successful of the new whiskies from continental Europe. Whisky is the spelling on the label, although some might deem whiskey to be more appropriate, as they also might for the English spirits that have opted for the Scottish spelling.

Mackmyra has been widely praised by whisky writers, including Murray and, having first established itself in the Swedish domestic market, is now available in France, England, Canada and the US.

Although the name may sound Scottish, Mackmyra is actually a suburb in the Swedish town of Gavle where the distillery is located.

The Mackmyra company was founded by a group of friends with a passion for Scottish single malts. They reasoned that Sweden has a sufficiently similar climate and resource base to Scotland for quality whisky production to be possible there, but Lovaas is keen to stress that the company has striven from the first to achieve a distinctively Swedish identity.

"They decided to make it purely with local ingredients - the water, the barley and even the peat, which is mixed with Swedish juniper twigs. They also age the whisky in Swedish oak barrels [believed to impart a spicy quality to the whisky] and use very small casks - some as small as 30 litres. Mackmyra doesn't have age statements because, for us, age has no meaning. It's more about the quality of the casks," she says.

As well as garnering critical praise from Malt Advocate and Whisky Magazine, Mackmyra has picked up multiple awards, most recently the International Wine & Spirit Competition producer trophy for European spirits producer.

I sampled the Mackmyra First Edition, which has a hint of the saltiness of a Scottish island malt, balanced by the citrus and floral aromas of a classic Speyside, and prominent spice and vanilla from the Swedish oak. The template was clearly Scottish, but it most certainly has Scandinavian characteristics. This may in time become the basis for a whole new Nordic whisky style.

It certainly has a domestic following. Because the distillery required capital to function while its whisky matured, Mackmyra initially sold casks as futures. These proved sufficiently popular that almost half the distillery's annual production of about 600,000 bottles went to the cask holders.

A second distillery came online in 2011, quadrupling Mackmyra's capacity, and enabling the company to begin focusing on exports.

In addition to Hong Kong and the mainland, Lovaas will be turning her attention to Taiwan, where the level of enthusiasm for single malt whisky is comparable to Sweden and which has also emerged as a single malt producer with the King Car Group's Kavalan.

It would be gratifying to see Mackmyra and a few more "wider world" whiskies available in Hong Kong. In the meantime, if you want to check a few out, and are prepared to pay the delivery charges, whiskymarketplace.hk and whiskymarketplace.co.uk offer a selection of "world whisky" from producers including Mackmyra, Kavalan, Penderyn and St George's Distillery.

Accessible directly or via a link from Whisky Market Place, masterofmalt.com and thewhiskyexchange.com also offer a broad international range and will deliver to Hong Kong - at a price.


A spin on gin: Canadian and international gins

Canada has a long-established reputation as being a distiller of reliable whisky - but not as a producer of high-quality gin.

Its "bathtub gin", which was smuggled into the US during prohibition in the 1920s and early 30s, has been credited with inspiring the recipes for many classic cocktails which were created at the time to disguise the taste.

Now Canada is joining the gin revival. Having been sidelined for some time by the vodka vogue, gin is coming back into fashion in a big way, and Canadian craft distillers are making more of the spirit.

Few of these have made their way to Hong Kong, but Ungava Gin, made by "ice apple wine" producer Domaine Pinnacle, has.

It was launched last month at Felix at The Peninsula, with a cocktail competition won by Leo Cheung from Portal Work & Play at the Langham Place Mongkok. He called his entry a Canadian Emerald Sakura Cocktail.

Ungava is an unusual gin for several reasons, not the least being that it is yellow. According to the global brand manager, Richard Bush, this is a natural side effect of "a post-distillation herbal infusion using rare and unique botanicals coming from the Arctic tundra region, from the Ungava Peninsula, which is where the brand name comes from".

Those botanicals include Nordic juniper, cloudberry, crowberry, Labrador tea and wild rose hip, the last of which accounts for the spirit's unusual colour.

Intended as a smooth sipping spirit, suitable for dry martini cocktails and with a pronounced herbal character, Ungava gin is closer to the Dutch Jenever style than to London Dry Gin.

"It is made with all indigenous herbs from Canada," says the global brand ambassador, Toronto-based mixologist Joshua Groom.

"There are only a few weeks of the year in the Arctic that these herbs can be harvested. They don't overgrow and become bitter."

Gin is distilled internationally almost as widely as vodka, but Britain is its largest exporter. Others include the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, India and the Philippines.


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