I like the fact that these days whisky doesn’t only come from Scotland. I’ve written before about Taiwanese whisky and the tasty mish mash of the Whisky Lounge multi-country blend, but I am constantly intrigued as to who is making whisky around the world. While Pakistan and Holland are interesting whisky making locations, I recently heard about one that piqued my interest more than the Dutch and that was more obtainable than the Pakistani – Hammer Head whisky, from the Czech Republic.
As with many things it went on my list after Mark Gillespie interviewed one of the guys at Stock Spirits on WhiskyCast 273. Not only is this a Czech whisky in that it was made there, it also uses all Czech ingredients – barley, water and even wood for barrels. It also has, as you might expect, a story. It was distilled in 1989 while Czechoslovakia was not only still a country but also under communist rule. The distillery in Prádlo was opened in 1928 and nationalised in the 1980s, and after years of making various pot distilled spirits they decided to try their hand at a single malt whisky. They imported a rather fearsome hammer mill to grind the malt, then mashed, distilled and put down a batch of whisky to mature. However, months later the Berlin Wall fell, and shortly after that the Velvet Revolution led to a democratic Czechoslovakia and the split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All the while the whisky sat quietly maturing until recently when the Stock Spirits Group acquired the current owners of the barrels. On a fact finding expedition to the distillery Tony Roberts of Stock was offered a taste of the whisky after his guides discovered he used to work in the whisky industry, before moving on to the more general Stock group. He politely accepted and found that contrary to his expectations of undrinkable rocket fuel he had instead a rather tasty whisky. A bit of development later and Hammer Head, named for the nickname of the grain mill, appeared, ready to tap into the whisky market with the unique selling point of being a good Czech whisky.
It is only available in a very limited fashion at the moment, with distribution being exclusively through travel retail. Luckily I had a work colleague travelling through Heathrow recently and he was kind enough to pop in and buy me a bottle. Less lucky was that he was going to California for a fortnight and I had to wait two weeks from announcement of purchase to holding the bottle in my clammy hand.
Firstly it’s the first stoppered whisky in my collection that has used a synthetic cork rather than a natural one. With tales of TCA in whisky I suspect this is something that we’ll see more often in the future, as we are with wine. On the nose it is sweet and flowery with wood polish, orange peel and hints of woody spice and vanilla. To taste it is light and custardy with cinnamon and a quick burst of fruit in the middle of the mouth leading to plums and a lingering dry, biscuity, woody finish. Water adds more buttery sweetness and brings more of the floral nose to the taste. The wood softens to a sweet vanilla on the finish, although some of the dryness still hangs around. It develops a lot in the glass, with the fruit and vanilla growing considerably (and pleasantly) over time with touches of citrus and mint/menthol appearing as well.
I quite like it – it has some of the elegant traditionally lowland elements at the same time as some obvious influences from the wood, which seems to sit between traditional european and american oak in the flavours that it imparts. It’s not a huge whisky, but it certainly has some weight to it and interesting flavours. There is only a limited stock, although the WhiskyCast interview suggested that more would now be laid down for future bottlings and there’s enough there already to keep going for a while. I think it’s worth a grab if you see it on your travels.
20 year old Czech single malt whisky, 40.7%. ~£35 from World of Whiskies