Stauning Whisky Distillery

We jet to West Jutland for a look at a one-of-a-kind distillery.

Denmark’s first single malt whisky was originally a fun hobby for nine friends with a let’s-see-what-happens approach, which is precisely the key to their success, as Karyn Noble discovers.

“It was awful,” says Mogens Vesterby, standing in his former butcher’s shop and pulling a face, while his son Lasse shows me around the meat-processing equipment that was used to produce the first rough expression of Stauning Whisky. “My father didn’t like whisky,” says Lasse. “He has changed about that now, but at that time he didn’t.” Mogens and Lasse are two of the nine co-founders of Denmark’s first whisky, which is produced here in the small village of Stauning (population: 356) in West Jutland. 

Precisely how they went from Googling ‘how is whisky made?’ in 2005 to being wooed by Distill Ventures, Diageo’s small-business investment accelerator) who invested £10 million in the project in 2015 to having Noma, the world’s best restaurant, delist all other whiskies in favour of theirs, is the stuff of fairy tales. Suffice it to say, no-one is manually pouring barley into Mogens’ remodelled meat grinder anymore.

Since 2018 a purpose-built distillery, just two kilometres from the old butchery in the village of Stauning, has been open to the public. It’s a feat of architectural awe. I stand outside it in the Danish drizzle with Lasse, admiring the six gabled barns that look a bit like Nordic display homes, lit up at night, so that drivers passing by can look inside at the whisky-making process. One of the design aims was to evoke the style of nearby fishers’ houses, using black charred wood, steel, concrete and huge glass windows. 

Morten Nymann from Aarhus-based LOOP Architects is a friend of one of the co-founders Alex Munch, or as Lasse Vesterby puts it “there’s always someone in the nine [co-founders] that knows someone who can help with something”. Morten began sketching loose ideas for the bespoke distillery many years ago. “After that, Alex came to me one Sunday afternoon and asked me to make a design that he could bring to Diageo,” says Morten over email. “In a few days!”

Stauning Distillery standing proud in the landscape

The distillery has won numerous design awards, most recently in October 2020 from the Danish Arts Foundation (funded by the Danish government), in its first- ever nod to Danish architecture, recognising its enrichment of the local environment and community as well as its form and function. 

Morten was keen to ensure the design melded with the landscape of Stauning, set amid vast flat fields. Indeed, my favourite view in the distillery is from the second floor of one of the barns: standing next to perfectly symmetrical rows of 24 small copper pot stills, with gabled windows at both ends of the building letting in light, and the glow of green fields visible in whichever direction I turn my head.

“It’s very Danish,” says Morten. “And poetic at the same time.” Lyrical, even. “We have some sound insulation in the roof,” says Lasse, luring me further along the rows of glowing pot stills. “So, the acoustics are rather nice; we had a concert here [Steffen Brandt, lead singer from Danish band TV-2, performed an intimate gig for 80 people within Stauning Distillery in October 2019]”.

Despite the initial ‘wow’ factor, the architectural aesthetics at the distillery play a supporting role to the real magic: a completely unique way of making whisky, which has been honed during a process that can only be described as trial and error. 

The Danish barley and rye are floor-malted using a grain-turning contraption they invented themselves (four of the co-founders are engineers), Danish peat and heather are sourced for the smoked whisky, and coppersmiths Abercrombie built all their direct-fired pot stills. “The knowledge of direct fire pot stills has kind of died out,” says Lasse. “So, they [Abercrombie] had a lot of questions [from us] that they couldn’t answer…so we got back to guessing, then best guessing, then just guessing. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we didn’t.”

Direct flame fired copper stills in the great hall

Curiosity and flexibility have been the hallmarks of their whisky success story. “If we had the mentality of ‘oh, this is going to be great, we’ve just got to start it up’, we are all going to be disappointed,” says Lasse. He spends a good hour or so outlining the many troubles that plagued the novice team during every step of the distilling process, and their inventive ways around them. 

From learning how not to burn the rye to discovering which faulty valve was occasionally letting waste products into the CIP system, even adjusting the inclination of the malting floor to avoid drowning the loose grain, their mixture of Danish perseverance, creative tinkering, and philosophical musing seemed to get them through the worst of times. “We just need to accept that’s how it is in a new distillery.”

Custom made malting machine operating at the distillery

Up until now, and particularly during the pandemic, most of the 20,000 annual visitors to the distillery have been Danes, as well as Germans who have summer houses on Stauning harbour. But with the release of Stauning Whisky into the UK and US markets in 2020 and 2021 respectively, as well as the hope of international travel prospects brightening post-Omicron, that may be all about to change. “We were kind of surprised that people saw this as a potential tourist attraction,” says Lasse. “Because that was not in the idea at all. We just wanted to make Danish whisky.”

By the time I’ve marvelled at the architecture, Lasse’s stories and had my distillery tour (including the hidden cocktail bar for the workers, located behind the barrels), the prospect of tasting the whisky is a tense moment. Could it possibly live up to my now overhyped expectations? 

In a cosy wooden-beamed tasting room, Lasse clinks out the bottles, which spans the core range (Stauning Rye Whisky, Stauning KAOS Triple Malt Whisky, Stauning Smoke Single Malt Whisky) as well as the Research Series (Stauning Curious, Stauning Bastard, Stauning El Clásico), which is more of an experimental playground for curious drinkers. 

Above all, the Stauning team are keen to identify Danish whisky as being different to any other, jumping aboard the ‘New Nordic’ emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and with a focus on flavour over age.

Stauning Smoke Single Malt

From the core range, I immediately reach past the two rye whiskies for the Stauning Smoke Single Malt, which could potentially be foolhardy, but such is my love of peated whiskies that I can never start elsewhere. 

It’s made from malted barley (no rye at all), with a wispy, sweet campfire smokiness of peat and local heather, reminding me of Islay whiskies, but gentler. It won a silver medal at the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, so it’s not just me who adores its complex maturation from four different casks, starting with first-fill bourbon casks, then first-fill Madeira casks, first-fill Jamaican rum casks and virgin American oak casks.

Stauning Whisky Research Series

Of the Research Series, I decide that Stauning El Clásico has my name all over it, because I’m also a vermouth fan, and this rye whisky is considered to be the first in the world finished in Spanish vermouth casks after its three years in virgin American oak. It’s intense and crisp and fruity, and also won its category in the 2021 World Whisky Awards. 

If you’re curious, the Stauning Curious is not whisky at all (yet), but a new make spirit that they liken to a grappa. The Stauning Bastard is a double-distilled rye aged for three years in toasted virgin American oak casks then 6 months in old mezcal casks. I catch a waft of its smokiness and can’t resist. It’s like a completely unique marriage of tobacco-like mezcal with sweet vanilla and malty molasses notes to round it out: smooth and more-ish. I’d be happy to adopt what they describe as their ‘elegant love child’ any time.

The only downside to Stauning Whisky, as far as I can see, is being able to get your hands on a bottle. “We still don’t have that much,” says Lasse. “And it’s a fine balance of using the right bottle in the right market.” With West Jutland restaurants also running out of the local drop during my visit, perhaps, like the Stauning team once did, you could book a table at Noma to try it. “How many people can do that?” says Lasse, allowing himself some uncharacteristic West Jutland gushing at the concept. “Especially at the world’s best restaurant: to order the whisky we have made ourself.” 

An easier option might be lingering a while in the distillery tasting room, and with tours starting again from January 2022 (pandemic willing), you can experience a Danish dram at the source.

For more on Stauning Whisky Distillery head to: Stauning Distillery // @StauningWhisky

By Karyn Noble

19 January 2022