Whisky in Germany

Whisky! Who among us who has already passed 60 does not know this magic word from their youth? Whisky was something for grown-ups and mostly you saw tough men in western films loudly demanding this magic water in the saloon. Spiel mir das Lied vom Tod, the countless films with John Wayne and Henry Fonda and even series like Bonanza or the Shiloh Ranch regularly advertised whisky on television.

But with pocket money of a few marks a week, the expensive foreign whisky on the supermarket shelf remained out of reach for most of us.

Things got better at the beginning of the 70s. Starting with the American troops, big half-gallon bottles of Jim Beam, Teacher's and other good-sounding brands moved into the realm of possibility. The American alcohol tax was much lower than the German one and so the GIs not only hauled stereos and records out of the PX shops. They also supplied us with whisky by the gallon from America and Scotland.

This illegal supply route prepared the official way for the spread of Scotch and American whisky onto supermarket shelves. After the war, times were bad and the annual per capita consumption of spirits among the population was still more than 10 litres.

If one takes into account that almost no women drank any schnapps or whisky in public, and that there were certainly people who drank no alcohol at all, the average drinker had almost a whole bottle a week!

Hard collision with whisky and its consequences

Many of today's whisky lovers date their first hard "run-in" with a bottle of whisky to the early 70s. Often accompanied by prolonged nausea, vomiting and headaches, this first encounter was also the last for many for years to come. Days of nausea and headache are not easily forgotten and the cheap aroma of plain bourbon and scotch became an early warning system in our minds for nausea and headaches.

As early as 1959, the German company Racke began producing its Racke Rauzart. Those of us without connections to American or British soldiers had our first "run-in" with this whisky, which reached a high sales level also in the 70s. But American Medley's and increasingly Johnnie Walker also provided memorable experiences among teenagers during this period.

At the same time, and to everyone's annoyance, the Americans brought the output of the PX shops back under control and whisky fell into oblivion again among the average youthful person. As a shot in Coke, it eked out a shadowy existence.

High-quality beer was on the upswing, and this soon spread to wine as well. With increasing prosperity, the per capita consumption of spirits fell in favour of the lighter drinks. By the end of the 1970s, it was only 8 litres per adult per year.

Birth of malt whisky

This period was probably the secret birth of malt whisky in Germany. The increased prosperity after the economic miracle and the beginning of mass tourism led Germans increasingly to neighbouring countries. And not only to Austria and Switzerland, which were developed in a similar way to us in terms of whisky. More and more people travelled to Italy, France and Great Britain.
More and more often, they brought malt whisky home with them. But there was only one litre per person. The strict customs controls did not allow more. Since demand was well above the import limit, the domestic market was able to develop in this direction.

The honour of international malt whisky distribution belongs to Glenfiddich. Even before 1980, one could visit the distillery and buy bottles in the small shop next door. Even though the bottles were quickly empty in Germany - fond memories clung to them as they slowly gathered dust on the shelf. The negative memories of the first "collisions" paled in comparison to the new quality of this great drink.

Entry into the German supermarkets

During the 1980s, Scotch whisky and malt whisky slowly replaced the local grain brandies and German whiskies on the supermarket shelves. Racke followed the trend and switched his Rauchzart from German whisky to blended Scotch. Glenfiddich expanded and became widely available in almost all supermarkets.
In parallel, the first specialised wholesalers and retailers began to import rare malt whiskies directly from Scotland on a small scale. How much malt whisky was imported to Germany in the early 1980s can only be roughly estimated today. It was certainly not more than a few tens of thousands of bottles per year.

Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label achieved the top positions in the Scotch blended whisky segment. And the single malt success of Glenfiddich did not let others rest.
Besides Glenfiddich as the only malt, there seemed to be enough room for a second brand. Many now famous malt whiskies tried their hand at this niche in the second half of the 80s. Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar were the most famous among them. But they all failed. The breakthrough did not happen. Cardhu was too expensive and Royal Lochnagar too intense for the masses.

Around 1990, Glen Grant made it. 25% cheaper than Glenfiddich and with the appropriate "Glen" in its name, it too was able to gain a regular place on supermarket shelves.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, German whisky, this time from the East, was given a second chance. But the dream did not last long. In 1989, spirits consumption in the East was still as high at 12 litres as it had been in the West in the post-war period. Within a few years, consumption plummeted to the western level of 6 litres per capita and year, and many eastern distilleries were deprived of their livelihood.

From the start of malt whisky imports in the late 1970s to the early 1990s, apart from the explosion of Glenfiddich and Glen Grant, almost nothing happened on the domestic malt whisky front.

With increased search and duty-free, one could find Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, but the rare and low-circulation high-quality malts remained hidden.

The Americans discover the German market

At the same time, the Americans began to discover the German market. At first it was only Jim Beam, but with Jack Daniel's a second major player entered the scene at the end of the 80s. Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's were the vanguard. There was not yet much in the way of high-quality Kentucky Straight Bourbon, as there had been with Scotch single malt whisky.

The story of Whisky.de did not begin until 1993. Although a few rare pieces, such as a Strathisla 15 year or an Isle of Jura, were brought back from numerous trips to Scotland in the years 1990 to 1992, the actual start did not begin until 1993 - just in time for the worldwide malt whisky boom.

Where do things go from here? What awaits the whisky scene in Germany? The depressed economic mood won't last forever. And every recession has its good sides. Brands and companies that have built on sand will be swept away by the autumn and winter storms. Blended whiskies away from the big, advertised brands will be among the biggest losers in Germany.

Malt whisky and Kentucky straight bourbon will continue to increase market share at the expense of these blends. Only the big brands like Johnnie Walker and Co. with lots of advertising will sell real volumes. Among connoisseurs, it will be the quality of the individual malts and the straight bourbons that will ensure success.

Premium whisky has conquered German hearts. It is an integral part of the product range in this part of Europe. In international comparison, we still have some catching up to do or are falling further behind. The big emerging markets in South America and Asia have also discovered premium whisky as an enrichment to their enjoyment.

November 2002