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Water of Life springs from Austrian Waldviertel

By James Gray

"Scotland Forever!" proclaims the St. Andrew Association diploma which hangs, almost strategically, you might think, above the master distiller’s left shoulder. He grins, recalling the sound of bagpipes which filled the distillery’s Celtic Fire and Water Garden during a Midsummer wedding ceremony last year.

And yet these are not the Highlands of Scotland. No less mythical and once populated by ancient Celtic tribes, this is the Austrian Waldviertel and home to the Waldviertler Roggenhof distillery and Whisky Experience World, which last year attracted 75,000 visitors – more than Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland.

When I first arrive CEO Johann Haider, 55, appears from nowhere, his smile accentuated by the trademark Austrian moustache. He is framed by the gleaming silver silos which stand like alien spacecraft from a fifties B-movie. And yet this is a strikingly cutting-edge operation; three modern buildings sit neatly and unobtrusively at the edge of open fields. I notice the children’s playground tucked in behind the newest of the storage facilities, a subtle reminder that this is also a family business whose doors are open not just to aficionados but to entire families as well.

Austria’s most popular distillery, the Waldviertler Roggenhof, is located roughly 90-minutes’ drive west of Vienna and 30 kilometres north of Melk, seat of the Abbey after whose library Umberto Eco named one of the protagonists of his novel The Name of the Rose. The sign at the entrance proudly reveals this to be Austria’s first whisky distillery and I am keen to find out where it all began.

But before I can probe any deeper, Johann’s wife and joint CEO Monika, 50, ushers me through the modest yet cosy café and up the stairs to one of the storage areas. On one wall is an extensive family tree which includes several photographs, another reminder of the strong family values on which the distillery is built. Monika and Johann have two daughters, one of whom, Jasmin, 28, is responsible for marketing, PR and export. The distillery also employs a "Whisky Team" of six.

We enter the storage area and I am overwhelmed by the number of light oak casks which are stacked floor to ceiling. The malty aroma is as sweet as it is tantalising and I find myself inhaling self-indulgently. Monika explains that the distillery uses bespoke casks made of local Manhartsberger summer oak, which adds to the subtle vanilla flavour of the whisky. As much as two thirds of the flavour is accounted for by the casks, I learn later.

Monika tells me how a twist of fate led to the birth of the Waldviertler Roggenhof whisky distillery in 1995, when Austria’s accession to the EU effectively rendered the family’s small-scale farming operation untenable. Her husband, Johann, therefore cut his teeth as a master distiller not in any of the traditional whisky nations - Scotland, Ireland or even the USA or Canada – but in Lower Austria.

We exit through the "cinema", which forms an important part of the distillery tour. Johann Haider is keen to stress that any visit is an experience from start to finish; you can have the best product in the world, he says, but you have to know how to market the entire package. "Visitors pay 6 Euros admission, they get to taste three samples and after 90 minutes they are on the way to being whisky aficionados," says Haider.

Thus the Whisky Experience World was opened in 2005, and a 90-minute tour (available in English as well as German) includes a film viewing - "From cornfield to the whisky tumbler" -, a tour of the production and storage areas as well as a tasting of some of the Roggenhof’s whisky, spirits and liqueurs. The Fire and Water Garden was opened to the public in 2008 and features a Celtic Tree Circle which represents the elements of earth and air. The focal point of the garden is the fire pit surrounded by water. Whisky – the "water of life" – is born of the four elements. The garden also plays host to four fire festivals each year: the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice.

Johann Haider is eager to show me the heart of his operation: two high-capacity copper stills. In the absence of a suitable Austrian supplier, he turned to German manufacturer Christian Carl from Goeppingen for the stills. Haider explains that this is a modern process which separates the toxins more efficiently in one single distillation process, allowing the flavour to be preserved more effectively. "The grain is left in the mash to ferment and distil, with the advantage that the aroma is stronger and we can repeat the entire process again, which makes for a purer product," he explains, and I am immediately struck not only by his enthusiasm, but also the level of expertise and professionalism he has achieved in such a short time since 1995.

Unable to comply with the EU’s modern regulations on farming operations, Haider’s family were forced to look for an alternative source of income. All the right ingredients just happened to be in place. "One of the cornerstones of whisky production is of course the quality of the water," he explains. "We are on an elevated granite plateau 820 metres above sea level and although the groundwater contains naturally high levels of iron and manganese it is also free of calcium."

Neither could Haider have wished for a better climate. "The conditions here are almost identical to Scotland, and the granite bedrock is conducive to the formation of peat, which is important for us in the production of peated whisky," he says (peated malt is malt that has been smoked over burning peat). But perhaps most importantly, there is a plentiful supply of rye.

Given that distilling was already a long-established tradition in the Waldviertel – albeit in the production of schnapps largely for personal consumption – the family were able to turn the situation to their favour by thinking one step ahead. They took distilling to a professional level, establishing Austria’s first, and to this date only, whisky distillery.

With little to no experience to draw on, Johann Haider started with something of a clean sheet and sees himself as a pioneer in Austria. Although there is no shortage of brandy and schnapps distilleries, some of which do produce negligible amounts of whisky, nothing on this scale had ever been tried in Austria. But the challenge was no small one. "When I think back, not only was it tough bringing a new product to market in Austria, I also had to learn the art of distilling from scratch," says the justifiably proud master distiller. The considerable time spent reading up, attending seminars and distilling courses, and visiting Scotland and Ireland has thankfully paid off in spades.

Haider admits that while he took his inspiration from the whisky distilleries of Scotland and that the Celtic influence is undeniable, he has always strived to create his own brand with its own distinct character.

And despite the parallels with Scotland and Scottish whisky, the intention from the beginning was to get "back to the basics" of European whisky making. "Thankfully we decided to pursue a different route from the Scots and Irish and rather than try to imitate them we wanted to get back to the kind of grain distillation originally practiced in Europe," explains Haider.

It is the use of locally sourced rye, casks and water which sets Haider’s whisky apart. "The difference is that we produce whisky mainly from rye, which accounts for about 60% of production, while the remaining 40% is the classic single malt," he explains. The name Roggenhof, incidentally, also reflects the importance of rye – the German for rye is Roggen.

The quality of the whisky speaks for itself and the Roggenhof’s product was warmly received from the first bottle. Rather than being regarded as a threat, the Waldviertler Whisky J.H. – the name was patented in 1997 – was welcomed as a newcomer, seen as enriching rather than diluting the whisky market.

In 2000 the St. Andrew Association of Scotland awarded Haider a diploma of honour "in acknowledgment of remarkable merits". In 2010 two of the distillery’s whiskies took Silver and Bronze medals at the first attempt in the "Whiskies Worldwide" category of the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) in London. Participation in the 2011 IWSC is also on the cards. Meanwhile Waldviertler Whisky J.H. has also received excellent reviews in the annually updated Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

The Waldviertler Roggenhof continues to thrive and expand. Last year the distillery welcomed a record number of visitors and Haider fully expects numbers to increase again this year. As Austria’s only whisky distillery it helps, of course, that they do not have to share the tourists around as Scotland’s distilleries do. His concept is a simple one which relies largely on word of mouth to keep interest high. And this year his efforts were rewarded with the "Top-Ausflugziele" award from the State of Lower Austria, a highly coveted award in recognition of the province’s premier tourist attractions.

Despite or perhaps because of the current economic climate, interest in Roggenhof whisky is as high as ever. With the declining value of the euro and fewer incentives to save for a rainy day, says Haider, more and more Austrians are treating themselves - which is reflected in the increasing number of visitors and rising sales. The on-site shop accounts for around 80% of the distillery’s sales, while online business and global exports continue to grow.

Haider has two new products in the pipeline for summer and autumn: a peated Single Malt and a peated Pure Rye Malt, both stored in sweet wine casks. The latter, says Haider, is a world first: this whisky from dark malted rye is already unique, and the fact it is peated makes it even more special. The master distiller’s enthusiasm is both understandable and infectious. Any visit to the distillery truly is an experience to be savoured, for the aficionado and novice alike.

Austrian Times


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