Everyone knows about the importance of the water source when it comes to making Whisky. If you’ve read my article ‘Whisky battle – Laphroaig vs Lagavulin’ you’ll know the efforts these distilleries go to ensure the purity of their water supply. Even the word Whisky comes from Scottish Gaelic ‘uisge’ meaning water. But during my research on the new city-centre distilleries, I’ve learned not everyone feels so strongly about their water source. These guys trust their precious production to tap water! Yes, believe it or not – straight from the tap into Whisky…
In August I had the opportunity to visit a new distillery in the heart of Helsinki. The Helsinki Distilling Company is producing gin, which is currently in high demand within Finland. However, the main spirit is their Rye Whisky, which will be ready in autumn 2017. It is very common for Whisky distilleries to produce fairly successful gin whilst the Whisky is ageing the obligatory minimum of three years. The distillery is part of Teurastamo – an old slaughter house smack-bang in the centre of Helsinki, which is constantly renewing and always full of bustle. What used to be the wholesale meat market is now home to busy restaurants, bars and the distillery. The courtyard has an urban feel and is designed for the community to share. Anyone can arrange their own pop-up events or BBQs , and they’ve even kept the butcher’s underground sauna for everyone to use (it is Finland, after all, and nothing beats a sauna). The roughness of the slaughter house and the redbrick buildings has been left largely unchanged over the years.
Such an upcoming area is a perfect place for a new modern distillery. Due to the Finnish alcohol laws, they are unable to arrange tastings or give samples during the distillery tours. However, it doesn’t really matter as the bars at Teurastamo all serve products from the distillery, including Applejack (spirit made from Finnish apples), Helsinki Dry Gin, Lonkero (gin with pink grapefruit soda – yum!) and hopefully in the future their Rye Whisky.
Lonkero is the most sold alcoholic drink in Finland so it is a no-brainer for this new gin producer to supply their own modern take on the popular drink. Helsinki Dry Gin is served with grapefruit and lingonberries, it has nine botanicals altogether and the unique taste comes from Finnish lingonberries, Balkan juniper and Seville orange and lemon peels. Each bottle is uniquely numbered and signed by the Master Distiller.
They have two versions of Rye Whisky: one a mixture of Finnish rye (70%) and barley (30%) and one using rye only. They use water from Lake Päijänne, the same lake that supplies tap water around the Helsinki area. And yes indeed they take the water directly from the tap. Surely the quality of the water can’t be that bad since the new-make spirit has already won gold at Helsinki Uisge Whisky Festival and Berlin’s Craft Spirit Festival? New-make spirit is the clear unaged liquid that comes off the still during production and is often the starting point of a great Whisky.
The consistency of the water supply still has to be open to question, however, and what would happen, for example, if the authorities suddenly decided to add chlorine to their water? Where would the Whisky production be then? At first I thought it was just an exception, unique to Finland perhaps. But when researching Scottish Whisky I came across the Glasgow Distillery Company and I could not have been more surprised when I found out they are doing the same – Whisky from tap water!
The Glasgow Distillery takes its name from Glasgow’s original distillery, founded at Dundashill in 1770. The new distillery is located in Hillington Business Park, just minutes outside the city. The Glasgow Distillery’s main focus is their single malt Whisky. However, they are also very proud of being the first ever gin distillery in Glasgow. The Makar Gin has already proved its worth on the gin market and it has been exported to several other countries, including the US, Germany, Italy, Dubai, Denmark and France. Makar is an old-school juniper-focused gin and works well with tonic served with jalapeno peppers – the gin has a slight spiciness even when served on its own. A small number of Whisky lovers were invited to join the Glasgow Distillery Company’s 1770 Club, giving them the option to buy a limited number of casks before the Whisky is made (asking them to trust the tap water Whisky is worth the money).
Both distilleries have a similar story: the first distillery in the city for over 100 years, now making successful gin whilst they wait for the Whisky to be mature enough for sale. The Glasgow Distillery uses water from Loch Katrine, the same source as the original distillery used back in the 1770s. As both of these distilleries are fairly small, the production of the Whisky (and gin) will get the best care and attention possible from the distillers, and they claim therefore the water doesn’t play such a significant part when making the spirits. I remain sceptical, however.
There are over 31,000 lochs in Scotland, and Finland is known as the land of a thousand lakes (an understatement as it actually has 187,888!) so I guess there are no better countries to produce Whisky from tap water than these two. The water and its mineral levels are tested at the beginning of production, but as the tap water is very clean and fresh, nothing is changed or adjusted after it has been taken through the water pipes. The main focus is to let the yeast do its job, and later on the casks add some extra flavour. Personally, after living in England it is hard to imagine anything good coming from the taps. However, in both Finland and Scotland the water is clean and tasteless, which is considered a great positive. It is still hard to believe, though.
It is different, for example, in the Islay distilleries, where the peatiness is one of the main characteristics of their Whisky, in which case the water source really matters. In some areas the water runs through the peat fields straight to the distilleries, adding distinct peat and grass flavours to the final product. Similarly, in the Highlands their water is high in minerals due to running through red sandstone and limestone, which again makes a difference in the taste of their Whiskies.
Sum and Substance
Times are changing and so is distilling. It might be harder to get our heads around using tap water for making Whisky because we have been led to believe the purity of the water source is everything when it comes to the epic drink. Even the Japanese have been following the success of Scottish Whisky and spending a lot of money and resources in copying their secrets by protecting every ingredient and using unique water sources. Back in the day, Whisky distilleries used to sell small bottles of water from their water source to their customers to add to their drams to provide the best drinking experience possible. Could it be so easy in this day and age that the water coming from your tap is good enough to make a great Whisky? As we can see from the success of the gin and new-make spirit these distilleries are producing, they must be confident in their waters. But does the Whisky make the grade? – I guess we’ll need to wait and see!