Jonas Ebensperger is the co-founder of premium whisky distillery, PUNI, located in South Tyrol, Italy. While the name “Puni” is taken from the river which flows through the Vinschgau valley where the family-run distillery is based, it has also become a name synonymous with high quality and exceptional taste. FOUR catches up with Jonas for a 101 on one of the best Italian triple malts money can buy...
PUNI distillery is a family business run by my parents, my brother, my cousin Valentin and myself. Between the five of us we take care of all the work at the distillery, from production and warehousing to marketing and sales. I think it’s fair to say, we like to keep busy!
I guess, one of the starting points was in the early 90s when my father completed all three sommelier courses. In these courses the main focus is put on wines and winetasting of course. But there are also lessons that deal with distillates and tasting techniques of spirits as well. During one of these lessons he was, for the first time, really introduced to the world of whisky. He immediately developed a particular interest in the "Water of Life" and, after the successful completion of the courses, continued to learn about whisky and distillation. Before long the whole family – who come from compeletely different backgrounds – shared the passion for whisky and thus, Puni whisky was born.
We started planning the first italian whisky distillery already in 2009 but it took over three years until we could start distillation for the first time. PUNI distillery building lies next to some of the highest mountains of the Italian alps in Italy's northernmost region South Tyrol. The PUNI cube was planned by a famed local architect Werner Tscholl. The eye-catching brick-red checkerboard exterior walls were inspired by traditional farmhouse architecture. The building is 13 x 13 meters high but production actually takes place underground, beneath the cube where the stills and all the equipment is set up. The whole production area was meticulously planned to make it a great experience for visitors.
We wanted to build a very modern distillery but not without acknowledging the local farming tradition. Similar to what we are trying to achieve in the distillation process by using new approaches to traditional methods.
Some of our warehouses are actually disused military bunkers from WWII. These bunkers were built in the final years of the war but in the end were never used for fighting purposes. Now we use these secure and isolated structures for the maturation of part of our whisky. The high humidity and constant temperatures are ideal for cask storage. And of course, the precious whisky can slowly mature in (arguably) the safest warehouses in the world.
The Vinschgau valley, where we live, has always been famous for the cultivation of rye. Already in medieval times it has been known as one of the main rye suppliers for Tyrol in Austria. After years of testing and analysing and many sleepless nights beside the stills, my father and I finally agreed on the perfect mixture of different types of malted cereals. We use barley malt as the basis but add wheat malt for sweetness and rye malt for complexity and body. Only after we saw that we would be able to actually produce a fine dram, we started to plan PUNI distillery. Right from the start, product quality has always been our main focus. Yet we did not limit ourselves to tasting different whiskies and learning about the ways they are made but started to test the properties of different types of malts during distillation as well.
Throughout the years of planning and setting up PUNI distillery, our ambition has always been to create a new type of whisky. More specifically one that can already be enjoyed as New Spirit and young whisky as well. The Italian way of enjoying whisky so to speak. In Italy, a country where the climate is rather hot for most parts of the year, people tend to go for refreshing and light whiskys. Of course they also appreciate aged and peated whisky but the overall tendency is towards younger and lighter whiskys.
Keeping this in mind we tested and tried different types of malt, distillation methods and ways of maturation. After years of trial and error we came to the conclusion that overall the Scottish way of making Whisky gives the best results. We then only implemented a couple of changes which, in our perception, make the Spirit even better. The use of three types of malted cereals being the main difference to Scottish whisky. Besides this we also installed a novel heating system which effectively works like an inverted bain-marie for both our stills. Anyone who is familiar with distillation will be able to tell you what great an influence the heat development inside the stills has on the final product and this system gives us precise control over heat emissions. Similar to what SousVide cooking does for the kitchen our water-heated stills allow us to distill with great precision and meticulously separate the different alcohols and aroma congeners. Thus only choosing the best parts.
Apart from all the technical innovations we put a lot of thought and effort into creating a very modern and elegant whisky distillery in the hopes of making every visit an enjoyable and interesting experience for everyone. Not only for whisky enthusiasts.
We use a very old prestigious Bobby malt mill to grind the malt and then mix it with hot water in a copper top mash tun. After that the sweet worts is mixed with yeast and ferments in large wooden washbacks that we had specifically made from local larch.
The fermented wash is then distilled twice in our handcrafted Scottish copper stills. We are using the discontinuous pot still method. Once the clear and high strength New Make spirit is collected from the second distillation, we use our alpine water to reduce it to cask strength and fill it into casks or barrels and put them into one of our warehouses. From then on it's mostly waiting and periodic tasting.
Our three malt recipe that we use was created to truly make an Italian Triple Malt Whisky. We felt that it should have more passion and finesse than most other malt spirits. That is why, for over two years, we spent every spare hour and many sleepless nights beside a tiny still like alchemists, in search of the perfect mixture. Of course, like all alchemists, we failed to reach total and utter perfection. But if my father and I both agree on it, means that we came pretty close.
By adding malted wheat and malted rye we obtain a remarkable spirit. It is sweeter and somewhat fresher than other spirits but tastes mellow and gentle even at high gradation. And it provides a distinguished taste of malt and is rich in spiciness because of the rye malt.
Our one-year-old ALBA has developed subtle notes of vanilla, marzipan and coriander. Together with the still dominant toasty aromas of malt this is already an exciting profile for such a young spirit.
As we live in the midst of the Italian alps the food that I personally like pairing ALBA with is roast venison with root vegetables. This is a combination that works quite good. Generally it goes well with all sorts of red meat but can also be paired very well with mature cheese.
One thing that I still want to try is to use an ALBA ganache in french macarons, paired with ginger and dark chocolate.
In 2013 a total of 20 restaurants in South Tyrol were awarded at least one Michelin star, three of them even received two. Considering the relatively small population of just 500.000 this is a considerable achievement. Already I have heard from a couple of these restaurants that offer our products to their guests.
At the newly starred restaurant Alpes in Sarentino, head chef Egon Heiss even used ALBA in a delicious chocolate dessert. Another distinguished chef, Jörg Trafoier of the close by Kuppelrain restaurant, has also been a strong supporter of PUNI right from the start.
We are very proud to have the top chefs of our region appreciating and supporting our products and will continue to look for ways to cooperate with them. We are also planning to work closely with a couple of local hotels and restaurants in offering them to own a whole cask of PUNI whisky and thus creating their very own unique whisky.
The next step will be the release of ALBA II in 2014 which will have been aged for over two years. This new selection of casks will very likely offer an even spicier aroma profile and be the last step before the release of the first Italian Malt Whisky in 2015.
Apart from that we have also been making cream liqueurs using only our own spirit and fresh cream from a local dairy. These a speciality products that we make in small batch quantities and, as of yet, only sell locally. Maybe we will be able to offer some of them to bigger markets in the future.
For more information visit www.puni.com