It may be controversial to ay it but that doesn’t mean it’s not true: you can make whisky just about anywhere there’s water, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s hard or soft water, as long as there’s a lot of it and it’s cold enough to condense spirit back to liquid.
So if you accept those boundaries it shouldn’t come as any surprise that whisky is being made in Italy. Sun, wine, and ice creams might be the first image Italy conjures up, but think about it: the North of the country is mountainous, famous for its lakes, and buttresses up a mountain range that links Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. And just consider the name Ebensberger and the address – Puni Strasse. This, then, isn’t as starting as it might have seemed.
Indeed Jonas Ebensberger, who speaks impeccable English, is amused by the question of why the family chose to make whisky in Italy.
“In fact, it was the other way around,” he says . “We live in the most northern region of Italy named South Tyrol. Until 1919 it used to be a part of Austria. Following Austria’s defeat in World War 1 however South Tyrol was annexed by Italy and has ever since been a region of Italy. So actually you could say that Italy picked us. This aside, most people when they hear Italy, think of sunny beaches, great food and surreal politics. But our valley lies in the midst of the highest mountains of the Italian alps and our clear glacier water and the high quality rye render it ideal for making a new whisky – one with panache.”
That Puni is serious about whisky can be in no doubt. The distillery, in a stunning location, is properly equipped and the distilling team has thought carefully about the spirit it is making.
“Puni is a family owned and run distillery and our backgrounds are in completely different fields. Yet we all share a keen passion for distillation and authentic products,” says Jonas.
“I guess one of the starting points was in the early 90s when my father completed all three sommelier courses. In these courses the main focus is put on wines and wine tasting of course. But there are also lessons that deal with distillates and tasting techniques of spirits as well. During one of these lessons he was, for the first time, introduced to the world of Whisky. After the successful completion of the courses, he continued to learn about whisky.
“Before long the whole family shared the passion for Whisky. Yet we did not limit ourselves to tasting different Whiskies and learning about the ways they are made but started to test the properties of different types of malts during distillation as well. You see, the Vinschgau valley, where we live, has always been famous for the cultivation of rye. In medieval times it was known as one of the main rye suppliers for Tyrol in Austria.
“After years of testing and analysing and many sleepless nights beside the stills, my father and I, finally agreed on the perfect mixture of different types of malted cereals. We use barley malt as the basis but add wheat malt for sweetness and rye malt for complexity and body. Only after we saw that we would be able to actually produce a fine dram, we started to plan Puni distillery.
Puni has stills and the mash tun were supplied by Forsyths Ltd from Rothes, Scotland. The wash still is 3,000 litres and the spirit still 2,000 litres in size. The distillery is currently mashing a bit more then one tonne of malt per day.
“In our first year of production we filled over 850 casks and barrels and put them in our warehouses and bunkers to mature. We were very excited and happy when, after more than two and a half years of planning and construction, we were able to run the stills for the first time. The construction of the distillery was an adventure and more then a few times very challenging. Now that it is finished, most people are simply awestruck when they enter Puni for the first time and we are very glad about all the positive feedback that we are getting.”
What makes Puni particularly interesting is that it is not going down a conventional whisky making route. It has come up with a grist recipe that will make a distinctive Italian whisky.
“We felt that it should have more passion and finesse than most other malt spirits. That is why, for over two years, we spent every spare hour and many sleepless nights beside a tiny still like alchemists, in search of the perfect mixture,” says Jonas.
“Of course, like all alchemists, we failed to reach total and utter perfection. But if my father and I both agree on it, means that we came pretty close. By adding malted wheat and malted rye we obtain a remarkable spirit. It is sweeter and somewhat fresher than other clearac but tastes mellow and gentle even at high gradation. And it provides a distinguished taste of malt and is rich in spiciness because of the rye malt.”
Cask selection, too, is unusual. While most of the spirit matures in first fill Ex-Bourbon barrels the distillery also uses Marsala and sweet wine casks from Italy.
“You can imagine the magnitude of possibilities with Italy being such a famous wine country. There is so much to look forward to in terms of aroma develop ments from maturation in different casks.”
The distillery’s first whisky will be bottled in 2015 at three years old but it already offers The Italian Single Malt Red, which is matured under three years in special casks (Marsala Vergine and other sweet wine casks). The current edition of the Red was bottled at six months but a second edition of Red which will soon be released aged for over a year.
It makes for exciting times and Puni is internet pin making a serious contribution to the future of whisky and perhaps bringing a new consumer to the party.
“Of course we did our research before embarking on this adventure and there definitely is a niche market for small batch quality whiskies such as ours,” Jonas says. “Our customers enjoy a spirit that is handcrafted and closely follow our development. Because one thing that we can confirm is that more and more young people, in their 30s are starting to appreciate quality spirits. Whenever we are travelling and presenting our young spirits at trade fairs and exhibitions, there always are a great deal of young people that show a keen interest in our distillery and our spirits.
As they, or better to say, as we grow older, so does our whisky and it becomes a part of our life. One day, years from now, we might meet again and while we tell stories and catch up we sip a dram of Whisky that has been there all along, slowly maturing. And through the taste of the Whisky and the variety of aromas we remember all that has been. How it all started with a very mellow white whisky from Italy. So yeah, I am excited about the future.”