The whole scene along this whisky road trip is strangely familiar: historic castles and deer-filled forests, then rows of ploughed soil, golden barley fields, and the sweet scent of cereal grains.
But this isn’t somewhere in Scotland. Nor is it in Ireland or the United States. This is Brandenburg, a sparsely populated region in Germany surrounding Berlin. It is the most compact part of a seductive new whisky country that has upwards of 250 producers—almost twice as many as Scotland, yet with just a fraction of the visitors. Factor in an increasing emphasis on grain-to-glass provenance, and it’s evident that interest in German whisky is rocketing.
With five compelling distilleries all within a 96-kilometre radius of the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (which opened in October 2020), Brandenburg is a fruitful place to taste whisky. A circumnavigation of the German capital region promises new-found tradition and adventure in equal measure, with warehouses, whisky cellars, and sampling rooms.
“Distilling has been part of Brandenburg’s fabric for centuries,” says Cornelia Bohn, producer of Preußischer Whisky. “But this knowledge was lost during the Communist era when liquor production was controlled and limited to state-produced vodka. It’s amazing to think that whisky was an outlaw spirit, only available on the black market. So we’re catching up now.”
No manufacturer is doing more to put German whisky on the map than Bohn. Growing up behind the Berlin Wall in Soviet-occupied Uckermark in the former German Democratic Republic, she fell in love with the romance of whisky advertisements broadcast from uncensored West German TV channels. She took note of the smoky bars, the clinking glasses, the talk of exotic overseas adventures, and revered the banned liquor without ever having tasted it. For her, it represented the West, escape from behind the Iron Curtain, and freedom.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and Bohn crossed the unified German capital for the first time, one small shop caught her eye. “Everyone was gifted 100 Deutsche marks welcome money on arrival and my first instinct was to buy a bottle of whisky,” says Bohn, who was 24 at the time. “It was a Johnnie Walker, and it was the most amazing moment of my life.”
Now 31 years later, Bohn is one of Germany’s most respected whisky makers and one of the first women to open her own distillery. As Rumpelstiltskin spun gold from straw, she has turned a modest family inheritance into a label born from a teenage dream, producing Germany’s only organic single malt.
Here in the Uckermark region, grasslands tip into beech woods and pastures filled with black horses that, tradition dictates, are still used to pull carriages for village weddings and funerals. The Friesians are central to the local Slavic culture and, fittingly, Bohn’s stills are housed in red-brick stables. The Preußischer mascot, too, is a sleek colt sporting a pickelhaube, a spiked soldier’s helmet. (Preußischer translates to “Prussian.”)
Tales like this are everywhere in Brandenburg, hidden behind distillery doors and in the barley and rye fields. At Grumsiner Brennerei, the attitude towards whisky is to dig deeper into the past. Distillery owner Thomas Blätterlein is reviving ancient strains of forgotten grains.
One cereal is East Prussian eppweizen, an overlooked wheat used for his fruity, single-grain malt Mammoth. On the nose, the hay-gold spirit hints at caramel; the taste is floral and lightly spiced.
Less than 64 kilometres southeast of Berlin, former bartender Bastian Heuser founded Stork Club/Spreewald, Germany’s first rye whisky distillery, in the village of Schlepzig. Flour mills, witch’s-hat spires, and ramshackle farmsteads point to the town’s centuries-old heritage.
The distillery’s origins began with a road trip. In 2015, Heuser and co-owners Steffen Lohr and Sebastian Brack were looking for a particular cask to take back to Berlin. It turned out that the incumbent owner of one distillery they visited had no family and was looking for a successor.
“Serendipity,” recalls Heuser. “The absurdity is we went from wanting to buy just the one barrel to taking over an entire distillery.”
Behind its brick walls, the venue retains the cobbled courtyard, whisky barn, and garden built a century ago, but the brand’s hipster vibe is clearly here-and-now.
Ostensibly, what Stork Club offers the visitor is stunning whisky. But the distillery is cleverly engineered on the Spreewald canal network. An added thrill is discovering more than 200 intertwined waterways vibrant with wildlife, including 250 pairs of white storks that return each year to nest. A punting trip into the marshy meadows, where the crank of the mash tun fades to silence, comes highly recommended. At times, it is too easy to miss that the wilderness is in the thick of the largest rye-growing greenbelt in Europe.
“Most German distilleries look towards Scotland for inspiration,” Heuser says. “But we’re more drawn to whiskies made in the United States. It’s funny, really, because rye is part of Brandenburg’s history, but we’ve never wholly embraced it. Until now.”
Pull this thread and a whole other backstory unravels. Where Brandenburg rye really prevails is across the Atlantic in the stills of some of the largest distillers in the United States, including Kentucky’s Wild Turkey and Four Roses, both of which stockpile the region’s crop. It would be difficult, in fact, to overstate the impact of Germany’s distilling heritage on the U.S., with the roots of many distilleries on the American Whiskey Trail and Kentucky Bourbon Trail first sown by immigrants.
“It’s no great surprise Germans kickstarted the pre-Prohibition rye whisky industry in the 1800s because of what they learned back home,” says Dave Broom, author of the World Atlas of Whisky and a whisky writer for 30 years.
Pennsylvania’s Old Overholt, said to be America’s oldest continuously operating whisky brand, was founded by German Mennonite farmer Henry Oberholzer in 1810. Johannes Jakob Böhm moved to Kentucky to sell bourbon under the name Old Jake Beam (now better known as Jim Beam).
There are many other immigrant tales, too, including those of George Dickel, from Grünberg, Hesse, who came to Nashville in 1844; and the founders of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, maker of cult favourite Pappy Van Winkle. Predictably, after 13 years of Prohibition (1920–1933), many German distillers were forgotten, and today it is hard for whisky historians to tease out personal stories from romanticised brand mythologies.
The blurring of distinctions is common when appraising whisky, and this paradox is all too familiar to Tim Eggenstein of Old Sandhill Whisky, in the town of Bad Belzig, 88 kilometres southwest of Berlin. The distiller ages his single malt in virgin German, American, and French oak barrels, as well as scented sherry casks and barrique barrels from Bordeaux, accepting that everyone puts their own spin on a whisky’s story.
At Glina Distillery, 16 kilometres outside state capital Potsdam, distiller Michael Schultz is driven to create a rare rye-barley hybrid, using oak casks made by Brandenburg’s last remaining master cooper. This is whisky rendered in muted, earthy tones.
As a journey around Brandenburg makes clear, whisky is now part of life in Germany—at once looking backwards to a forgotten past and forwards to a more enterprising and fertile future.