What position do German whiskies occupy on the international spirits market? What are German distillers really doing differently to their counterparts in Scotland? How will the single malt industry evolve in the years ahead? Mario Rudolf, managing director and master distiller at the St. Kilian Distillery in Rüdenau, which was founded in 2012, shares his views on these and other questions.
Mario Rudolf will be speaking during the ‘Hidden Champions of the Beverage Market’ lecture series at Forum BrauBeviale at 17:00 on Tuesday 12 November 2019. You can find more details here.
Mr Rudolf, for a long time German whisky tended to be scoffed at. Is it still a daring move for a German distillery to try its hand at single malts?
Definitely. Sadly, some people still disparage German whisky. At first, the problem was that, for a long time, consumers did not recognise German bottlings as whisky at all because their taste was not necessarily reminiscent of a typical Scotch. Even today, our German whisky is still graded against international standards. We are still struggling with the poor reputation that German whiskies have. But once consumers taste German whisky, they tend to change their mind.
You just rolled out your first bottling. What do you do differently to traditional whisky-making nations?
St. Kilian whiskies are special because we draw on influences from all over the world to create our very own unique character and taste. We have a traditional plant with two pot stills. Just like Scotch distilleries, we produce our whisky in stills with double distillation and redistill the heads and tails. That is something really special for Germany. But our traditional approach is blended with a love of experimentation. One case in point: we have been experimenting with a variety of malt mixtures, six different yeasts and have 166 variations of casks that we are currently using. And the numbers are rising. What’s more, we are working with seven different types of wood, whereas Scotch makers are only allowed to use oak casks. Other special technical features also allow us to have a huge influence on the characteristics of our distillate simply through distillation. This makes our set-up more flexible.
And what makes your whiskies special?
Our first bottling, ‘First Kilian’, was a traditional single malt matured in a cask previously used to make bourbon. But it was just a collector’s edition with 760 bottles and was actually not available over the counter. ‘Signature Edition One’ was a preview of what we can do. We have five types of casks holding whisky. These casks used to be filled with different spirits, including casks that once held cane juice rum, bourbon and Pedro Ximénez sherry. We also use special bourbon quarter casks and chestnut casks. It is this large number of types of casks and the various spirits that they previously held that make things so interesting. It allows us to introduce a certain amount of depth and complexity to our blend. For instance, chestnut casks helped us to add a gentle bitter note to our whisky.
New types of whisky are emerging right now amidst booming demand internationally. How do you think that the whisky industry will change in the years ahead and what role will German distillates play?
From an international perspective, there are signs of a consistent positive trend in the whisky business. China, in particular, is increasingly becoming a fascinating market. German whisky will certainly capture more attention in the future, too, because the quality is spot-on. The only problem is the lack of volume. That’s why Germany still has a virtually negligible presence on the global stage and will not reach the profile of other emerging whisky areas like Tasmania and Israel any time soon. But our goal is to gain a foothold around the globe. I think that we have the right size to get there.
How do you manage to gain an international foothold as a German distillery?
You need distribution. You are reliant on outside help because a number of laws do not exactly make it easy to sell abroad. Europe is interesting to us for starters. We are already well represented in Austria and Switzerland. France is an attractive whisky market for us with very high per capita consumption, and we are getting there in Scandinavia too.
In addition to whisky, St. Kilian also makes liqueurs. How important is it for a modern distillery to have this kind of portfolio?
A diversified portfolio is not essential to survive, but it is part of the deal and makes our brand more interesting as a whole. Diversity is always a good thing. But it is more important to create a ‘wow’ factor - experiences are the best way to make that happen. We want to create a kind of whisky Disneyland with our own visitor centre. Today, visitors can already go on a tour, browse our shop or taste 1,000 types of whisky from all over the world in our World Whisky Lounge. We have no shortage of ideas.
But people are drinking less and less alcohol in Germany.
That’s true. People might be drinking less alcohol, but I am convinced that there is still a whole lot of potential, especially for high-end spirits like whisky. People are more discerning about what they drink so they might just treat themselves to a bottle of fine single malt.
You claim that St. Kilian is Germany’s biggest distillery. How is that indicated and what are you planning to do next?
We have Germany’s biggest pot stills with a capacity of 6,000 litres so we make 185,000 litres of pure alcohol for single malts each year. This volume alone makes it easier for us to set ourselves apart from our competitors. We have enough capacity and a good pool of casks to create good-quality and varied whiskies. Whiskies that are aged for longer will also be the future of St. Kilian.
What opportunities do you think that a large comprehensive beverage fair like BrauBeviale offers for industry newcomers and established spirit makers?
BrauBeviale has continually evolved in the past few years. More and more suppliers related to distilling are also exhibiting. But whisky and beer go hand in hand anyway so mash and purification technology and fermentation processes are of interest. All stages of the process are represented and you can find suppliers for everything. That’s why it is really important for me to get inspired there.
You are speaking at the BrauBeviale Forum. What topics will you entertain visitors with?
The topic will be St. Kilian and its history. I’ll be talking less about the technical background and more about how you come to establish a distillery of this kind, what intentions are behind it and how you launch a project like this in the first place, for instance with respect to social media.