FROM SOURCE TO SUMMIT: SWITZERLAND’S WHISKY TRAIL
TEXT & PHOTOS: DANIEL COLE
When thinking of whisky and rugged mountainous terrain, Scotland is what normally first comes to mind. One distillery in Switzerland, however, is looking to change that perspective.
In the mountainous Appenzell district of Switzerland, just 30 kilometres south of Lake Constance, is a whisky hiking trail that winds and weaves its way through scenic Alpine terrain. It’s here in the foothills of the Alpstein mountain range, where Karl Locher has been distilling a mix of whisky blends to be sold in the mountain huts above. For hikers who love their whisky, it has created a unique opportunity to sample one-off blends while trekking from one summit to the next.
Locher’s family business has been responsible for brewing the local Appenzeller Beer for well over a hundred years, but it wasn’t until 1997 that they turned their hands to whisky after the Swiss government changed their laws surrounding the distillation of spirits. Säntis Malt Whisky, named after the highest peak in the Alpstein range, is made using the fresh spring water on its doorstep, and is a rare breed in the whisky world, distilled in old beer barrels, thus giving it a smooth, cured flavour.
One particular mountain hut proprietor took to the whisky so much, he wanted his own blend to sell as a treat for the weary hikers who completed the epic trek to his establishment. “Sepp Manser, owner of mountain restaurant Meglisalp, was a big Säntis Malt fan from the beginning and wanted his very own whisky barrel,” explains Locher’s sales manager Kuno Mock.
After the success of introducing a unique blend to the mountain market, Manser and Locher started to think about how they could take things to the next level. They decided to create 26 unique blends – one for each and every hut. Each whisky is not only differentiated though its flavour, aroma and colour, but the varying altitudes and temperatures at which the casks are stored, also provide the blends with their own individual characters.
In 2015, the Appenzell Whisky Trek was launched, connecting the 26 mountain huts with a unique whisky tasting experience. The series of pathways run from the beautiful restaurant that looks out across the valley floor at Seealpsee, past the iconic mountainside lodgings at Aescher on Ebenalp, on to the Santis summit, 2,502 metres above sea level. At each stop, the whisky trekker can experience a unique Säntis blend, exclusively available at each remote location.
From Appenzell, a direct train to the village of Wasserauen signals the start of most journeys. Here, a cable car traverses the Ebenalp peak, but for those travelling by foot, there’s a pathway to Seealpsee that careers up 200 metres of cow-filled pastures. From the comforting seats at the Berggasthaus perched on the lakeside, you can look out all the way up to the summit, and on a clear day, also see the Meglisalp restaurant peering out over the precipice into the valley.
Hiking to each lodge doesn’t come without its challenges. The 86 kilometres of trails encompass several peaks, rock faces and ridges. Hikers need to be well equipped, experienced in Alpine terrain, and check the difficulty of each route before venturing off. For those who do make it into this rocky wilderness, the landscape is rewarding enough, with fields of heather and wildflowers filled with Alpine cattle and goats. Ibex and marmots are usually not far behind, either. Small family-run dairies where you can find the renowned Appenzeller cheese are also littered throughout the hillsides.
For those who manage to collect all 26 100-millilitre whisky bottles, their toil will be rewarded with a traditional bespoke leather belt and buckle forged by the village’s long-serving craftsman Roger Dörig. Yet, reaching every single mountain hut to collect all 26 whisky bottles is no easy feat. So how many people have actually achieved this? “Hard to tell,” Mock answers frankly. “But since 2015, approximately 1,600 people have completed the trek fully, and approximately 65,000 100-millilitre bottles were sold.”
If a whisky-on-the-rocks type of experience isn’t your thing then a visit to the Säntis distillery – which forms part of the Locher Brewery – in the village of Appenzell, will provide ample refreshment for those looking to delve further into the world of Swiss malt liquor.
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