Culture, Travel & Sport

In the homeland of wine, whisky finds its niche

Georgia gave the world wine. Now it's turning its hand to whisky.

Both Ireland and Scotland claim to have given birth to whisky, and it is unlikely that the argument will ever be satisfactorily resolved. The first documented evidence of whisky production is Scottish, from the late 15th century, but the Irish claim that the know-how is theirs. Some claim that it was St Patrick himself who first showed them how to make Uisge beatha or usquebaugh; Gaelic for water of life.

Ireland or Scotland, for centuries whisky production was the sole reserve of the two countries. Then the Americans put their spin on whisky, as did the Canadians and later the Australians. In recent decades, the Japanese have joined the whisky party, and as with most things, they mastered the art very quickly: in 2015, a Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask from 2013 took home the title of World’s Best Whisky.

Best known as the (undisputed) homeland of wine, Georgia is the latest country to turn its hand to whisky production. Its original taste and specific distillation techniques have already made it attractive to the international market.

Whisky production in Georgia officially started in 2016, but a few pioneers had been experimenting and mastering the trade for a few years previously. One of these was Jimsher Chkhaidze, whose Jimsher whisky was one of the first on the Georgian market. He spent more than a decade discovering whisky, its distillation process and the philosophy behind it.

“In order to thoroughly learn about whisky production, I went to Scotland, and met people who helped me find out more,” he tells Emerging Europe. “I learnt that the most important aspects are the environment, the raw material and the type of barrel in which the whisky should keep for at least three years.”

Jimsher has a unique formula which has proved interesting even for Scottish entrepreneurs. Usually, whisky is made in sherry, bourbon or Spanish sweet wine barrels. In the case of Jimsher, Chkhaidze decided to mix Saperavi, brandy and Tsinandali barrels to create a special taste. He now has a patent for whisky distillation in Georgian wine barrels.

“Saperavi barrel whisky is a piece of music which breaks the rules. Brandy barrel-made whisky is a classic but our way of making it is new. One of the whiskies we make in the Tsinandali barrels is, in English, known as Summer,” said Jimsher Chkhaidze.

Jimsher is not the only Georgian whisky with a unique formula. Alexander is the only whisky in the world which distilled in qvevri (traditional clay pots, used for making Georgian wine). Its patent belongs to Alexander Kvernadze, owner of a family winery at Kvemo Kartli, in southern Georgia. He became interested in whisky distillation about five years ago. According to him, mainstream brass or copper pots, used in the production of homemade chacha (traditional Georgian vodka) are not acceptable for making a great drink.

“Buying the latest distillation technology is very expensive for family wineries. But I am a physicist and have access to lots of different academic literature. I read a lot about innovative trends and decided to use qvevri. It is well-known that clay is an acceptable substance in the food industry. It is cheap, firm and the shape is good to balance the temperature. So, I use qvevri as a distillery mechanism,” Mr Kvernadze told Emerging Europe.

“The taste of Alexander whisky is characterised by the local mountain water we use,” he added. “The climate, weather and air also play a significant role. As whisky needs to be prepared in oak barrels for several years, the Tetritskaro climate is perfect.”

Despite its short history, Georgian whisky is gaining in popularity across the world. Jimsher has already received international recognition several times: in 2017 it won a gold medal at the Global Travel Retail Spirit Masters, and received silver medals at the Global World Whisky Masters in the UK. In Switzerland, it was Leader of the Year.

Georgia’s whisky producers have somewhat different plans for the future. Jimsher is already exported to several European countries, with demand increasing all the time. At his family distillery, Alexander Kvernadze’s priority is quality rather than quantity. As such, he produces only a limited amount of whisky, for clients looking for new and exclusive tastes.

“Our priority is to create a niche for Georgian whisky,” he says. “I think that all Georgian whisky entrepreneurs want the same thing.”