Our First Central European Whiskey Tasting! 4 Drams from Gemenc Distillery

Published on 15 December 2022 at 09:49

Ever tried a Central European whiskey from the land of pálinka? 

(HU-GEM - no.202)


A little while back, I got in touch with the three whiskey distilleries of Hungary (and yes, they spell it with an ‘e’ there). One replied, and we talked about ideas for tastings and working together in 2023. Very generously, Gemenc Distillery sent me some samples of their whiskey - the idea was all theirs!


Located in southern Hungary, Gemenc (which I think is pronounced ‘geh-mentz’ - apologies if not!) sits only 9-10km from the Danube. It's the first whiskey from Central Europe that we get to try and talk about in detail!


If you saw the video I put up yesterday, you’ll know those whiskies just arrived from the distillery. There were four bottles in a lovely wooden case - more than I expected. So Gemenc made a good first impression, but what about the whiskey itself? 


They’re all 48% ABV, which I quite like - diluted, but to a high standard strength rather than a low 40% (which can work well, but leaves some whiskies kind of anaemic and underpowered). They’re all a light straw colour, and I don’t think any of them are more than about 4YO - the exception is the 4+B which has a darker, bronze-y colour.


I looked up the product details on Gemenc’s website and chose an order for this little tasting. The expressions have names like serial codes - not a bad idea per se, though I would pick more distinctive numbers myself if I was going to do that. 

Let’s get tasting!

1. The 0046

Gemenc describes 0046 as their default, starting expression, so I took their advice and went with that first. It's a 3 YO Single Grain made with 60% corn and 40% barley. Gemenc have decided to describe all their whiskey as ‘single grain’, following Scotch whiskey naming conventions. They couldn’t call it a single malt under EU rules either, but they don’t have to add the term ‘single grain’ - that’s just their choice.



It takes a moment for the corn sweetness to come through… it’s citrusy, with an almost chalky mineral note. It reminds me of Teaninch or Glenglassaugh, if you want a Scotch comparison. There’s a little hint of red grape, which must be the European oak used for the barrels (I assume it's Hungarian specifically, but can’t be sure).



It has a decent body - thank you, 48% ABV - and at first it's a little sour, though not in a rough way. It's that citrus coming through with the corn sweetness, though that fades fairly quickly. While I would recommend this to a bourbon drinker, it's not the same - the lack of white oak cuts out the syrupy vanilla that you get in bourbon. The European oak used here really gives it a different dimension.



The citrus sharpness lingers, fading slowly and leaving you just with those darker fruits coming from the oak at the end. It's pretty subtle - I think an older version of this is going to be amazing when it becomes available. 



If you add water, the darker oak notes come to the front, and the it tastes more mealy, like dark brown bread with caraway seeds. All the citrus disappears. 


2. 0006-4

0006-4 (again, the names aren’t intuitive) is also described as a kind of starter expression - it's aged the same way, but this time the 40% barley is replaced with triticale, a wheat/rye hybrid grain. Both wheat and rye give more spicy, fragrant notes than barley tends to - think of a hefeweizen, if you’ve had one - so it’ll be interesting to see the differences here.



This does smell a little darker - I smelt strawberry after a moment. If you want a comparison again, this is more like a Glen Garioch or Glenturret. That mineral note is still there, but the citrus has switched to something darker.



That same body and corn sweetness are there, but overall there’s more heavy spice and grain flavours - cornflakes are my tasting note here



The finish is more drying now - you can taste the effects of the rye, or that side of the triticale anyway. I’d happily recommend this to a rye drinker 



The rye notes are stronger with water, and the darker aroma is almost like blackcurrant. However, I don’t think water improves the palate, so I wouldn’t recommend adding any.


3. 0006 - 4+B (RED)

This is maybe the most unusual of the 4 drams. RED is the result of taking the previous two whiskies, combining them and then finishing in Szekszárd red wine barrels. This is a red wine region area just north of the distillery, with the local wine coming from a mix of French grape varieties and a little local kadarka, which is apparently hard to grow due to its thin skin and late ripening.



Immediately, there’s a different depth, a red wine note that is dark and dry. It's not like port, sherry, or STR - much more a dark, amarone style. Not very sweet at all - think red grape skins and pomegranate seeds.



Drying, savoury, musty… it's not sweet any more! The sweetness still exists of course - the base is the same as the previous whiskies, made with plenty of corn - but now it's just holding back the bitter depths of the red wine. This is sophisticated, and certainly isn’t sweet - maybe I’d recommend it more for someone who finds a port cask too sweet?



The dry finish fades slowly, and only gets more savoury. It's almost meaty, with that same mineral note remaining at the end.



Water doesn't do much for the nose or the palate. The drying stays and the sweetness goes. You’d need to put this in a bourbon cask for some time if you wanted it to have the sweetness to work at a lower ABV. Don’t recommend adding water.


An older version of this would be interesting, but you’d need to balance those savoury notes from the wine if so!


4. 0306

Finally, the 0306 whiskey is made from a 2:1 ratio of corn and rye, before ageing for 3 years in Zemplén oak. For reference, Zemplén is a forest in NE Hungary, around the Tokaji wine region.



This has darker apple juice and tarte tatin notes, maybe with a light hint of marmalade? It's not overly strong. I think the nose is definitely the best thing about this dram. Coming back, I also got some nice brown bread aromas coming from it.



This is quite savoury, woody in an unfinished timber way without being particularly light. I think it's missing some roundness, some missing piece of maturation…



Nothing much to say here, unfortunately. No change from the palate, except maybe the marmalade flavour rounds out a little. It's not thin or bitter, but it doesn’t have the dry or sweet depths of the previous 3 drams. There’s just some puzzle piece missing!



Maybe darker marmalade notes come forward, but the palate generally becomes more bitter, so I wouldn’t recommend diluting this one.



This is a very interesting distillery, and there’s a shared core of distinctive flavour running through all 4 whiskies. Though they use an interesting variety of grains, everything has that 60-66% corn and European oak influence. That helps to create a throughline of sweetness, wholegrain aromas, and a mineral note which I personally quite like. 


It's great to find something unique which I would still happily recommend to bourbon, rye, or Scotch whisky drinkers. It's different for sure, but I think they would still easily relate it to things they like. 


I think these four whiskies will all benefit from further maturation, when the distillery is able to produce some older expressions. Gemenc just need to make sure some of their drier and heavier flavours (see drams 3 and 4) are balanced with more sweetness. At the moment, I wouldn’t recommend diluting those ones with any water. The core of their spirit is solid, it just needs careful attention to make sure it keeps improving in the long term. 


I guess you could say the same of any whiskey, but these have already got off to such a strong start - at only 3 years old! So they’re a great start, and hopefully a sign of more to come from these Hungarian distillers.


I’m planning on visiting the distillery in 2023 - there are trains from Budapest Kelenföld to Pörböly (literally down the street from the distillery) which only take 2-3hrs to get you clean across the country. I think there’s a great opportunity to do some tastings there and in Budapest, not to mention elsewhere in Europe.


What do you think of these whiskies? Would you like to see them in a EuroWhisky tasting pack, or try them alongside some others as part of a tasting? 


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