Whisky. With faith in staves.

Bunker City
© adrian kitchens / SchleeGleixner

St. Kilian Distillers founder and managing director Andreas Thümmler in interview

By Jörg Adrian, Managing Director adrian küchen www.adrian-kuechen.de

May we introduce: Andreas Thümmler. Investment banker. Whiskylover. Epicurean. Visionary. A few years ago, he had the idea of producing his own whisky in his birthplace. His path took him from London to other adopted countries such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now we meet him here today. In little Rüdenau.

Scholars disagree: Ireland or Scotland? Whisky lovers, on the other hand, do: they don't care! Because wherever the whiskey may have its origin: We are in Rüdenau! And here they write a completely different story.

Welcome to the home of Germany's largest distillery and one of the world's most modern. St. Kilian Distillers. Since its remarkable conversion, the former clothing factory has been producing completely different stuff. And it is so excellent that the meter-high Wall of Fame in the entrance area almost no longer fits a certificate.

The town with just 750 souls has long since mutated into a Mecca for 40,000 throats. That's how many visitors the distillery has had in the meantime. Well distributed, of course. We don't notice anything of the hustle and bustle - and the whiskey is allowed to mature in peace. With this pilgrimage site for whiskey connoisseurs, Andi Thümmler has impressively given the idyllic community in Lower Franconia a head start. Distilled water, to be precise.

While Andi gives us insights into the hallowed halls of the holy name spartron, we are not only allowed to curiously sniff Distillers air. We also put our noses reverently into the glasses that are handed to us. Filled with the highest-class and highest-proof peat drop, which even the boss doesn't know yet. A blend that has just been tasted by the experts. Pipetted directly from a barrel. To think that this is the distillers' daily work! Could be worse - we concede with relish. And we don't just mean the whiskey. And we get another one to taste right away.

Andreas Thümmler in front of the distillery
© adrian kitchens / SchleeGleixner

a.: Andi - A small, big question in advance: the small e, whisky or whiskey?

Andi: In Ireland and America, it's spelled with an e. The Scots don't use it. And that's how you can tell which type of whiskey we're closest to.

So you are Scotland fans?

First and foremost: Whiskylover! But we are already very Scottish in how we make our whisky. Quite independent of our facility. Our pot still, the copper still, is made in one of Scotland's most renowned coppersmiths - in the most original way. And according to our ideas. Anyone standing in front of this colossus will be in awe. And knows why we burn for Scotland. Or rather, as in Scotland. (laughs)

Is this traditional copper bubble then your "secret weapon" against boring standard brew?

Haha, no, we have Super Mario.

Super Mario?

Sure (laughs out loud) Mario Rudolf. He is an absolutely exceptional whiskey talent. At first, he was still a brewmaster at well-known breweries; then he came to us. David Hayes, who immediately recognized his talent, told him that he should first go through an international trainee program and gave him various opportunities. So Mario went "on the road", from distillery to distillery, and was allowed to learn from the best of the best. After years, he then came back with vast amounts of knowledge and notes. Today he is our Master Distiller - at not even 40 years of age, he has received more gold medals for his whiskies than David has in 40 years. We call him Super Mario. But David has also dubbed him "Cask Wizard".

Respect. Just to understand ... David Hayes?

Oh, I see, sorry. I rarely have to introduce him otherwise, because everyone in the scene just knows him. David Hayes, the whisky luminary! The whisky pope! And our Spiritus Rector. He is Scottish, but has also been living here in Rüdenau for four years, helping to conceptualize and build up St. Kilian. We owe a lot to his incredible experience. And last but not least, his connections.

You mean because of Super Mario?

Yes. But also with the ingredients. One example: Glenesk. That used to be a whisky distillery and is now a malt house - Glenesk Maltings. I really wanted to source their peated malt. It is simply the best and thus also contributes significantly to our high quality. The guy at Glenesk, however, had no interest whatsoever in exporting his peat malt abroad in the beginning. The Scots are extremely particular about that! It was only after David persuaded the producer that we got into business. For 6 years now, Eddie has been driving to us - Eddie is Glenesk's truck driver who brings the malt to Rüdenau. Exclusively. Because we are the only buyers in continental Europe! And thus the absolute exception. We are mighty proud of that.

This peat malt, so is that what makes the peaty taste?

Yes, so this is one of the basic ingredients. Grain is allowed to germinate briefly. And is then dried again. Among other things, this is done using peat, which is traditionally used as fuel in Scotland. And that gives the malt its unmistakable note.

... so peated whiskey?

Peated whisky. Correct!

What else is needed for whisky besides malt?

In terms of ingredients? Barley malt, yeast and water. We brew beer without hops, so to speak. And that is then distilled.

Oha, "God forbid." But only malt?

(Laughs) For the whiskey, yes. In the first step, we brew the so-called Distillers Beer. It's brewed here in the wooden washbacks and has about 8 percent alcohol by volume. Whiskey and beer have a lot in common and go well together. It's not for nothing that we have a lot of brewers working alongside distillers.

And then this brew goes into the pot still for distillation?

In between there is still a lot of love and detail work - but on the whole: yes. The brandy must then be stored for at least 3 years. From 3 years and the first day, it may then call itself whiskey. Or just: We may.

What makes a good whisky for you?

As banal as it sounds: taste. And you have to find that for yourself personally. Thus, there is not THE good whiskey, which tastes everyone. That is completely individual. O.k., of course it must also come from us. Because otherwise it can not taste at all. Eh clear!

Anyway! 😉 Is it true that the older the better?

We're still talking about whiskey, aren't we? (laughs) You can't say: the older, the better - but the longer in the barrel, the milder it is. Each cask is tasted again and again. And then, depending on the potential, we decide when to take a sample next time. In this way, we decide individually when the brandy is "ripe" to be allowed to be a genuine St. Kilian. That means then well and gladly also 12, 16 or 21 years ...

How much does the barrel actually contribute to the maturation or better to the formation of the "special note"?

The barrel, of course, adds a very special flavor. It depends on the wood - but also on some other aspects. Perhaps I'll explain it using the example of bourbon whiskey. In addition to barley, it also contains corn. Its starch sugar gives rise to a vanilla toffee aroma typical of bourbon. Consequently, when we store our whiskey in former bourbon barrels, we use this to develop the flavor. Over the years, the fully soaked staves gradually release this note back into the alcohol. And our whisky, in turn, gets its very special coloring for the palate. By the way - quite incidentally - we have over 370 types of barrels. More than any other distillery! From this you can already see how multifaceted our whiskeys are developed.

Crazy! Speaking of barrels. Your storage is also really crazy. We were there, but please tell ...

You mean the bunkers? Yes, that's also impressive for us every time. Because, in fact, the biggest hurdle was "where the hell are we going to store all those barrels?" Here we were really more than lucky that the former NATO bunkers offered themselves in the immediate vicinity - "Bunker City". This is a spacious facility, hidden in the middle of the forest; with 120 of these former ammunition storage sites. We own 15 - soon even 19 of these buildings. We store 500 - 600 barrels per bunker there. The best thing about it is that the thick walls mean there are hardly any temperature fluctuations. What's more, up there in the forest, the climate comes very close to that of the Scottish plateau. Everything that whisky loves - our Kilian Highlands in the Odenwald.

Help us with the math, please. How many barrels are you storing? But above all, where is the journey going?

Currently? We have around 10,000 barrels in storage here; 2,500 more are added every year. The goal is to reach the 50,000 barrel mark in the medium term. When you consider that we started with 700 barrels per year ...

© adrian kitchens / SchleeGleixner

But now you have not only large barrels ...

True. That is also one of our USPs. Anyone who likes can buy their own barrel from us. Matured according to personal taste. Exactly the brandy you like. These whiskies are stored in these small private casks that you see on the shelves here.

That is, that would be "my own" whiskey?

Right. We currently have about 1,000 keg owners who treat themselves to it. These are our absolute hardcore fans, Brand Ambassadors!

And why a small barrel?

Whiskey oxidizes faster in small barrels. This has something to do with the volume-surface ratio. In these 30-liter barrels, the whiskey is already after 3 years as far as actually only after 10 years. These small barrels are also not a standard container, but are specially made by a cooper. This saws a large barrel and makes short from the long staves. And so a large one becomes 1 to 2 small ones.

Ingenious idea! Speaking of which, what's the deal with "earth ripening", please?

A typical St. Kilians evening. (grins) We sat together. Sometime between glasses one and ten, the thought came, "What if our barrels stopped breathing 'classically'?" What would happen? Taste-wise. And anyway. Well, we wouldn't be us ... (and the grin visibly widens) Without further ado, we buried them in my backyard the next morning. Metre-deep hole. A few barrels in it. Earth on it. Hole closed. Years later we "lifted" them. So in a double sense. It could have been that the whole barrel would have rotted. But on the contrary. Everything was fine. And it tasted the same: really good! Even if it was really different. We were truly pioneers. Even in such a way that emissaries of the University of Oxford, who got wind of it, contacted us. And later they actually stood on our doorstep to do research on it. We did not get a doctorate. But the fun was worth it! And the result was worth it!

The new "after the manner of the house"?

Everything may, nothing must. For example, we have a special edition with the cult band Grave Digger. Heavy metal deserves good whiskey! Besides: The guys are big fans of us and real Torfheads. Especially with the band name: Of course we buried a few barrels there! It would be a sin not to bring it together thematically. The barrels even got tombstones. No, not impious - just a marketing gag: The band will live up to its name and dig up the whisky itself. This is going to be quite a big deal. Regardless of the fact that I am a Rocker at Heart myself! I am super happy. And there's still a lot to come ... Rock ʼn' Roll!

Another "headliner"?

Okay, because it's you: JUDAS PRIEST! For the 50th anniversary of the band there is a joint, liquid cooperation: an exclusive limited edition with these veterans! Hammer, right?!

Definitely! While we're on the subject of big names: How did you come to Terence Hill and Bud Spencer?

Quite simply, they approached us.

How now? Terence came riding his horse to Rüdenau?

Exactly like that! (laughs) Everyone knows the films. They are brilliant! Absolute cult! And everyone knows that they don't just hand out punches, but also serve whiskey. Maybe it was only a question of time that Bavaria Film Studios asked us if we would like the rights. What a question! Sure! Now there is already one or the other brandy. Bud Spencer matures in Italian Amarone barrels, Terence Hill in Caribbean rum barrels. And Terence Hill's hazelnut liqueur even contains hazelnuts from his homeland. All of these are not complicated or something only for absolute whiskey professionals. Rather, they're just right for an introduction to the world of whiskey. They are simply fun. And that's what we make possible for a broader clientele. After all, no one should not be allowed to get a taste!

As we can see, you do not bear your name without reason. Real missionaries. Just like St. Kilian.

Andreas Thümmler
© adrian kitchens / SchleeGleixner
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