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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Italian Stallion: Puni Italian Single Malt

The other day, I was asked if I was in to wine. Well, I like wine and I have a basic knowledge of some grape varieties, some producers and some vintages; but to be honest, I know a lot of people who have a far greater depth and breadth of knowledge than I on the subject.

A long time ago, when I first fell in love with whisky, it seemed that Scotch was a world which I could get to grips with more easily than, say, wine. Scotch whisky to me seemed like a triangle with three sections. At the base there is blended whisky; high volume and focused on consistency. The most FMCG part of whisky business, by a long way.

The middle of the triangle: single malts. Certain distilleries who bottle their own product, often with a range of easy-to-understand, age statement products growing in maturity throughout their range. Again, with consistency playing a major roll.

At the top of my pyramid, are single casks. These often come from distilleries who don’t normally release a single malt, or if they do, are in some way unique. Yet these are never about consistency; these are the ‘flair players’ in the team. Temperamental, inconsistent, but sometimes utterly brilliant.

This simplistic approach to one part of the whisk(e)y world seemed light years away from wine, where one side of the river differs to another, one vintage to the next, and on it goes. Throw in grape variety, the producer and production, the weather, bottle-aging and when to open and drink the product... oh, and then learn this all for every country that makes wine around the world and it makes understanding wine seem like particle physics, while understanding whisky? Well, more like lego.

But with whisky globally seeing a renaissance, once silent Scotch distilleries reopening, new ones coming on line all the time, all around the world (the President of the American Distilling Institute in the US tells us there are now over 550 craft distilleries in operation there, many making whiskey as well as gin and other spirits) and countries like Japan throwing down the gauntlet to the Scotch whisky industry in terms of sheer quality of spirit, the whole category has become a lot more complex in the past decade or so.

And it is this issue of quality which can only be a good thing for whisk(e)y across the world. Scotch, very much seen as a premium product in the category, cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Just because it is considered the home of whisky, where some would even say it was invented, is no excuse to kick back and ‘chillax’. After all, it was a Scotsman who invented the television. But would you buy a Scottish TV today? No. Would you buy a Japanese TV? Yes.

Whisk(e)y has grown and the world has embraced. New and exciting countries are producing whisky, which have never done so before and here am I am going to look at a new single malt distillery which is the first and only in its country: Italy.

When starting off with a blank page, with no history, no millstone of tradition, then why not do something different; this is exactly what the Epensberger family, the folk behind the Puni distillery in Northern Italy, have done.

From their jaw-dropping building, a 13-meter tall red brick cube, through to their two current products, a new make and a very young single malt (note the lack of the term ‘whisky’ here) matured in local wine casks which are stored in ex-military bunkers, the whole affair is unique.

These two releases, initially called simply ‘White’ and ‘Red’ and latterly renamed ‘Pure’ and ‘Alba’, are the only two products produced by the distillery, with the first being young spirit (6 months old) and the second being matured for twice as long in Marsala Vergine wine casks from Sicilly. Both products have been upped from their original strength of 40% to a new, higher strength of 43% abv and, unlike the ‘White’ and ‘Red’ which were only sold locally, these will both be available internationally.

The ‘Pure’ is a classic new make, with lovely vanilla, malts and honey, backed with a hint of fennel and fresh leather.

Puni Distillery – Alba – 6 months old - Marsala Vergine – Sample - 43% abv

Nose: No getting away from it, this is young and spirit (as you would expect at 6 months old), but it is not argressive in any way. The aromas are well balanced and soft, with a big hit of green apple sours, pear drops, young banana, some blackcurrants and croissants dusted with icing sugar. Right at the back sits peach melba and dream topping. Very inviting and very promising...

Palate: Again, no doubting the age of this, but the palate is full of flavour; the banana from the nose is back, this time with toffee and some elements of instant coffee. After the fruits, the palate develops a nutty quality with walnuts and hazelnut praline. Once again, you would expect something aggressive or unruly and energetic at this young age, but it is restrained and well balanced.

Finished: The finish is where the nutty quality lingers with the hazelnut praline giving taking the headline slot, before milk chocolate and cream finishes off.

Overall: Very tasty stuff at such an early age. Very much keeping an eye on this place...

As the world of whisky continues to grow, I’m sure many new distilleries will pop up in countries where we have never seen them before. But more power to these emerging producers, especially if their style is as effortless, and the product as drinkable as that of the good family Ebensperger at Puni distillery.