While the secrecy surrounding Swiss banking is being torn to pieces by a German government intent on battling tax evasion by its citizens, a new trade is on the rise in Switzerland. It’s one that previously has not sprung to mind when thinking of the snow-tipped Alps. And it’s a trade that thrives just as much on secrecy as Swiss banks do: whisky making.
Philipp Adler clams up when asked about the details of making his Swiss Highland Malt Whisky. “I can’t tell you that,” says the 65-year-old. “How we treat the barley and distil it is top secret.” What Adler and his employer, the Swiss brewery Rugenbräu in Canton Bern, are willing to share, however, has excited whisky drinkers all over the world.
The most recent batch of whisky Adler sold was a limited edition of 999 bottles dubbed the Ice Label. It is distilled using water from the Jungfrau area, Switzerland’s most famous Alpine region. The whisky is stored in vintage sherry casks and hauled up onto the Jungfraujoch. It is here, at 3,454m above sea level, that the whisky matures for three years, locked firmly into a 100,000-year-old glacier.
When it was released for sale at end of last year, priced at €70 a bottle, Ice Label sold out within weeks; despite the drink only being available on Rugenbräu’s website and at the brewery.
Switzerland is predestined to make whisky. The three main ingredients are clean air, clean water and high quality barley. The Alps boast large quantities of the former two ingredients. The third ingredient, barley, is not far away either. Southern Germany, a couple of hours’ drive, produces a large amount of high-grade wheat.
Until 1999, however, it was forbidden under Swiss law to make spirits. So Switzerland’s natural resources were not being taken advantage of. As soon as the ban was lifted, people started putting their heads together. Eager to take their share of the global whisky market that’s worth around €8bn a year, small distilleries started popping up all over the country: the Hollen Distillery, the Hagen Distillery, the Locher Brewery with the Säntis Malt, and the Rugenbräu brewery, producing the Swiss Highland Malt Whisky.
But making quality whisky takes time. First, you have to malt the barley. This process most distillers like to keep secret, as it is the first step in developing a characteristic flavour. Almost as important is the origin of the water. Then you have the shape of the still to consider. Many Scottish distillers claim this is even more important than the malting. Finally, you need to choose a cask. Swiss distillers regularly go for old sherry barrels, which they import from France. Then the long wait begins. Whisky takes years to mature. Some classic Scottish single malts reach their peak only after 20 or 30 years of storage.
No wonder it has taken Swiss whisky makers over a decade to start reaping the benefits of their air and water. But distillers such as Adler finally seem to be making an impact with orders pouring in from all over the world. He anticipates doubling the next Ice Label filling in the autumn.
Naturally, the whisky trade will never get as big and as important for the Swiss economy as banking has. But according to Adler many-a-German has fallen in love with his Swiss Highland Malt Whisky. So who knows how vital Adler’s Whisky secrets may be when re-establishing a more trusted relationship with the Germans after battling out the future of Swiss bank secrecy.