The First Whisky Distillery in Austria - Exploring Jasmin Haider’s Waldviertler Whiskies

Published on 1 May 2024 at 11:40

Note: this blog was published on 1st May, the Day of Austrian Whisky

On 15th April this year, I took a trip to Destillerie Farthofer, an Austrian distillery I have been dying to know more about since I first found them last year. You’ll hear more on them soon, but this blog is all about another Austrian distillery - Destillerie Haider.

You see, I didn’t just get to see one distillery - I got to meet the constituent members of the Austrian Whisky Association! And thanks to that meeting, I now have 7 whiskies from the first whiskymakers in Austria, ready to share with you. A little context first - or feel free to skip down to the tasting!

Among the distillers present, I got to meet Jasmin Haider-Stadler, the current head of the Austrian Whisky Association. While a mix of men and women were present at the meeting, it’s important to note that the 13 distillers pictured on the AWA website are all men, save for Haider herself. 

At time of writing, there are 37 distilleries making whisky in Austria (according to the EuroWhisky Map), but only 13 are members of the AWA. The organisation exists to create a distinct level of Austrian whisky, with its own internal guarantees adding a layer of extra rules.


Some of these re-tread Europe-wide laws, e.g., ageing in wooden barrels for at least three years, no added sugar or flavouring. This is likely because the AWA was founded in 2012, and so predates the latest European laws about whisky by 7 years - these rules weren’t necessarily redundant when the AWA got going!


Beyond that, they have these additional rules for AWA member distilleries: 

  1. All whisky produced, aged and bottled in Austria* 
  2. Whisky produced using ‘natural raw materials’ and ‘without genetically modified additives’**
  3. Violating these rules means exclusion from the AWA and a 10,000 Euro penalty


*You might think that’s an obvious one, but most countries don’t have anything more than generic consumer protections in this respect. Sure, you’d probably have issues producing a whisky in Belgium then suddenly bottling it in Austria and putting ‘Made in Austria’ on the label, but the term ‘Austrian Whisky’ (or ‘Österreichischer Whisky’) is not specifically protected in law. The AWA is essentially creating and enforcing its own extra standards in this respect.


**Not sure how exactly this is defined - and does GM grain fall under ‘additives’ or (as I believe it should) ‘natural raw materials’?

Destillerie Haider

The Haider family first produced whisky in 1995, and today the oldest bottling is 15 years old - a rare age for continental European whisky! The Haider distillery and ‘Whisky-Erlebniswelt’ (whisky world of experience) was the first to produce whisky in Austria, and lies about 15km from the Danube in Roggenreith, separated from the river by the Jauerling mountains and natural park. 


The diagram below (taken from their website) shows how Haider starts with rye whisky and works outwards from there!

All Haider whiskies are made with ‘local’ grain, peat, and oak. That ‘local’ doesn’t just mean Austrian. East of the distillery, around the River Kamp (the Kamptal), wineries source local common and sessile oak to make their own barrels. Haider clearly uses the same sources of oak, and their wine casks come from the same areas. While I can’t see the origins of all the barley, most of these ingredients seem to come from within 30km or so of the distillery - impressively ‘local’ by any distillery’s standards.


Released as ‘Waldviertler Whisky’, these drams come from two stills (approx. 500L each) with attached purifiers - they claim to distil four times over two distinct distillation processes. I think we’ll need a deeper dive into that in future!


The barrels are charred (toasting 4) before their first filling. After three years, they get a second filling. Six years later, Waldviertler barrels are re-charred and filled for a third time, for anywhere from eight to eighteen years.

The Tasting

Jasmin was kind enough to send me these whiskies after talking at the AWA meeting - so let’s run through them and see what we’ve got! Quick aside - I *love* these little bottles, with the cap that turns into a little cup!

1. Single Malt J.H. (100% malted barley - 41% - 6 years)

I thought it best to start with the JH single malt - the odd one out from a tasting dominated by rye. A light colour and low ABV, this whisky immediately greets you with a nose of European oak. Moreover, it's a slight sourness - I didn’t realise these whiskies were all aged in local Austrian oak when I was tasting them, but these aromas all make sense now that I know. 


If you’ve heard me talk about Scheibel Muehle and other German-oak aged whiskies, you’ll know it has similar notes. As far as I understand it, large pores in the oak allows for more oxidation, producing these darker, slightly sour aromas. But please, correct me if I’m wrong about the science there!

Anyway, this single malt has a woody nose, with some nuts and linseed. I find it a bit perfume-y, and you get a slight tingle on the palate. There’s sweetness, but it’s quite thin. The flavour is very consistent with the aromas on the nose, and the finish is smooth. Very hard to compare to Scotch single malts, but if I had to say, imagine a combo of Glen Deveron and Fettercairn - the acetone-sweetness of the former combined with the mustiness of the latter.

2. Original Rye (60% rye, 40% barley - 41% - 8 years)

Now, the original rye whisky - the original Waldviertler whisky! I like how the first impression is immediately different from other ryes: fruity, but distinct. Yes, it’s a rye alright - but there’s butter, orange, and toffee on the nose. Those last 2 are their notes, not mine. With that inspiration, I’d say it smells like an orange polenta cake with caramel


The palate has a touch of bitterness again, but more rye grain flavour comes through. The finish grows warmer and richer rather than fading, and that rye grain flavour is what lingers. Not so spicy as many ryes, a smooth body. Overall, recognisably rye but with a welcome unique edge.

3. Rare Original Rye (60% rye, 40% barley - 46% - 8 years)

Finished in local sweet wine - Grüner Veltliner, Trockenbeeren-Auslese

Wow - this immediately has a pear-apple-banana balance of sweetness on the nose which screams Speyside malt to me. I know this is a rye, with the same mashbill as the last dram, but the smell is pure, classic essence of Speyside


On the palate, it’s slightly drying, but with a similarly solid body to the Original Rye. However, within seconds, it shifts back and forward, from sweet fruit to rye grain. The oak lingers, and the rye comes back a little more on the finish - now mixed with a creaminess, like the buttery pastry on the crust of a good savoury pie


You would almost think this was sherry-finished single malt, save for the rye aromas - this one made me say wow a few times! And the white wine finish is no doubt part of that, it's a rare and expensive sweet wine.


So far, I’m wondering what CS versions of these will be like…

the other four whiskies are all rye malts, so let’s see what that does!

4. Rye Malt (100% malted rye - 41% - 6 years)

Ooh, suddenly the rye has this wine-like mineral note?! The difference is immediate. 100% rye malt is rare enough, but as far as I know, no other distillery lets you compare rye-barley blend and pre rye malt whiskies so directly. Honestly, this smells like white wine, with a slight sweet varnish smell that almost tricked me into thinking of Kyro again. However, it's a gentler smell, less aggressive than its punchy Finnish counterpart.


I agree with the suggested tasting notes of green apple and gooseberry - think these are instructive, and align well with what I’m experiencing. The website suggests green banana - I guess that would match the nose well, but its a strange note for me because I hate green bananas. Keep them away from me until they’re covered in brown spots, then we’re talking!


The body is heavier, the finish is darker… it's like the whole thing starts off thin and sharp, and just gets broader as you taste it. Like a pyramid, if that makes sense? The lingering taste is like nutmeg and a fat hit of caramel, only not that sweet…

5. Dark Rye Malt (100% dark malted rye - 41% - 8 years)

Haider calls this ‘a whiskey that is unique in the world’, and I’m inclined to believe them! Dark malt in a whisky, like Glenmorangie Signet? Very, very rare. 100% rye malt? Very rare. 100% dark rye malt?! Unheard of!


They claim this dark roasted rye creates ‘nut, nougat, and chocolate’ flavours while preserving the spiciness of rye. To me, it smells like dark roasted nuts and German oak. This whisky tastes like chewing on rye malt, an experience I’ve now had in a few different distilleries. But the finish - the finish adds an extra layer, a kind of bubblegum-floral sweetness you would never expect!


Honestly, the nose is not for me, but the palate is truly unique. And the more I tried it, the longer I stayed with it, the more I liked it. Returning to nose the dram after tasting, a little green apple and toasted rye bread emerged. Some of the suggested tasting notes work for me, mainly date jam (as dates aren’t truly that sweet) and a sort of seaweed edge. Tobacco, sure, but I’d have to substitute ‘caramelised walnuts’ for just ‘walnuts’.


Overall, the finish is enchanting, and it worked on me over time - it’s like watching people turn around on their thoughts about Kyro at tastings.

6. Rare Dark Rye Malt (100% dark rye malt - 46% - 8 years)

Full ageing in Pinot Noir cask (from the Schloss Gobelsburg winery)

Here, the nose is more sour and I don’t find any pinot noir notes. There’s some plum, maybe, and it’s complex for sure. Not as sweet or friendly as the previous drams, however, which could already be quite dark or savoury. But the more you smell this dram, the more it shifts, and some kind of sweetness emerges…?


The palate has rich and warming coffee notes. Still, it’s unmistakabley Germanic in terms of the oak. You’d never mistake this for a Scottish whisky in style. For me, this one didn’t really build on the regular Dark Rye Malt. It just adds more darkness, to the point I can’t pull much out of it.

7. Dark Rye Malt Peated (100% dark roasted rye malt ‘roasted a second time with local peat’ - 46% - 7 years)

Finished in sweet wine casks

The peat makes itself known immediately, with a specific kind of musty peat that reminds me of carpets, more than wood smoke or super maritime. That probably doesn’t sound enticing, but people describe Ledaig as rubbery or fishy, and they love that!


The peat seems to have lightened the dark rye malt, maybe to the point of slightly overriding it. ‘Clear’ is the main descriptor for me. The palate really shows off how different this peat is, unlike anything in Scotland


Of their suggested tasting notes, I mostly identify with ‘lavender honey’ - the light and clear medicinal quality matches lavender well. For the palate, I can see mint, coconut, funky rum (but not sultanas or red berries). It’s sweeter than you might expect, though that drops away on the finish. 


After meditating on the unique floral-medicinal note in this peat, I finally get a eureka moment - it's coriander! Or cilantro, to specify that I mean the leaves and not seeds. It was hard to find because I’ve never experienced this in a whisky. Strange, but good - I think peat freaks need to try this and see what they think!

Overall, this made me want to try some of the cask strength Waldviertler bottlings! All these whiskies were very ‘standard’ strengths of 41-46%. I think I appreciate the simpler whiskies on this list more, and I appreciate a sweeter whisky in general. Some of these whiskies take a little time to get into - their complexity and dark aromas aren’t as ‘friendly’ as some others. The rare dark rye was my least favourite in this respect.


The single malt is solid, if not strikingly unique. The original rye was very good, and the rare version even better. Sweet wine finish really helps to lift the Austrian oak - for me, I think that really brings the best out of it. The regular rye malt was also intriguing, with the dark version adding flavours I’ve never found in a whisky before! Austrian peat is also unique, and I think it can really work for those looking to explore beyond classic Scottish peated drams. 

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