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A Dram Of Danish Malt & Rye: Stauning Whisky Flight

Rye whiskies conjure up an image of the blazing hot, sunny Pernnslyvanian farmland. With a dram of rye comes tales of the American story - memoirs of German settlers first cultivating the grain on the continent, journals from the War of Independence, Prohibition and finally, a recent resurgence in the cupboards of bourbon collectors.

 

 

Source: Redemption Whiskey

With countries around the world experimenting with their own malted grains, it would only be time before rye has a homecoming moment - that is, there would be a rye whiskey made from where rye comes from traditionally. A blend of old and new, so to speak!

 

 

Today we’re taking a trip to a small town located at the Danish West Coast - Stauning. A distillery that fully unveiled in 2018, Stauning has been gaining attention in their expression of their native grain, but more so in their breakthroughs of marrying technology in whisky making. We had the chance to attend a masterclass held by Alex, one of the founders of Stauning, right at The Single Cask Singapore. Before we get to whisky tastings - what’s the story?

 

 

A Rye Field near Ring Village (1887) by  Laurits Andersen Ring (Danish, 1854 – 1933).

Rye has been a staple grain to the Scandinavian people for a long time - with cultivation originating from Central Europe before migrating northwards. A hardy winter grain that tolerates a wide range of growing conditions, rye has made its way into widespread cultivation by the late Viking Age. While official records state that the first official recipe for Danish rye bread (rugbrød) dates back to 1703, it has been known that the Danes have been eating rye bread for a long time - and even till today, a day doesn’t go by for a Dane without a slice of rye bread.

 

 

Source: Daring Gourmet

So what’s that got to do with Stauning? Not much - at least, not initially. In 2005, Martin, one of the founders of Stauning whisky, overheard on the radio while driving - “it’s easy to make whisky, but it’s hard to make good whisky. So Martin, heading back to his farmhouse home, pitched the idea to his family members, repeating what he heard. “It’s easy to make whisky.” Martin started calling up friends and family.

 

 

Hans Martin. Source: Loow.com

The final assembly consisted of nine founders: a chef, a teacher, a doctor, a helicopter pilot, a butcher, and four engineers. 

 

 

The Stauning crew.

Owing to the fact that Stauning was on the same latitude as Islay, the original inspiration for Stauning was to create the flavour of Ardbeg from the 1970s. That included using traditional techniques such as floor malting. The butcher of the team, rented out a section of his butchery for the distillery. In this measly 25 metre square space, it housed two copper stills (one wash and one spirit still), a fermentation tank, and some space for floor malting. In 2006, the first drops of whisky was distilled out of the tiny butchery, and Alex, one of the founders of Stauning, recalls having to lie down on the floor to let the new make drip into his mouth because of the way the distillery was set up. 

 

 

The white monobloc chairs really add to the vibe.

The vision of Stauning was to make everything by themselves - growing the barley, malting the grain, mashing and fermenting, all the way up till the distillation and bottling itself. Despite lacking the expertise (the founders recall mostly resorting to Yahoo! to figure out how to make whisky, before Google became the go-to search engine), in the small town of Stauning, one of the founders was bound to know someone whose expertise would greatly help the distillery. Stauning began working closely with farmers to source the right type of grain, and eventually, the first bottles for sale rolled out in 2011. It became clear that a small room within a butchery is no place for Stauning if it wanted to grow, and the founders got the help of a friend and architect to design a new distillery.

 

 

Source: Stauning Whisky

Old Methods, New Technologies

It was around this time when the team decided to move away from emulating the Ardbeg classics. Tapping onto local resources, the distillery aimed to express the Danish terroir, making a whisky that no other distillery could. The final distillery was unveiled in 2018 - rows of farmhouses. Sharp angular roofs iconic of Danish architecture were coloured black, resembling the inner char of a barrel. The building which housed the copper stills for distillation has walls made entirely out of glass - prompting curious passersby as well as attracting visitors within Denmark and abroad.

 

 

 

With this renewed focus, Stauning began to explore the more traditional grains of their homeland. If Danish people eat so much rugbrød, why not make whisky out of something that so expresses Danish culture? As has been the start, Stauning only sources their grains, barely and rye, within a few kilometres of the distillery.

 

 

Alex shares how passersby stop by the distillery to peer into the building, and are often invited inside as well.

In a sense, Stauning has opted to do things the hard way. Not only does Stauning malt their grains 100% in-house, they also employ floor malting - a technique that involves laborious churning and shovelling of the sprouted malt on the floor to ensure even sprouting and subsequently. The art of floor malting is slowly becoming lost as industrial malting has taken over this traditional practice. 

 

 

Only a handful of distilleries do floor malting now. Source: Kilchoman Distillery

However, here’s where the four engineers of the crew put their tinkering to the test - instead of employing workers to do the backbreaking work, they have created a machine with the help of a local blacksmith that rolls over the malting floor (four lanes that are each 60m long) in a wave-like motion - evenly churning the malt between spritzes of water.

 

 

The contraption has caught the attention of other distilleries looking to bring back floor malting into their production - and allegedly, Elixir Distillers are looking to use the same tech at their distilleries in Islay.

 

 

The machine has been likened to “stampeding horses”.

For many big distilleries, it’s no surprise to see a large,  awe-inspiring capable of holding thousands upon thousands of litres. In Stauning however, the distillery has opted for 24 stills - 16 of which are wash stills and eight spirit stills, each of about 2000l capacity. Each still is also wood-fired - another tedious and difficult process which requires mastery and skill. Stauning mentions that using wood firing compared to gas, albeit much harder, scorches the solids within the unclear wort inside the still - husks, yeast cells, sugars and yields more flavour.  The small stills, alongside the wood firing, ensures more control and quality over the liquid at the end of the distillation run.

 

 

And why take on all these additional challenges? “It’s how we started, so it is how we continue.” 

In 2022, Stauning Distillery was chosen to hold the 4th World Whisky Forum, and a year later, was listed as the . For the distillery, the team is still looking for ways to be more sustainable, while keeping true to their craft of expressing Denmark through whisky.

 

 

With that, let’s get to our whisky tastings!

Stauning Høst Double Malt Whisky, 40.5% ABV

 

The first in our core lineup of Stauning whiskies is the Høst (pronounced something like hurst), meaning “harvest” in Danish. Alex shared how the final ABV of a whisky is decided in the distillery - each founder receives ten glasses in front of them, all at different strengths. Without saying a word to each other, the founders taste all ten glasses, and after an hour or so of tasting, everyone points to their favourite glass. Some prefer the low ABV stuff, some prefer the high proof, and in some sort of normal distribution, a consensus would be agreed upon.

 

 

Source: Stauning

The Høst was meant to be the accessible, anti-scalper bottle from Stauning. No doubt, Stauning bottles can get pricey (especially in comparison to big brand scotch), and hence this lower ABV option is created to make accessible in terms of taste and price to the local Danish crowd. 

This whisky makes use a 50/50 of malt and rye,  sourced from farms near the distillery (within 25km). The whisky, like most from Stauning, is first aged in 3.5 years of ex-bourbon cask and virgin white oak heavy char barrels. For Høst, the whiskies are finished in tawny port casks for six to eight months. 

 

 

The grains used by Stauning.

Nose: Light orange aromas. I think of clementine cream and custard. There is some chamomile aromas as well, alongside some jasmine and fresh, unbaked dough.

Taste: Unexpectedly buttery - there’s a fresh cream and skim milk sort of dairy flavour to the whisky, hinted by some kefir (fermented milk). The initial dairy creaminess gives way to sweeter tastes, like caster sugar, which is then followed up by a tinge of astringency. 

 

 

Finish: The flavours develop towards a mild green tea flavour. While still a bit astringent, there is a bit of residual sweetness left alongside a tinge of milkiness, reminding me of green tea boba.

My Thoughts

I thought the switch from the nose to the palate was interesting. What really stood out for me was the dairy character this whisky had. I think the flavours are interesting enough to the curious whisky drinker, but light enough to be a crowd pleaser. On that note, when this was made into a Stauning highball as a welcome drink, it takes on an orange spritz sort of character. Worth a try (both neat and highball).

 Rating: 6.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

 

 

Stauning Rye Whisky, 48% ABV

 

 

For this whisky, the rye has been bumped up more in the mashbill, having a 60/40 split rye and barley. The liquid was aged for around 3 ½ years old in white virgin American oak that has been heavily charred. 

Nose: It firstly reminds me of freshly sliced green apple, apple juice, alongside some toasted malt grains. There is a floral aroma as well, like chrysanthemum tea. As it sits, you get more fresh grass clippings.

Taste: Quite sweet, like apple flavoured candy with a tinge of astringency. It reminds me of guava slices as well, especially with some of that tartness. As the fruitier flavours evolve on the palate, there is also a zing of lemon zest and pith as well.

 

Finish: Here, the fruit flavours make way for much more toasty flavours, almost like biting into the  slightly burnt edges of a freshly oven baked biscuit. The fruitiness isn’t as perceptible here, instead taking on a saltier profile, like saltine crackers.

My Thoughts

I like how fresh the whisky tasted here - you do get a lot more green fruits with a good amount of familiar malty flavours. I personally think this has more character and interest value than the Høst - and should be a hit for those who prefer fresher, sweeter and fruitier whiskies. 

Rating: 6.5/10

 

Stauning Kaos Triple Malt Whisky, 46% ABV

 

 

This whisky has a bit of lore to unpack - especially with the name “Kaos”.

There are two reasons why the whisky is named Kaos - firstly, it is somewhat chaotic - using 20% non-smoked malt, 30% smoked malt (with both heather and peat), as well as 50% rye. All the whiskies combined make up a whisky that is at least five years old - some in that standard 3 ½ years of white virgin American oak heavy char cask, some ex bourbon, and some undisclosed experimental casks.

 

 

Source: Stauning

The second reason ties more closely to Stauning in the pages of Denmark’s history. Thorvald Stauning (1873-1943) was the first social-democratic Prime Minister of Denmark, Thorvald Stauning was a widely respected figure in Danish politics, credited to designing the first modern welfare state that many European countries would soon emulate, as well as breaking conventions such as having the first few female ministers in his cabinet.

 

 

Source: Wikipedia

When Stauning was campaigning, his slogan was “Stauning eller Kaos”, translating to “Stauning or Chaos” - a slogan that resonated deep within a Danish society that faced economic turmoil and mass unemployment.

 

Source: Wikipedia

Given that the Stauning Kaos whisky pays homage to this legendary figure, Alex recalls that when an alcohol retail shop opened opposite of the Danish government, many politicians and government officials snagged this exact bottle - both for it’s namesake as well as for the liquid they enjoyed inside.

Nose: Straight up, there is a dense, forest-mushroom aroma. After the initial mushroomy aromas, it makes way for more distinctive bonfire and peat aromas. Here, the peat isn’t as oceanic and iodine as the Islays, resembling more Highland or even some Akkeshi whiskies - preserved tea cakes, dried flowers, mandarin peels.

Taste: There is some intensity in the way of ashiness, alongside a caramel, smoky flavour. There is a bit of smoked, dried chilli - a bit spicy and peppery, alongside a well caramelised brown sugar crust. The sweeter flavours show itself more in the form of jammed cherries, losing the tartness for that intense berry flavour.

 

Finish: The ashiness makes a return, this time more like BBQ spice mix and charred bits of meat. I am reminded of grilled potatoes, toasted potato skins, charred corn, alongside a tinge of nuttiness.

My Thoughts

They weren't kidding when they said this was chaotic - but in an “organised mess” sort of fashion, the  taste and aromas are adjacent enough that they don’t feel necessarily out of place. As someone who really likes peat, I appreciate the interesting aromas that arise from this whisky. The ashiness for me, however, is a bit of a love-hate. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. Nevertheless, this is my favourite of the core range.

Rating: 7.1/10

Stauning Smoke Single Malt Whisky, 47% ABV

 

 

According to Stauning, this is their flagship smoky whisky.

 Stauning distillery employs interesting ingredients when smoking their whiskies. While some distilleries in Scotland speak about compressed vegetation within their peat (such as heather), Stauning would smoke botanicals alongside peat to dry their malt - experimenting with different native plants for different flavours. For one, heather grows natively and widespread in Denmark, and Stauning purchases heather within 100km of the distillery. 

 

 

Alex talks about using fresh heather (a short, bushy plant with purple and pink flowers) in their smoking process - a “pain in the ass”, as in order to get enough smoke, the distillers would have to wet the heather and choke the flames for unevening burning. Apart from heather, the distillery has also tried using seaweed, hemp, and even used Christmas trees.

 

 

Smoking heather.

For this expression, smoked malt, using local peat and heather, is used. The liquids are aged in ex bourbon casks, madeira casks, Jamaican rum casks and the usual American virgin white oak heavy char - the average age being five years old.

Nose: I get a bouquet of dried lavender, grapefruit zest and thyme. There is a deep floral aroma to the whisky as it sits a bit more, muddled slightly with a background note of wood ash. The more it sits, I get some apple crumble as well as stewed apples, melted butter and toasted pastry dough.

Taste: Brown sugar is the dominant flavour for this whisky, with some charred pineapple and coconut. As the flavour develops on the palate, I get Asian pear as well.

 

Finish: On the finish, I get more toasted coconut alongside coconut shavings. There is a bit of old varnished wood on the aftertaste as well as a smoked herb bouquet before tapering off. Throughout the finish, there is a subtle wood ash flavour.

My Thoughts

What I love most about this whisky is the aroma. However, I did wish that more of that floral aromas made their way into the flavours of the whisky as well. Nevertheless, the promised smokiness is there, taking the form of more baked desserts and perhaps a bit of that BBQ sauce glaze on the grill (if I let my imagination run a bit wild).

Rating: 6.4/10

Stauning El Clásico, 45.7% ABV

 

 

The El Clásico is one of four from Stauning’s “Research” series - experimental whiskies that see limited batch releases that only see production for around two years. Alex mentioned that Stauning is still searching for the best type of cask that best ages the liquids from the distillery, and at the moment, there are about 70 different ongoing experiments at the distillery. Japanese rum casks, Jamaican rum casks, even a mizunara in the pipeline - you name it. 

 

 

Here’s the Research series in order: the Curious was new make rye whisky that has been smoked with peat and heather; the Bastard was a mezcal-finished whisky made from both barley and rye, the El Clásico was rye and barley whisky aged in virgin American white oak heavy charred casks and finished in vermouth casks, and lastly the Dirty Bastard is an evolution of the Bastard, being first aged in mezcal casks then finished in chocolate stout casks. 

 

 

All of the Research series come in clear bottles, with label designs by tattooist Thit Hansgaard. The El Clásico was made with the idea of having a whisky taste like a Manhattan neat (for the record, the Manhattan is two parts rye whisky, one part sweet vermouth, and dashes of bitters).

Nose: Bright and sweet, initially, I get key lime pie, toasted meringue and lemon curd. It evolves into maraschino cherry syrup and even a bit of solera madeira wine. The whisky gets more aromatic with herbaceous and sweet aromas as it sits.

Taste: Very chocolatey, like 60% milk chocolate. As it sits on the palate, it reminds me of a full bodied cabernet sauvignon wine - very forward with its dark fruit flavours like dark cherry and plums, with very subtle chocolatey and vanilla notes from the barrel influence. The flavours get quite jammy on subsequent sips.

 

Finish: The chocolate flavours fade away, making room for more cooked red fruit jam, like the filling on redcurrant puffs. The whisky then develops a sweet herbaceous flavour of sorts - think thyme, rosemary and sage infused sugar. The whisky concludes with a white chocolate strawberry swirl flavour. 

My Thoughts

Definitely the standout of the night. Deliciously sweet and fruity, yet with some accents of peculiarities from the vermouth barrel. It does taste like a sweet rosso vermouth, where the spices and herbs have infused into the whisky. Layered with tasty complexity.

Rating: 8.2/10 

 

 

While it may seem that the world is fatigued by an oversaturation of whiskies and is seeking greener pastures, I think Stauning has proven that fresh air can be breathed into the category. More impressively for me, a revival of traditional techniques made possible with innovation is something that should be widely embraced. I wonder what's in store for Stauning in their upcoming Research series!

Stauning Whisky is currently distributed in Germany, UK, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. To purchase a bottle in Singapore, contact Timothy Barnes of Six Eight Distribution at +65 83502962 or at timothy@sixeightdistribution.com .

 

@vernoncelli