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Six great whiskies from around the world

Stauning Whisky is Denmark’s first whiskey distillery, founded in 2005. Stauning’s three core whiskies arrive in the United States in early April. (Stauning Whisky)

The word “whiskey” is an Anglicization of uisce beatha, Gaelic for “water of life.” Say it out loud over and over again (one pronunciation is OOOSH-ga BAE-tha) and you can get a sense of how time and international conversations gradually transmuted it, just as the product itself has changed. It’s little wonder that whiskey production has traveled around the world from its likely 15th-century birthplace in Ireland and swift crossing to Scotland. It’s a simple product open to vast interpretation.

(Whiskey is the general term for the liquor. Products made in Scotland, Canada and Japan are known as whisky, and fans can get quite ardent about the slight difference in spelling.)

There are technically three ingredients that go into whiskey: yeast, water and grain — barley, rye, corn, wheat or any mix of them. But a number of factors have an impact throughout its production, such as the natural environment and even the local food and drink community, which can lend itself to an exchange of ideas and resources. Barrels contribute a majority of a whiskey’s flavor and 100 percent of its color. (All spirit comes off the still as clear as vodka.) Producers age spirit in casks from around the world — such as barrels that first held bourbon or sherry (referred to as “ex-bourbon,” “ex-sherry”), new oak and more. Then temperature and humidity affect how the whiskey picks up flavor compounds from the porous wood, which expands and contracts over time.

When George Washington established the first commercial whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon post-presidency, he was guided by his farm manager, James Anderson, who learned distilling in his native Scotland. That marked whiskey’s arrival in the United States. In past decades, whiskey-making has set down roots elsewhere. In Japan, Masataka Taketsuru, known as the father of Japanese whisky, built a distillery for drinks company Suntory in 1923 after spending time learning at distilleries in Scotland. A powerhouse industry was born. More recently, whiskey-making scenes have emerged everywhere. Scotland, Ireland, the United States and now Japan have strict regulations around production, but distillers creating new iterations are pushing boundaries and making the drink their own. Here’s a whirlwind tour of some of them:

Six spirits that evoke far-off destinations

Denmark: Scandinavian design in a bottle

If the idea of Danish whiskey sounds eccentric, consider this: Scandinavian Vikings made regular pilgrimages to Scotland and Ireland, so the cultures have long brushed shoulders, just as they do now. Danish food and drink have been front and center on the world stage in recent years, thanks largely to widespread intrigue with New Nordic Cuisine, the cooking philosophy popularized by René Redzepi, the chef who founded Copenhagen’s Noma. The approach puts a premium on hyperlocal ingredients, simplicity and rustic practices, and attention to detail. Danish distilleries are working under a similar manifesto.

“The Danish mentality shows up everywhere in Denmark, like in our design — it’s super-simple, clean, cool and precise,” said Alex Munch, who founded Stauning Whisky, Denmark’s first whiskey distillery, with eight friends in 2005. “New Nordic whiskey, like New Nordic food, pulls out flavors from local producers and gets the best out of what we have. It respects process.” In Stauning’s case, that applies to the cool, crisp Nordic water and the rye and barley. The distillery, on Denmark’s west coast, sits on farmland and all the grains come from within 10 miles.

Stauning’s three core whiskies arrive in the United States in early April. They include Stauning Rye, made with a small measure of malted barley, which reins in the peppery rye spice, allowing red berry notes to pop; Smoke, distilled from malted barley dried over local heather and peat; and Kaos, a blend of several house styles.

Australia: Down-under whiskey on the rise

As much as you might picture Scotland’s rocky, wind-battered island shores when you drink a peated Scotch whisky, David Vitale wants you to instead picture his hometown, Melbourne, when you drink Starward, which he founded there in 2007.

“We’ve got amazing wineries on our back doorstep, so it makes sense to use those wine barrels to give our whiskey a sense of place,” Vitale says. “I didn’t want to have a whiskey that’s an imitation of something from somewhere else.” Starward’s flagships are Two-Fold, a medley of single malt and wheat, and Nova single malt. Both are aged in fresh barrels Vitale sources from wineries making pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet. Australian red table wines offer accessible, vibrant fruitiness, but they’re also known for zesty baking spice notes, qualities that are picked up by the spirit as they absorb the wine that’s imbued in the oak. The result is whiskey that rings with ripe cherries and those baking spices. There’s a sweetness to them, but they’re not explicitly sweet.

Starward arrived in the United States in 2019 and remains the most widely available Australian product here. But it might be joined by more soon. Of the more than 200 distilleries in Australia, more than 35 are making whiskey, and the evolving industry promises creativity.

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Finland: Cold comforts

In 2017, on the centennial of Finland’s independence, the nation voted to establish rye bread as its national food. Rye grows abundantly in Finland because it’s hearty enough to endure the Arctic climate, so when Mikko Koskinen and four friends came up with the idea for Kyrö Distillery Co. (in a sauna, of course), they figured the only logical way to create a Finnish whiskey style is to use rye and only rye. Others, such as the Helsinki Distilling Co., are doing something similar.

“Rye carries a lot of meaning in Finland. It’s a reliable fallback in case of famine, and it’s really sturdy,” Koskinen said. “In Finland, we associate rye with stamina and grit and that memory of the mornings you were a child in winter and your parents made you drink your rye porridge. It’s the most Finnish of grain.” While they wanted to bring something new to the whiskey world, there was no need to disregard tried-and-true processes. To that end, while distilling 100 percent rye is a “new world” idea, malting the grain is an age-old practice. Kyrö also merges then and now by aging its whiskey in traditional ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry barrels as well as new American oak, relatively uncommon in Scandinavia and Europe. It can get complicated, but a spin through the company’s newly launched virtual tour of the distillery in Isokyrö, a 12th-century town, clarifies things.

Mexico: Paying homage to an ancestral crop

Hearing Ivan Saldaña explain that he makes whiskey in Jilotepec de Abasolo, about 60 miles north of Mexico City, is a little like listening to an Italian chef explain how he become a sushi master and opened a Japanese restaurant on the Amalfi coast. But the seafood is fresh and culinary process is respected in the Mediterranean, so it actually makes great sense. So it goes for Abasolo. The ancestral corn whiskey is a tantalizing outlier in the land of tequila and mezcal. Bourbon, which by law must be made in the United States, has long had the market cornered when it comes to corn distillates. But well before westward expansionists settled in Kentucky and started fermenting and distilling the abundant crop, generations of Mexicans were using it in their kitchens.

Saldaña tapped that legacy as he developed Abasolo, which launched in May and is made at Mexico’s only dedicated whiskey distillery. He experimented with 15 varieties of corn before deciding to use cacahuazintle (ka-ka-wha-SINT-lay). Marked by its particularly juicy kernels, its flavor has historically been prized when making masa, the flour used to prepare tortillas. Before the corn is mashed and fermented, it undergoes nixtamalization. The four-millennia-old process of cooking kernels in alkaline solution triggers change in protein and sugar content and intensifies sweetness. Then Saldaña, a chemist who holds his doctorate in the biochemistry of agave, ages his spirit for two years in bourbon barrels. That’s short enough that the wood doesn’t overtake the corn character, yielding a drink marked by earthy, buttery notes and muted sweetness.

“We wanted to figure out a process that truly honors Mexican corn, which has been culturally important here since before the Spaniards arrived,” Saldaña said.

Italy: Precision engineering the wild passion of Italians

Puni Distillery is located in the Val Venosta Valley, a lush expanse of the Italian Alps. Switzerland’s border is 6.5 miles to the west, and Austria is 15.5 miles to the north. Whiskies from the family-run distillery, the only facility in Italy devoted exclusively to whiskey-making, combine the analytical, precision-driven sensibilities its neighboring nations are known for with the fiery artistic passion that has historically defined Italian culture. And if anyone can give a whiskey bottle a walk on the couture side, it’s Italians, as Puni shows with its eye-catching bottles.

“We see it as similar to how beer production was in the medieval times throughout Germany,” said Jonas Ebensperger, who founded the distillery with his father in 2012. “Beer was always a very local product, always a very honest expression of the skills of local craftsmen and the ingredients available to them.”

Jonas puts a new-world spin on his whiskey by distilling a mash of malted barley, malted wheat and malted rye, which is a signature crop of the region. He uses traditional ex-bourbon casks to age the flagship Puni Gold and ex-Pedro Ximénez sherry barrels to make Sole. But Vina and Alba take on an Italian accent as they age in barrels once used for Sicilian Marsala, a fortified wine similar to sherry.

Israel: An ancient land inspires new ideas

Winemaking traditions in Israel date to biblical times, so it’s little wonder that when M&H Distillery (short for milk and honey) was founded in Tel Aviv in 2012, the team looked toward ancient culture for inspiration. They found it in the nation’s mountainous wine regions, from which they source barrels. M&H Classic, the main single malt, is made with whiskey aged in ex-bourbon barrels and red wine STRs, short for “shaved, toasted and recharred.” The nouveau process involves lightly shearing the inner surface layer of wood and toasting the barrel, thus imparting both the virgin wood’s tannic qualities and the wine’s fruitiness to the whiskey in subtle measure, giving the Classic a layered complexity of honey, malty vanilla, apricot and oak.

M&H’s inventive sensibility is made possible by Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean climate. The heat speeds up the aging process, which affords the distillers the ability to get results from experiments faster than if they were in a cooler climate without losing too much to evaporation — better known as “the angels’ share.” As a result, they’re regularly releasing intriguing expressions. Their Elements series includes whiskies aged in red wine barrels and sherry barrels specially prepared to be kosher. There’s even a peated style using Islay whisky casks. The more limited Apex releases (not available in the United States) include whiskies aged in pomegranate wine and rum casks.

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.

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