Whisky Myths Debunked #6 – Scotland Has Lots Of Distilleries

by Oliver Klimek on February 23, 2011

This debunking is a bit unusual, I have to admit. It is not about whisky itself at all but rather about the perception of the Scotch whisky industry in relation to other spirit producing nations.

In Scotland there are almost 100 working malt whisky distilleries and a handful of industrial scale grain whisky distilleries. That sounds a lot, especially if you compare it to neighbouring Ireland where you can count the measely number of whisky distilleries on the fingers of one hand. Scotland is not very densely populated, so that 100+ number is quite impressive indeed.

But what if we compare that number to other countries and regions with a long tradition of spirit distillation? All of a sudden you will notice that this seemingly huge number is not really that sensational. In France there are said to be 200 cognac distilleries in an area much smaller than Scotland.  And then we have Armagnac and Calvados too, as well as other spirits like marc or fruit eau de vie. In Italy there are 120 Grappa distilleries.

But that’s far from everything. I regularly travel to a small town in the Black Forest for business purposes. It’s called Oberkirch and it’s the eau de vie capital of Germany. In this place with roughly 20000 inhabitants there are 900 distilling licences. Of course not all who have a licence are constantly distilling, but they have to do it from time to time in order to keep it. In all of South Germany, Alsace, Switzerland and Austria there are several hundreds of active eau de vie distilleries.

Of course there is a difference to Scotland. Apart from a few big producers the distilleries on mainland European are pretty small compared to Scottish whisky distilleries. The 1800 litre minimum size for a whisky pot still has turned a craft into an industry. Even the smallest of them are much bigger then the average European distilleries.

The “”Farmhouse” approach of the newly founded Scotch distilleries Kilchoman, Daftmill or Abhainn Dearg has been celebrated as nothing short of sensational. The recollection of how whisky was made in the past obviously strongly hit the nerve of whisky enthusiasts.

The process of industrialization triggered by the invention of the column still is what sets Scotland apart from the rest of Europe. Most distilleries there have always been farmouse ones. The sight of a still in a spare building of a farm or a winery is the norm, not the exception. The price distillers have to pay is of course limited distribution. Most products will hardly ever leave the region.

It’s not too hard to buy single malts of the smaller Scottish distilleries like Oban or Royal Lochnagar in well-stocked shops on the other side of the globe. But finding a bottle of Kirschwasser from a small black Forest distillery in the north of Germany may well be impossible.

Just to put things into perspective.

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Erik Burgess February 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Interesting article Oliver. Every day is a school day as they say.

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