The soul of whisky is alive in our land,” Rinaldo Willy declares proudly. Whisky is so much more than just a drink, according to this native of the Engadin. Ancient, mystical and romantic symbols also play an important role for whisky enthusiasts: wild landscapes, melancholic wisps of mist, the fragrant scent of a forest. In Switzerland, and particularly in the Engadin, drinkers find these symbols in the mighty glaciers and towering cliffs, the crystal-clear lakes and thick forests. “Our land was destined to become a great whisky nation,” says Rinaldo, who started distilling whisky a good decade ago with fellow enthusiast Pascal Mittner. And he sees certain parallels with the whisky nation of Scotland: “We have a certain reputation here in Graubünden,” he says. “We can be as narrow-minded or as outward-looking as the Scots; they could almost be our brothers.”
Whatever the similarities, though, it is unlikely that in Scotland anyone travels to a distillery by cable car. “All aboard,” says the guard in the Corvatsch cable car. The door closes. Soon after, a magnificent view opens up over the larch forests and the lake-strewn valley floor of the Upper Engadin. For most of the passengers in the cable car, the ride up the mountain is the start of an exciting day’s outing; for Rinaldo Willy and Pascal Mittner, however, this is just their journey to work. They make their whisky, called Orma Swiss Whisky, high up on the Corvatsch, at 3,303 metres above sea level. For some years they had been storing whisky barrels here to mature, but one day they came up with the bold idea to distil the whisky up on the mountain, too. The backdrop could barely be more spectacular, and the distillery’s unusual location has practical advantages, too: “Since we can cool the facility with fresh mountain air, we save a fair bit of money and energy,” Rinaldo says.
The basis for the enthusiasts’ project was a new decree signed on 12 May 1999 by the President of the Swiss Confederation at the time, Ruth Dreyfuss, and the Federal Chancellor, François Couchepin: the Ordinance on Alcohol and Home Distillery Law. Up until then, it was illegal in Switzerland to distil whisky or other spirits from staple foods such as cereals or potatoes. The reason was to prevent alcohol abuse during the two World Wars, and also to protect valuable foodstuffs. The new law gave distillers throughout Switzerland the green light to begin production.
Rinaldo and Pascal’s place of work, their product and ambitions are unusual enough; so too was the manner in which they got to know one another. They met during a decisive period in their lives: both were fighting cancer. Pascal says in retrospect: “That changed our attitude to life, and especially the way we deal with our fellow humans.” To this day, they cherish three things: friendship, esteem and time. Time, because you cannot buy it with money. And because it is limited: no one knows how much they have, says Rinaldo. “When you have cancer, you realise that you have to live in the present and not the future,” he says. So today, every one of their whisky bottles carries the following words in flowing script:
Moments that are all the more precious when they are shared with special people. Time has another particular significance in the lives of the whisky distillers. Anyone who undertakes to produce whisky at top international level has to be patient. A good whisky, before it can be enjoyed, needs to mature in a wooden barrel – for anything from six to twenty years. Pascal explains: “What we are setting up here is the foundations for another generation.” They also invested a great deal of time in developing their whisky’s character. “We did not want to copy Scottish whiskies at all,” says Rinaldo.
Unlike Scottish distillers, they do not use sherry or bourbon barrels for maturing their spirits; instead, they make use of what is available locally. Pascal says: “We have outstanding wine regions both to the north and the south – the Bündner Herrschaft, for example, and the Valtellina.” Here they order the wooden barrels in which their whisky can develop different flavours – of dried fruit, tea, coffee, cocoa and light vanilla notes. The barrels are stored in the cellars of castles and historical town buildings, in old barns, in abandoned military bunkers – and on a spectacular mountain sum - mit, high up, where the air is thin and dry. Every location gives the whisky its own special character. Whisky matured up on the Corvatsch is already on sale; from Christmas 2023, enthusiasts will also be able to buy whisky that was distilled here, too. While Pascal and Rinaldo aim to keep the entire production in the region, they are keen to conquer the Asian market. “People in Asia value high-quality spirits,” says Rinaldo, “plus Swissness also counts for a lot.”
The sun is setting, and the last rays of sunshine are lighting up the alpine peaks. The clock strikes five. Time for the cable car to make its last trip down the mountain. Which gives rise to a thought: what happens if, at the end of a day’s work, the pair of whisky enthusiasts miss the last cable car, or if stormy weather stops it running altogether? That does happen now and again, says Rinaldo. They have a place they can sleep up here and an emergency supply of ravioli. “We are in the mountains, nature plays the leading role here.” You could get worked up about the weather or just accept the inevitable and make the best of it. And what could be better at such a moment than to sit down, enjoy a good conversation – and a fine whisky. “The soul knows no time, but time gives the soul priceless moments.”