Strada Ferrata: Smoked Malt and Whiskies On-The-Way to Milan

Published on 5 July 2024 at 08:30

Strada Ferrata means ‘railway’, and I needed a fair few of those to get here. The last one went from Milano Centrale to Seregno, a town forming part of the greater Milan suburbs. The name actually comes from an adjoining brewery, but the head distiller Marco tells me that it not only sounds good - the name implies a path to follow.


I got to see this distillery in beautiful mid-April weather. The building is a hive of activity, both form the distillers and from contractors. Ongoing works were enlarging fermentation facilities and saving water at the time. It was great to meet the team, including Marco, Andrea, and Barbara.

What is Strada Ferrata about?

‘What can be our signature?’, Marco asked. From my international perspective, ‘Italian whisky’ and ‘PUNI’ are often seen as synonymous terms. Marco says that PUNI has a ‘Scottish engine’ at its heart. Strada Ferrata, on the other hand, was inspired by the USA model of craft distilling which has exploded there over the last generation


Moving away from comparisons to Scotch whisky, and to PUNI in the process, Strada has a blank page open in front of them. They want Italian whisky to be recognisable, to have a community: to have a style. After all, they don’t want some other Italian whisky to be poor quality and look bad themselves by association. I love how they talk about their ideas - passionate but not fake, genuine idealism untainted by marketing-speak. 

One key focus at Strada is their focus on fermentation. Marco once attended a whisky tasting course led by Whisky Club Italia, where one thing stood out to him: the maxim that the barrel matters most in creating a whisky’s flavour, not the grain. That’s where Strada is different - they really zero in on grain and yeast as foundations of a whisky’s flavour.


This approach led Strada to experiment with less traditional yeasts, like saisons instead of high-efficiency M1. They ran tests, in which Andrea noted that every malt made a different white spirit. ‘A good new make in the barrel’, he says, ‘guarantees a good whisky. But the best new make in the best barrel? There you go.’

Unsurprisingly, Strada uses long fermentations of 7 to 10 days to encourage more diverse flavour development. They use three kinds of malt: Munich/Monaco, grown in the southern Italian region of Basilicata; peated malt from Scotland; ‘Rauch’ malt from Bamberg, smoked over faggio (beechwood). When I visited, Strada were on the verge of a meeting with Italian malters to hopefully produce this grain in Italy too, a particularly exciting step as this ‘rauch’ malt forms the basis for their key whisky.

Looking around, I could see a hundred casks, but they also have a new warehouse for further storage just outside Seregno. The first casks at Strada were filled back in 2021, and since then they have used many types in line with their generally experimental approach. Sour beers, bourbon, wines (including Trentino passito), marsala (coming soon) and other types of wood like new Acacia barrels. 


The whole Strada approach involves 'trying to realise art in the most rational way', Marco says. The different barrels drive him to realise an artistic vision along rational, material lines. 


While Strada is keen to explore other locally available grains, they are starting streamlined with just a single malt - probably for the best. I was surprised to hear that beech-smoked malt was planned to be the heart of Strada Ferrata whiskies. Danish distilleries like Thy are what I would usually associate with that; I don’t associate smoked foods with Italian cuisine (for example). 


However, the Strada team put me straight on that. Northern Italy sees speck, but also in the south there are many smoked cheeses. You’ve likely heard of scamorza, for example, which comes from Calabria and Apulia. Smoke is more traditional in Italy than you might think.

The rauch malt supposedly leaves unique aromas in the resulting glass of spirit, reminding drinkers of peat but with a sweeter, rounder edge. These new dimensions, Marco says, have interacted well with the various casks they have explored: he thinks the results are more complex than the Monaco.

The Details

  • 1000L steam heated hybrid still
  • Single distillation, producing approx. 85% ABV new make
  • 3 plates used for distilling Monaco malt, 2 for the Affumicato / Torbato
  • 2 distillations per day (following ongoing upgrades)
  • 1000L new make (approx. 5 casks) per week (ditto)


First, I get to try the On The Way - Monaco. At a near-cask strength of 58.1% ABV, this had nice fruitiness and oak on the nose. Cereal notes and a little honey, plus an edge which reminded me of worm tub drams like Craigellachie*.

*Marco later confirmed to me that they do in fact use a worm tub condenser here, so I felt suitably smug about this tasting note reading it back.

On the Monaco’s palate, you get a nice hit of sweetness, caramel specifically. Marco explains that this makes sense when you consider that Munich malt is often used to produce red beers. I can’t help but be influenced by that, seeing as I really like a red ale on occasion. Try a Brains Rev James or Rye River Red if you’re ever in Wales or Ireland respectively. 


With the rich malty sweetness, you’d never guess this was so young. At 46%, maybe it would lose that richness, but honestly? This blew me away in the moment. This not-yet-whisky was aged in three separate casks which were then married together: passito casks (making up about 60% of the total, ageing for 19 months), Woodford Reserve ex-bourbon casks (14 months), and sour beer casks (26 months). Unbelievable flavour from spirit whose oldest component is just over two years, and whose youngest is just over one. I wish it was legally whisky already!

When you add water, more light, heady notes of lemon and grain come out. The sweetness does in fact stick around. While the dram gets much spicier, everything still works well together. While they don’t ferment this whisky like a sour beer, Andrea explains that the saison yeast and sour beer cask combine to contribute a similar spice and sharpness.

It’s not like these casks are left to bake in Italian summer heat as some kind of ageing shortcut. Temperatures around the casks at Strada range between 5 and 30C. That’s much more than most Scottish distilleries but nothing extreme or unheard of. The exact angels’ share at Strada isn’t obvious, but it's likely 3 to 4%. Again, that’s high for Scotland but very reasonable in context. They will only know the exact figure when they fully empty barrels for the first true whisky released from Strada. 

Next, the Affumicato. At 50.2%, this is a younger batch combining passito casks (14 months), ex-bourbon (15), and acacia (5). Marco claims this dram is ‘really green’, and I can see what he means immediately. The smoke is so subtle and herbaceous, still sweet. I can smell cucumber, and the dram has a silky mouthfeel distinct from the Monaco. 


More than anything else I’ve ever tried, this has a very subtle smoke. You can only smell it after tasting the whisky, and getting the aroma from both sides of your nose. It has none of the earthiness you associate with beech smoke in, for example, a Thy single malt. Apparently, the sweet acacia cask is dialled back as it only contributed 1% of the final malt to this recipe. The plan was 10%, but it was such a strong flavour that Strada immediately dialled it back upon testing.

The third dram I get to try is called Torbato. This 53% not-whisky comes from ex-Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve casks (15 months), but also includes passito (14 months) and bourbon (20 months).While this dram lacks any acacia cask ageing, it remains powerfully sweet on the nose. Icing sugar, but also a little creamy smelling


The malt used here is apparently peated as high as 80ppm, but Marco quickly notes that Strada does not capture all those phenols with their distillation setup. In contrast to the last two drams, this one is very drying on the palate. Torbato has a bite which the Monaco and Affumicato lack. 


I would have said this was a mark of the spirit being young and raw, but the sweetness is so persistent on the finish that it doesn’t feel rough. The peat and sweetness match. Is Torbato as sophisticated as it could be? Has it hit its maximum potential? No, of course not - but it’s an incredibly promising start.

There’s always a catch, no whisky is perfect - so what’s the issue at Strada? My only concern is that the whisky is so good at such a young age - when it’s not even whisky yet! - that it is probably vulnerable to over-ageing. Will this just be like drinking wood soup when it’s 8 years old? Strada will need to keep an eye on these malts closely as they age.


Marco claims there are Wyoming Whiskey barrels full of peated spirit ageing at Strada right now which are, he says, going to be incredible… keep your eyes out for those in the future!


The first whisky should be released in 2025, depending on the results of cask testing and the ongoing distillery upgrade. Not that many barrels were filled in 2021, so bear that in mind when you’re impatient to try this whisky!


And as a final bonus, I got to taste some more young malt spirit... from a distillery I have strong connections to!

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