Spot the Difference: The 8 Types of European Whisky Distillery

Published on 22 June 2023 at 09:49

A little bit of fun...

The more you look at different European distilleries, the more you notice patterns. While no two whiskies are the same, that doesn't mean you don’t notice some similarities - some types of distillery emerging. This blog is a pretty light-hearted attempt to start exploring these different types, which could become more codified in future. 


This is also a way to compare continental European whiskies to those in Scotland, which focuses on regions to break up its own wide range of distilleries. Only a few could be described as ‘urban’ (Auchentoshan, Holyrood) or particularly small (Edradour, 8 Doors), and most of these are very new. Distilleries elsewhere in Europe generally vary more widely, occupying many more niches depending on location, history, and any other products they might make.






1. Scotch-outside-Scotland


I should explain what this term really means: some might think this is an insulting label. 


Some distilleries explicitly state that they are inspired by Scotch whisky, and are directly drawing on that tradition. They make double distilled single malts, aged in bourbon and/or sherry. Many of the first whisky distilleries in other countries besides Scotland (or the first of any size, at least) have understandably gone down the route of *largely* replicating a Scotch whisky distillery, e.g., PUNI in Italy or Mackmyra in Sweden.  


Before you shout at me, I’m not saying these distilleries are unoriginal/uninventive, or that they are the same as each other. PUNI has an almost brutalist aesthetic and method of maturation unseen anywhere in Scotland. Mackmyra is a gravity distillery, using smoked grains and unique cask finishes. 


Some see the idea of replicating Scotch whisky making as something that inherently doesn’t work - others like many traits of Scotch whisky, and want to directly replicate them in their own countries. Look at Notch in the USA. This type of distillery exists across a range. Some just claim a general inspiration: other distilleries import peated malt from Scotland or use Forsyths stills to further repeat the Scottish whisky making approach. Only you can decide if you like these distilleries or not! 


2. Schnapps/Grappa/Brandy with Whisky on the Side 


While you see these everywhere in Europe, the exact form varies based on locality/nationality. Most of these distilleries are long-running, multi-generational family concerns. They make a wide, sometimes staggering range of products, centred on grapes and/or stone fruit. Brennerei Henrich (where we went in December 2022) is a good example in Germany, as is Poli in Italy. 


It's not uncommon for this to mean that these distilleries produce very little whisky overall. Sometimes, their whisky is still high quality, and treated as its own distinct product: again, Henrich’s Gilors is a good example. Others, drinkable or otherwise, are essentially afterthoughts of a larger spirits operation. If a distillery spends 95% of its time producing a great brandy or wine, their whisky might understandably not be so groundbreaking. 


In either case, many of these distilleries are interesting for making such unique products - if you want a dram that your friends have never heard of, find a good one from one of these distilleries!


3. Farm/Estate Distillery 


These distilleries are located, as the name suggests, on farms where they can grow their own grain and create a dram which is local right from the outset. Scotland and Ireland now have Kilchoman and Waterford as respective examples of this type, and there will soon be Welsh and Manx farm whiskies from Into the Welsh Wind and Fynoderee respectively.


Farm distilleries seem to be more common in continental Europe, and this is likely because more distilleries on the continent are multi-functional. This type of distillery often overlaps with the schnapps/brandy type (no. 2), as many of these distilleries grow their own grapes/fruit. 


Prominent examples include Thy Distillery in Denmark, which boasts that it is ‘100% organic and family owned’. Rozelieures in eastern France is a farm distillery and maltings which makes some expressions based on which field the barley came from! We’ll also be visiting a German farm distillery - Hinrichsens - in early March.


4. Brewery-Distillery


Britain and Ireland have almost none of these. As far as I can tell, Uile Bheist will be unique in Scotland when it opens. The Belgian Het Anker is a good example, making Gouden Carolus beer and whisky of the same name. Uerige in Dusseldorf also does this, and easily fits the mould of an urban distillery too. Even so, these are comparatively rare.


Technically, all whisky distilleries make ‘beer’ - the wash they will distil is simply a high-alcohol beer, not designed for drinking as is. The fact that brewing and distilling overlap so heavily creates the potential for a lot of great products. It certainly gives distilleries a source of income while waiting for whisky to mature, and they can provide something to many visitors/customers who aren’t whisky fans. 


5. “We Have A Thing”


Some distilleries just don’t fit any of the tropes above. These whisky-makers manage to avoid any other classification - instead, they have A Thing. All distilleries have a distinct brand to some extent, but these ones have a USP which is a first in the industry, an unimitated practice, or just a gimmick they lean into so hard that you have to respect it.


Scotland has this dynamic too. For example, Auchentoshan stands out as ‘the one Scottish distillery known for triple distilling everything’. That’s not to say they make a bad product - but it's still a clear example of We Have A Thing. In Ireland, Connemara also stands out as being The One Peated Irish whiskey (even though it's not the only thing that Cooley makes).


One great example is Distillerie des Menhirs. While buckwheat has long been associated with Brittany, this distillery has made its use for whisky-making into Their Whole Thing. They aren’t the only ones doing this - Naguelann, for example, make some - but the idea of buckwheat whisky is fully identified with the Eddu brand. I mean, ‘Eddu’ means buckwheat - literally ‘black grain’ - in Breton. Crucially, this whisky is really good, and Eddu comes in several different expressions.


6. Industrial Estates

7. Whisky-Hipsters (often overlaps with no.6)

8. Urban Distilleries (often overlaps with no.s 6 and 7)


It makes some sense that these things go together - if you’re a hipster distillery, you want to be in a hipster area. Run-down factory? Perfect. Industrial estate? It’ll do the job. These are often very small outfits, making whisky which is as experimental as it is expensive.


Of course, not every urban distillery could be described as ‘hipster’, nor are they all located on industrial estates. Moreover, many industrial estates are on the edge of the countryside (Glendalough). You’ll often see variations of these 3 types in large cities, e.g., La Distillerie de Paris, Dresdner Whisky Manufaktur, and Copenhagen Distillery (where we’ll be going very soon!).


I’m also teasing some of these distilleries, to be honest: this is 3 generalisations rolled into one. Sometimes, it can be a bit jarring to see a beautifully presented artisanal product with flawless copy about the land and origins of their ingredients… which ends up being made in a distillery that looks like a garage (and probably sits next to one). 


Thankfully, that kind of thing is pretty rare, and you can still get great whisky out of an unassuming building. If anything these distilleries are more a lesson to not judge a book by its cover!


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