“It’s easy to make whisky. But it’s hard to get it to taste good.”
That’s what someone said on a radio programme that Martin was listening to in his car one spring day in 2005, on his way to Langeland to enjoy a few pleasant days with his family.
The programme set Martin thinking: “Why is nobody making Danish single malt whisky?”.
When he got to Langeland, Martin shared his thoughts with his brother Lasse, and the very same afternoon they began phoning their friends to see whether they might be interested in producing single malt whisky in their spare time.
And it wasn’t hard to tempt their friends and acquaintances. So, a few weeks later, 13 people turned up for a meeting, where nine of us agreed to give the project a chance. Apart from Martin and Lasse, Simon, Rasmus, Alex, Henning, Hans, Jesper and Mogens were also ready to try a new hobby.
And that was the start of Stauning Whisky.
A motley crew
However, it wasn’t all that easy to start making whisky. We were – and still are – nine very different people. We are four engineers, a teacher, a chef, a butcher, a pilot and a doctor – but what we had in common was that none of us had any idea of how to make whisky, but the fact that we knew nothing about it was not going to stop us from trying.
The old abattoir
We started to read about whisky production and got clearer and clearer about what we wanted to create – our dream was to make something that tasted like a smoked Islay scotch whisky. At this point, Mogens, the butcher in the group, suggested that we could convert his old abattoir in Stauning in West Jutland into a mini-distillery.
So, in the autumn of 2005, we started to establish our own distillery in Mogens’ old abattoir. The money was tight, so the distillery was created with a lot of making-do. Among other things, this meant using the floor of the old cold store in the abattoir to revive the old Scottish production method of floor malting. At the same time, an old mincer was turned into a grain mill, the pickling vat was used for fermentation, and the smoke oven – which still smelt wonderfully of smoked bacon – was fed with grain instead of meat. We got the peat for the smoke oven from the nearby Klosterlund Museum, where they exhibit and work with peat as people have done in Denmark since the Iron Age.
But the heart of the distillery – the two small pot stills – we had to have specially made for us by a coppersmith in Spain.
The first drops
While we were converting the old abattoir into a mini-distillery, we also spent time obtaining a load of permits from the various authorities. The authorities were not really used to dealing with nine friends who wanted to produce whisky in their spare time, so we were chased all around the system. But after a good year’s work, we were ready.
One Friday afternoon in August 2006, Jesper, Rasmus, Alex and Lasse met in the abattoir to fire up our pot stills. The little abattoir was filled with both steam and expectancy, and the mood was almost euphoric when the first drops trickled out in the middle of the night and we could finally see – and of course, taste – the result of the many hours we had invested in our shared project.
The drops tasted better than expected, which raised our hopes even more.
The meeting with Jim Murray
As we refined our primitive production, we received an invitation in the autumn of 2006 to an anniversary event hosted by the Danish whisky importer Mac Y. Here we had the unique opportunity to invite the whisky reviewer Jim Murray, author of ‘Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible’, to taste our new spirit. Henning, Hans and Alex packed a few bottles and set off.
Jim Murray took his time tasting our samples, and for a few nerve-racking minutes he sat completely silent, before exclaiming: “What’s this you’ve made?”
We didn’t quite know what to say – did he like it? Jim Murray himself broke the silence and said the words that were to change everything for Stauning Whisky.
“This has real potential. It reminds me of Ardbeg from the 1970s,” he said, and went on:
“People who love smoked whisky would kill their own mothers to get their hands on a bottle like this. This could go on to be one of the best smoked whiskies in the world if you carry on like this.”
We could not have dreamt of a better comparison, or better feedback.
The meeting with Jim Murray boosted our self-confidence immensely. We realised that our planned production of 200 to 400 litres of whisky a year was way too low, and that the production facilities in the old abattoir were much too small. If Stauning Whisky was to be more than just a spare-time project for nine friends, now was the time to act.
We started writing business plans and looking for suitable premises in Stauning to handle production of 6,000 to 8,000 litres of whisky a year.
We also had a lot of meetings with various different banks, where we tried to persuade them to lend us money to increase production. But we found it hard to convince the bankers that it was sensible to lend money to a business where it takes at least three years before the product can be sold. At last, however, we managed it.
In new surroundings
In November 2007 we were finally able to purchase a farm a few kilometres outside Stauning. The property needed a thorough overhaul to be used as a whisky distillery, and we had to apply for various permits all over again. All nine of us also had day jobs alongside the whisky production, and we could only work at the distillery in our spare time – so we spent many evenings and weekends amid building dust and rubble creating the perfect distillery.
We wanted to do things in the same way we had done in the old abattoir – we wanted to focus on the task in hand instead of looking at how things were done in other distilleries. The spirit of discovery lives on at Stauning Whisky, and in the production process you can still see many examples of equipment we developed ourselves, from the grain-turning machine on the malting floor and the unique mash tub to the labelling machine, the key component of which was a roll of masking tape.
Amid the dust and rubble, our ambition grew: “We are going to make one of the world’s best whiskies.”
Six months later, in May 2009, production finally got under way again. Mogens was employed as master distiller, to look after day-to-day production, while the other eight shareholders helped more with administrative, creative and practical jobs. For example, we were the only whisky distillery to appear at whisky trade fairs without any whisky. But with our malted grain and a good story, we met with great interest in the project in Stauning.
The first barrels were filled, people started to buy certificates of ownership to secure one of the first bottles, and interest in Stauning Whisky began to grow steadily, which meant that we were able to start organising tours of the distillery.
The first bottles were drawn off in 2011. This was our ‘Young Rye’, which was an immediate success. And it was not long before our whisky began to appear in some of the most prestigious bars and restaurants in Denmark – including the best restaurant in the world, Noma, which has had our whisky on the menu ever since.
At 2:30 p.m. on 30 June 2012, we released the first bottles of single malt, as people exchanged their certificates for a bottle of ‘1st Edition’. The reviews were really good – not just in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible but also in various competitions and among our customers.
To keep up with the demand for our whisky, we took on Herluf to help Mogens, while Alex was appointed as managing director of Stauning Whisky in April 2013.
A surprising call
One summer’s day in 2013, Alex received a slightly surprising call from a company inviting us to a meeting in Copenhagen. At first we could not work out what sort of company it was, so it was with a degree of scepticism and reluctance that Alex packed the car with whisky and set off for the Danish capital.
It soon emerged that the meeting had been set up by Distill Ventures, who had been sent to the city by the world’s largest spirits producer, Diageo, with the aim of finding a distillery to invest in. They had looked at many distilleries around the world, and now they had their eyes on our little West Jutland operation.
The dream becomes reality
In December 2015, two years after the meeting in Copenhagen, we signed a contract with Diageo and Distill Ventures which meant that we could start the work of expanding Stauning Whisky.
At some point in the future, around 900,000 litres of Stauning Whisky will be produced each year. And although that is a huge amount compared to what we make today, things will still be done the Stauning way – without compromising on quality. It will simply mean we can let even more whisky enthusiasts taste our unique whiskies, all over the world.
Production will continue as it always has in Stauning – with floor malting, where the grain is turned with our home-made grain turners. We will go on using small pot stills – just 24 of them – and we will go on firing with a naked flame. These are key elements of a Stauning Whisky.