Distilled with natural gas Aromatic whisky made in Swabia, Germany
When people think of whisky, they usually think of Scotland or Ireland, but, in the meantime, high-quality whisky is now also being distilled in Germany. In Nellingen on the Swabian Alb, the finch® distillery has been producing the “water of life” since 1999. Natural gas plays a key role in the complex and time-consuming distillation process. Since it delivers accurate temperatures and heats the boiler with the required level of reliability and precision, it makes a critical contribution to the high quality of the product.
Master distiller and managing director Hans-Gerhard Fink focuses on efficiency and sustainability throughout the production chain of his Swabian malt and grain whisky. This starts with the grain, the main ingredient, which he grows himself. “We produce all the raw materials ourselves, which almost no one does anymore, focusing on ecological aspects in our agricultural operations. That allows us to determine the quality of the whisky ourselves through to it being bottled and to achieve a high level,” says Fink. The farmer started making whisky 18 years ago as a hobby, and then decided in 2011 to produce it professionally. Today, his company employs eight people and is one of Germany's best-known whisky distillers.
Fermentation process takes six days
Whisky is made with various types of grain, but predominantly with barley and wheat. The harvested grain is soaked in water, dried on a malting floor, and then stored in silos. After being delivered to the distillery, it is ground in a mill and then mashed in the mashing tub with hot steam, generated via the natural gas-fired boiler. “This process lasts around three hours, during which the starch is converted into sugar.
Next, we pump the mash into the fermentation tanks, each with a capacity of between 6,000 and 7,000 liters, and add yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol. For reasons of hygiene we only use stainless steel tanks. The fermentation process takes another six days. Up to this point, the process is similar to beer brewing,” says distiller Laura Aßenmacher.
A modern gas boiler heats the pot still
After six days, the fermented mash is distilled in the so-called pot still. Pot stills, which are made of copper, are cleaned after each batch and then refilled. The finch® whisky distillery has Germany’s largest pot still (3,000 liters) and distills its whisky multiple times via a so-called downstream column, which is a hollow, segmented vertical pipe used to separate the alcohol in the fermented mash from the water. The result is an especially aromatic distillate.
The temperatures during the distillation process range from 70 to 100 degrees Celsius. The pot still is heated with steam generated using natural gas. Since Hans-Gerhard Fink attaches great importance to sustainability and energy efficiency, he uses a modern 400-kilowatt natural gas-fired condensing boiler for the heat supply. He is convinced of the benefits of natural gas as a fuel: “We use natural gas for ecological and efficiency reasons. It allows us to precisely control the heat level, which is critical for our production. Gas also burns very cleanly without generating fine dust or dirt. There are also clear commercial benefits: There is no stocking up, the gas boiler requires very little maintenance, and current gas prices are very favorable,” says Fink. The distillery consumes 87,500 cubic meters of gas annually to heat the pot still.
Recycling in biogas facility
The distillation process lasts around seven hours. In whisky production, only the purest part of the raw distillate is used, the so-called middle cut. The foreshots or heads and the feints or tails are not suitable for production. The master distiller determines the respective switch points. Fink depends on old-fashioned German engineering for this process, because his installation features an alcohol meter from 1935 that displays the alcohol content with great precision. At the same time, the entire process is monitored digitally, and the individual distillation phases are controlled electronically.
Fink also controls the quality of the raw distillate by taking small samples and smelling and tasting them, which requires experience and good taste buds.
The middle cut comes out of distillation at temperatures of below 20 degrees and an alcohol content of around 90 percent, and it then filled into barrels. The remaining mash, as well as the foreshots and tails are recycled and fed into an external biogas facility that produces electricity.
The distillery produces 400,000 bottles of whisky annually.
Before it can be sold, however, the whisky must mature for five to eight years in barrels to absorb the complex aromas of the oak and produce the typical whisky flavor.
Each week, the distillery fills 20 to 30 barrels, each holding between 225 and 500 liters. The total output thus amounts to 250,000 liters per year, which later equates to around 400,000 bottles.