My grandpa used to have this globe sitting next to his bed. One of those brown ones, so you know it was classier than usual, and so up to date that I’m pretty sure Turkey was called The Ottoman Empire and the whole of the Middle East was simply labelled “Domain of the Mussulman.” Anyway, I discovered one day when I was poking around in his room (I was obsessed with his boot remover, which looked like a demonic steer and had red eyes, but that is another story) and spinning the globe to see where I would end up living, that you could actually unscrew it at the equator. Inside was a bottle labelled Chivas with a few tumblers, all nested in a bed of red velvet. It was my first introduction to the liquor globe.
These days, the liquor globe takes on an increasingly powerful position as a metaphor for the growth of whisky drinking and, more importantly, whisky distilling. Once you’ve waded out past introductory whisky like Johnnie Walker and Jameson’s, it doesn’t take long for the whisky explorer’s bug to bite you. What else is out there? Picking through shelves at the liquor store, you’ll see plenty of whisky to choose from originating in the places you’d expect: The United States, Scotland, Ireland, and Canada. But you’ll also notice more and more whiskys sneaking onto shelves that come from places you wouldn’t expect.
Whisky enthusiasm often brings with it a DIY itch to get involved in some way beyond just consuming (though admittedly that’s usually the best part). Increasingly, that means people from all over the world are starting to distill their own whisky.
If you’ve become familiar with the standard-bearer countries, or if you know a whisky drinker who could use something a little unexpected as a gift, it’s time to set sail for exotic ports. So let’s take a quick tour of some of the countries you wouldn’t guess are making great whisky but never the less are doing great things with their stills.
A lot of people dismiss Japanese whisky as a novelty. A lot of people are wrong. Japan has been in the whisky making game since the early 1900s, and the founders of the Japanese whisky industry had all worked in Scotland.
They brought the tradition back with them, combined it with the Japanese drive for perfection, and started distilling some of the greatest whisky in the world. A lot of it doesn’t get sold in the United States unfortunately, but the ones that do make it to our shores are phenomenal.
The Hakushu 12 Year Old is from Suntory, Japan’s first distillery, and you’ll not find many whiskies of that age (or any age) that can beat it. Also notable are Suntory’s Yamazaki whiskies and their blend, Hibiki. Rumors persist that one day, Japan’s famed Nikka distiller will finally start distributing in the United States. If that ever happens, we’re all in for a treat.
For years, India has been a sore spot with the arbiters of all things scotch and whisky. Between producing and selling massive amounts of counterfeit whisky (more Johnnie Walker is sold in India in a year than is actually produced) and slapping the name “whisky” onto any spirit regardless of whether or not it’s whisky, there’s plenty going on in India to keep international trade lawyers busy for years. Domestic Indian whisky isn’t even whisky — it’s rum, distilled from molasses (whisky has to be distilled from grains), but that doesn’t stop India from flaunting international trade law and calling it whisky — or when they really want to get under the skin of Scotland, “Scots Whisky.”
So when Amrut was established and started distilling real, traditionally made whisky, they had a massive public relations battle to fight in order to get accepted. But make no mistake, Amrut is the real deal: a world-class whisky that is turning heads in both the United States and Scotland. Several varieties are available, but if you have to pick just one, go for Amrut Fusion, a whisky so fine that it regularly bests Scottish and American whisky in global spirits competitions.
Even among seasoned world whisky travellers for whom Japan and India are common knowledge, Sweden is a bit of an odd duck. But there is a huge whisky culture thriving in all of Scandinavia, and since whisky fandom often inspires DIY entrepreneurship, it’s no surprise that someone up there would fire up a still.
That someone is Mackmyra. This whisky was born in the way all new whiskies should be born — a group of people got together during a ski trip, got drunk in whisky, and decided that someone needed to make a Swedish whisky. The results are a bit unusual but very drinkable. Best of all, Mackmyra likes to oversize their bottles.
France has plenty of its own spirits to tout, so even though it’s a major consumer of whisky, it’s never been a major producer. If you’re distilling something in France, chances are it’s cognac (a distilled version of wine). The jump from cognac to whisky isn’t that great, however, so it was only a matter of time before someone in France made the switch from grape to grain.
Now we have two top notch French whiskies for sale in the United States — one of them so inexpensive that it’s almost impossible not to pick it up. Amorik hit US soil first and remains the standard bearer for French whisky making. Close behind though, and considerably more inexpensive, is Bastille, made smack dab in the middle of Cognac country. Both of them will help you get over any lingering dislike you might have of France—as if Brigitte Bardot wasn’t enough.
Anyone who has ever had a brush with China’s sorghum whisky Moutai is probably still recovering from the distress it caused. It’s pretty awful stuff. But scrappy little Taiwan recently became home to one of China’s (not that they want to be identified with the mainland) only true distillers of traditional whisky. Kavalan answered the call, and while it’s not yet available in the United States, it should be. Tends toward the sweet end of the spectrum, like a good Speyside scotch, and ultimately comes across a bit like scotch flavored ice cream. An exceptional dram if you can find it.
Canadian Single Malt
It might seem a bit of a cheat to put Canada on here. Canadian whisky is hardly unknown. But most of it is blended — that is to say, whisky mixed with a cheap neutral grain spirit, then dyed with caramel coloring. It’s not all bad, mind you, but Canadian whisky usually can’t go toe to toe with spirits from the US and Britain, and even at home, it gets very little respect. However, we’re not talking about your typical Crown Royal here, or even your atypical Crown Royal. Way up in the north of Nova Scotia (the Scotland of Canada) sits a small distillery called Glenora, where they make traditional Scottish-style single malt whisky. Glen Breton Rare is a ten-year old single malt that more than holds its own against whisky from anywhere else in the world. If Canadian whisky is overdue for a renaissance, Glenora is the long-awaited opening salvo.
Australia and New Zealand
Australia and New Zealand have a reputation for being even rougher around the edges than Americans, and their nascent whisky industry certainly cleaves to that image. Spirits from down under are often harsh and young, barely a step above moonshine — but they are giving it a go with their typical energy and gusto, which means that while there aren’t necessarily any Aussie or Kiwi whiskies I’d recommend today, they are worth keeping an eye on. Because someone is going to get it right soon, and when they do, it’s going to knock your socks off.
That’s hardly the end of the journey. More and more countries are trying their hand at whisky making, and the subtle variations in technique and resources (different types of grain, different types of wood for the barrels) is keeping the whisky world very interesting. Even if a new whisky from a new country ends up not being very good, a new whisky is never a bad thing. If your drinking passport only has stamps from Britain and America, it’s time to invest in a world tour. What you remember of it will be something else.