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Single minded

Cars, beer, sausages, washing machines – you name it, the Germans make it.

Now they're turning their hand to something distinctly un-German, something quintessentially Scottish: single malt whisky. It's just four days to Burns night and, while the Bard might well be turning in his grave at the very thought, for a growing breed of German distillers taking the Scots on at their own game is a serious matter.

"Whisky is the leitmotif running through my life. I have found my pure passion," says Cornelia Bohn with evangelical zeal.

In 2009 pharmaceutical engineer Bohn, 45, bought and renovated a ramshackle 160-year-old stable in the east German village of Schonermark, set in the rolling Uckermark countryside, about an hour's drive north of Berlin.

Inside the Preussiche (Prussian) Whisky Distillery, winter sunshine pours through the vast floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the exposed red-brick walls. With its series of sculptures by a local artist, the old stable could now pass for a small art gallery were it not for the luminous copper still which dominates the back wall of the stable, and the sharp whiff of yeast from a gurgling whisky mash vat in the corner.

The stately-looking still may have cost the same as it would to buy a house in her village but Bohn says it was important to have a German one typically used for distilling fruit brandies, ensuring her whisky is loaded with complex fruit aromas. These stills are smaller than Scottish ones and produce a finer distillate, a more aromatic blend that doesn't need to be stored for as long as Scottish malts.

"I didn't set out to build a Scottish distillery. I wanted it to be a German one that has the smoky, earthy characteristics of Uckermark," she says.

The label on the bottle of Bohn's Prussian Whisky – a rearing black horse sporting a Prussian military helmet – shows this is a whisky proud to be German and not trying to emulate its Scottish ancestors. The first batch will be ready to hit the market at the end of this year following the necessary three-year maturation period.

"My whisky will be strong and charismatic," she continues. "It will not be everyone's darling. It will be a polarising whisky."

Bohn's passion, borne from an adolescent curiosity ("I wondered why men were always drinking whisky – then I tried it and thought, 'Hmm.' It was a sensual experience – I became committed to it") was confirmed on a pilgrimage to Scotland's famous single malt distilleries with her father, a whisky enthusiast.

After taking an intensive whisky-making course in 2006 at the University of Hohenheim, Bohn served her apprenticeship at a small Stuttgart distillery and is now one of the very few female master distillers in the world.

Remarkably, she continues to work full time at a pharmacy in a nearby town while putting in 40 hours at the distillery, which she runs single-handedly except for a male friend who provides occasional muscle for heavy lifting work.

Bohn may be one of the new kids on the block of about 40 malt whisky-makers scattered across Germany but is not shy about raising a quizzical eyebrow at some of her countrymen's reasons for making her beloved uisge beatha. "For some, whisky has become a trend. For me it is a passion," she says. "For other Germans, it is a fashionable hobby."

This remark could apply to a certain Dr Torsten Romer, a radiologist, non-whisky drinker and owner of the Spreewald Brewery, 50 miles south-east of Berlin, and owner too of a distinctly unfashionable Asterix-style moustache.

The Spreewald, a gentle landscape of lush meadows and meandering waters, is an area of Germany best known for beer, boat rides and pickled gherkins. Now whisky can be added to that list.

Romer's four-year-old single malt Sloupisti was rated 94 out of 100 from self-styled whisky guru Jim Murray in the 2011 edition of his Whisky Bible, an unprecedented score for a German whisky. This is the equivalent of an Oscar, awarded to what Murray describes as "superstar whiskies that give us all a reason to live".

It's quite an accolade, particularly for a whisky-making novice, and one that came completely out of the blue for Romer.

"I was very surprised," he says. "I didn't know a Whisky Bible even existed."

Sloupisti was more a side-product of an already established beer-brewing and hotel business. Romer built the distillery on a whim in 2004, with the first batch of single malt emerging in 2007.

To him there is no mystique surrounding the making of single malt whisky and he thinks it unremarkable that Germans have taken to it with such aplomb.

"It's an alcoholic drink," he says with a shrug. "It's not unusual for us to make a spirit out of barley. If you make beer it's not such a leap to also make whisky. I think it's quite natural to do the same thing the Scots did."

Romer looked into the history of Scotland's favourite tipple and was inspired by a centuries-old story of impoverished Scots buying discarded wine casks from London wine sellers and then filling them with their cheap whisky spirit to mature. In homage he acquired Silvaner white wine casks from Franconia, a region in north-east Bavaria known for its quality wine.

"The barrels are the most important thing," Romer says. "They account for 90% of the whisky's taste. Anyone can make a decent malt distillate, but the right selection of barrels gives whisky its aroma."

Jim Murray, the man who put Sloupisti on the international whisky map, concurs. The Englishman has been nosing and tasting whisky since 1975 and tries an average of 1000 whiskies every year. German single malts tend to be fairly light and he compares the Sloupisti to a 20-year-old sherry-cask Glen Garioch, from Oldmeldrum, near Aberdeen, due to its "massive and compelling personality".

"The fact of the matter is the quality of the casks was very good," he says. "You can make a great distillate but if you put it into a bad cask you end up with bad whisky.

"It's always wonderful when you see a small distiller getting it right. It's a fantastic achievement."

Some well-known Scottish brands have never attained as high a ranking in Murray's book as Sloupisti and it outscored Talisker, Lagavulin and Glenkinchie. "One of the reasons I p*** off the Scottish whisky industry is because I give high marks to whiskies that aren't necessarily Scotch," the critic says with trademark candour.

Single malt whisky can be made anywhere in the world, but unless it's made in Scotland it can't be called Scotch. Nevertheless, malts from other countries are becoming increasingly popular. Japan is one of the biggest global whisky producers, and an Indian single malt, Amrut Fusion, with a score of 97, was Murray's selection as the third best whisky in the world in the previous edition of his Whisky Bible.

Germany's malt whisky-makers may have a characteristically ebullient attitude to their product but they still have to win over the hearts and taste buds of their sceptical whisky-drinking countrymen who associate single malt whisky with peat fires, heather and misty glens.

At the swish Riva cocktail bar in the Mitte district of Berlin, one of the very few places in the capital where you can try German whiskies such as Sloupisti, bar owner Jean-Pierre Ebert says his customers shy away from anything that isn't Scotch.

"German whisky has never really been popular," he says. "Our customers are addicted to Scottish malts."

To win round sceptical whisky aficionados, the Riva's mixologists devised a special cocktail, Sprach, a German take on the classic New Orlean's Sazerac: a heady mix of Sloupisti, a scoosh of absinthe, Angostura bitters and sugar syrup. It's proven to be extremely popular with adventurous customers, even at €22 (more than £18) a pop.

But even when drunk neat, German malts are not cheap. The Sloupisti single malt retails at around €70 (nearly £60) for a 700cl bottle, due mostly to the micro-production scales.

The annual whisky output in Germany is about 100,000 bottles, a mere drop in the ocean compared with the one billion bottles produced in Scotland, according to the Scottish Whisky Association's most recent annual report.

"I don't want to compete with Scottish whisky. I'm not David against Goliath," says Cornelia Bohn.

"Scotland mustn't be anxious about German whisky," echoes Romer, whose Spreewald distillery currently produces three 225-litre barrels of single malt annually. "We won't conquer the world with this stuff."

They don't want to. The laidback Romer and the passionate Bohn may not share the same philosophy when it comes to whisky but both are proudly German and happy to be successful with niche products. Quality over quantity. Small, it seems, is beautiful.

Bohn envisages that it will take at least a decade to make a profit. She's already taking advance orders for next year's first batch of Preussiche Whisky from upscale restaurants and hotels, but not payment "in case my whisky is not ready". She is in no hurry. The only thing that matters is that she can pursue her dream in the countryside that she loves.

Meanwhile Romer, who can't keep up with demand since the Whisky Bible seal of approval, is planning to open a second distillery and increase production to 6000 litres per year. Usually only available at source in Schlepzig, he's been taking orders from as far afield as the United States and Japan. "If we grew too large our casks would empty in the blink of an eye," he says. "That's not our intention. We are a niche product, a hot tip." Though perhaps not for much longer.

Back at the Riva bar, the barman pours me a large nip of Romer's liquid gold. I take a tentative sip of the single malt – at 64.8% alcohol a frighteningly potent beverage. My tongue burns but it's not an unpleasant sensation. Quite the opposite: a little like an alcoholic version of space dust, the childhood confectionery that fizzed and crackled in the mouth to thrilling effect. "This is such great fun!!" Jim Murray exclaims about Sloupisti in his Whisky Bible. I can't help but agree. It's whisky, Jim, but not as we know it. It's German whisky. n

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