| SCHLEPZIG, Germany
SCHLEPZIG, Germany (Reuters Life!) - Germany's Spreewald region -- best known for its pickles, boat rides and beer -- has a surprising new addition: single malt whisky.
Sloupisti whisky from the Spreewaelder Feinbrand und Spirituosenfabrik in the village of Schlepzig is being sought by connoisseurs as far away as Japan and has been holding its own against more famous rivals from Scotland, Ireland and the United States according to the experts.
"The product has been well received," Spreewaelder owner Torsten Roemer told Reuters. "There are big whisky fans in Germany ... word gets around."
Roemer knew he'd caught the eyes of whisky's top aficionados last year when whisky expert Jim Murray awarded Sloupisti a rating of 94 points out of 100, one of the highest ratings, in his annual "Whisky Bible."
"The rating has attracted a lot attention and showed that whisky from the continent can be very good," said Roemer, who added the distillery to an existing hotel and brewery business in 2004 and produced its first batch of single malt in 2007.
Spreewaelder is one of some 40 whisky distilleries in Germany and the first to gain such international attention.
The former radiologist credits the German oak barrels in which the whisky is aged for the spirit's distinctive taste.
"The barrels are the most important thing," Roemer said. "I find they account for 90 percent of the whisky's taste. Anyone can make a decent malt distillate, but the right selection of barrels gives whisky its aroma."
Roemer procured barrels from southern Germany's Franconia region as well as from Berlin, about 100 km to the north.
The Franconian "barriques," which previously aged German Silvaner white wines, now age Roemer's Sloupisti.
Roemer said that it is not so strange that remarkable whisky could come from Germany given its centuries-old tradition for brewing beer.
"If you like to drink beer and produce a good beer, then it's simply taking the next step," Roemer said. "And if you are in a region that rewards or enables such initiatives then it's rather easy."
Production is still on the micro scale. The distillery produces three 225-liter barrels of single malt annually.
Although Sloupisti is only available at the source in Schlepzig, Roemer has on request shipped small orders to individuals throughout Germany and recently sent an order of single malt to devotees as far away as Tokyo.
"If we grow too large, then our casks would empty in the blink of an eye," Roemer says. "That's of course not our aim and intention. Previously we were a niche product, a hot tip."
(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey; editing by Paul Casciato)