Highfern Portfolio

Highfern Portfolio

Wednesday 5 July 2017

A visit to Langatun

Since we started importing Langatun I’ve been meaning to head over to Switzerland and visit the distillery. A recent changing of the guard at the distillery was a final trigger for my trip. Now I wanted to see not just the stills, but meet the new team.

Hans Baumberger, who founded the distillery after a career in brewing and the glass industry is the experienced side of 70. He’s been looking for a way to step back from the general running of the business side of things, pass on ownership to a new generation of Langatun custodians, whilst still overseeing distilling and maturation. In Christian Lauper and Christoph Nyfeler, he has found worthy successors who share his passion for Swiss drams. Christian’s whisky CV includes establishing the whisky retailer WhiskyUniverse, and organising the Whiskyschiff festivals. His new role at Langatan sees him focused on operations, but includes sales in western Switzerland. Christoph got a taste for whisky whilst working at the Art Cigar whisky bar in Lenzburg during his banking apprenticeship. His banking career took him to Singapore, but he later went on to buy the Art Cigar bar ten or so years later after he first worked in it. Intriguingly he is still on the rota for the same Thursday night shift he had as a student, but more often than not his Mum fills in for him. It’s a bit like me buying Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp pub, but I doubt my Mum would be so keen to spend her Thursday evenings pulling pints. I digress banking took Christoph to Singapore where he evolved into a whisky importer, a business he’s since sold. So now he’s back in Switzerland, and amongst other things has taken over responsibility for the export sales for Langatun.

Langatun has a heritage dating back to the 1850s when Han’s grandfather started distilling whisky as a sideline to the Baumberger family brewing business. Distilling was however a casualty of war time rationing during the First World War. The ban on the distillation of barley for alcohol remained in place up until 1999. There doesn’t seem to have been a long campaign to repeal it, more as a consequence of the streamlining of various Swiss alcohol laws in the late 90s, the ban on the distillation of whisky dropped of the statute book. Move into the new millennium and friends asked recently retired Hans to help them establish the Hasli Brewery in Langathal. As a sideline to that project he thought he’d have a go at distilling. So the brewery housed Hans’s Holstein still (only one then). In 2014 a permanent home was found for the distillery, in the Kornhaus, and a second still was added. The Kornhaus is a four hundred year old building built to store crops supplied by local farmers as payment of their taxes.  Despite the building’s age, and historic value, in recent decades the local council did not really know what to do with it, so this historic building has lain unused. Today the distillery is housed in a room in the basement. It is small in scale. We used to say Edradour would fit in the Glenfarclas mashtun. With a little bit of exaggeration, Langatun could fit in the Edradour mashtun. But the Holstein stills, with their labyrinth of pipes, valves and gauges look hi-tech compared to what I’m used to.  This is symbolised by Han’s electronic hydrometer. No floats in glass tubes, nor studying tables to declare the strength of the new make here. A quick dip and click, and the strength of the new make is confirmed at a mighty 87%.

So what else is different? The mashing is still done at the brewery, but the fermentation at the distillery. It’s a long fermentation though, six days. The first distillation gives a middle cut at circa 26%, and the second distillation up in the 80s, so smaller in scale but at higher strength. Before the casks can be filled, all production is inspected by the local customs officer, so the new make dripping into a stainless steel bucket is transferred to aluminium beer kegs to await the customs inspection (there is no spirit safe).  The still house doubles as the bottling hall, with Suzanne filling and labelling bottles, Old Deer on the day I visited, when not tending to the stills.

Whilst the distillery door is always open, guests are encouraged to visit on specific open days when there is more going on. My visit coincided with the Langatun Pipe Band gathering, so the place was alive with the sound of the pipes. The first and the second floor of this old building, which are reminiscent of old malting floors, have been converted into an event space for whisky tastings, dinners, jazz concerts and private functions. The arrival of Langatun is a perfect fit for the old Kornhaus, and has breathed new life into the building.

Lucky Hans has also found the perfect place to mature his whisky. Hidden behind the door of a building that looks like a large garage are four underground cellars built by what was one of Switzerland’s leading wine merchants in the 1950s and 1960s. As we wandered the cellars what struck me was we only saw two bourbon barrels, the vast majority of the stock is resting in wine or sherry casks. Hans doesn’t seem to have a problem finding good wood.

Back to the party at the distillery and I delivered a bottle of That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s Langatun bottling, for their archive. It’s a 2011 Sherry Fino cask with a lovely sweet sherried nose, which delivers hearty sherried fruit, with hints of figs and cognac on the taste (available here). The team were delighted with the presentation of bottle, the first independent bottling of Langatun, so a rite of passage for the distillery. Its also we believe the first Swiss Whisky ever bottled in Scotland.

The Kornhaus, home to the Langatun Distillery

The Holstein Stills

Hans Baumberger and his hydrometer. (Available here!)
A corner of the cellars. The strength and volume of every cask is recorded annually and noted on a log attached to the cask for customs purposes. 

The logo for the former Baumberger Brewery which inspired the naming of the Old Bear series. 
That Boutique-y Whisky Company's bottling of Langatun.