Whiskey Trickles Into Russia’s Drinking Culture

Russia has a long and proud drinking culture; according to the chronicle of its founding, the main reason it chose Christianity over Islam was the latter’s prohibition of booze. Vodka has been distilled there since at least the 12th century. As of the time of writing, it is the world’s largest spirits market by volume – 2.4 billion liters in 2009, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), of which more than 80% accrues to domestic vodka brands. Whiskey’s share is only 0.5%; but it is growing at explosive rates, and whiskey now account for two thirds of all spirits imports. Indigenous distilleries are sprouting up and conditions appear favorable for this growth to continue.

In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus – a point illustrated by Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, one of Russia’s leading sommeliers and author of whiskey books, who got his first taste of Scotch by taking sips on the sly from the bottles his diplomat father brought home from abroad. This changed with the opening up of markets in the early 1990’s. Whiskey consumption has seen tremendous growth; the SWA says exports to Russia have risen from £5m to £31m in the past decade.

Though starting from a low base in comparison with the biggest Scotch markets, such as the US’ £499m, growth is expected to remain double-digit well into the future for three main reasons. First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes. Second, the growing segment of female drinkers favors spirits that can be sipped. Third,  the government plans to quadruple the currently low excise duties on spirits by 2014, thus narrowing the cost differential between vodkas and whiskeys. All this implies growth for blends, which dominate the Russian whiskey market – for a time, Tuzmukhamedov was Dewar’s chief promoter in Russia – and very strong growth for single malts.

Reactions to inquiries about indigenous Russian producers was dismissive, their current presence being described as “fairly negligible.” There are some distilleries that have laid down their own malts, but are currently maturing and won’t be ready for years. One example is Viski Kizlyarskoe, a Daghestan-based brand that in 2008 laid down test run trials of all major types of whiskey – malt, grain, and blended – and is building a $7m distillery.

Praskoveysky distillery

Praskoveysky distillery

Another is the Praskoveysky distillery based in Stavropol, which has been producing wine and cognac since 1898. In 2008, it expanded into whiskey, starting up production in oak barrels on Irish technology. The factory manager, Boris Pakhunov, claims that it has a better nose than the Jameson that inspired his brand, and the honey tones are sharper.

The first samples from both are coming to market just now, and once in mass production prices are expected to range 300 to 400 rubles ($11-15) – an economy class alternative to vodka and the most popular imported brands in this category, such as White Horse or Famous Grouse.

Later, in May 2010, the Urzhum spirits distillery announced the launch of its own line, headed by “Officer’s Club.” Another increasingly popular approach is to just import whiskeys from abroad and bottle one’s own blends, as done by the Kaliningrad-based distiller Alliance 1892 in February of this year. It’s product, “Seven Yards”, went on sale this May, costing $18 per bottle.

So it’s a beginning of sorts, if not an overly impressive one thus far. Nonetheless, as whiskey’s following grows, this could change. According to Tuzmukhamedov, there are whiskey appreciation societies in the biggest cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg: “I’ve met ordinary guys who save their money to go on holiday to Islay – that’s not affectation, that’s appreciation of the drink.” He should know, as he runs Dewar’s new whiskey academy in Moscow, whose one month courses have become very popular with restaurateurs.

Whither now? Tuzmukhamedov is very skeptical that whiskey will ever displace vodka as Russia’s national drink, because vodka has the weight of tradition behind it and goes much better with the staples of the Russian diet. Though there is a lot of room for growth remaining, he expects it to eventually level off. Russian whiskeys are likely to become more prevalent on the Russian market, and some may even be exported. There is an antecedent for this in Baltika beer, which began brewing in 1990 on foreign techniques and can now be found in Western supermarkets.

That said, there is still a long way to go. According to Tamerlan Paragulgov, the director of an alcohol standards agency, many of the fledgling Russian whiskey makers still have fairly obsolete marketing standards; case in point, the Praskoveysky winery and cognac distillery is still run in a leisurely and paternalistic fashion as a Soviet-style enterprise. Another problem, according to Tuzmukhamedov, is that it is very hard for a small producer like Praskoveysky to establish itself in competition against the big names.

The experiments of today’s Russian whiskey producers may garner interest among whiskey circles in Russia, but they will have to get more serious about marketing and raising capital if their products are to break out into the wider market.

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  1. Moscow Exile says:

    It’s the way of drinking that often causes problems when members of one national group try to adapt themselves to drinking another national tipple. In my experience, Russians find it hard to sip whisky, being used to throwing vodka down their throats and then taking a bite out of a salted gherkin; on the other hand, I’ve often seen Americans gag when trying to drink vodka after the Russian fashion, being used to sipping it in cocktails. It’s the same with many British in France; they can’t sit around a glass of wine for half an hour or so like a Frenchman can: they’ve got to whack it down necks like a pint of bitter and then shout out “Whose bloody round is it?” 🙂

  2. If Russians start to drink whiskey, then they must start eating Scottish haggis as well, since the two go together so well. In fact, haggis tastes best when you pour whiskey over it and set the whole thing on fire! 🙂

    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      Gosh Yalensis! I must try it though given how clumsy I am about most things I suspect if I do that my whole kitchen will explode.

      PS: Good haggis is difficult to find in London. The best is in the luxury shops eg Harrods.

      • Ha! I’m not kidding, it’s really good! (Forget London, I suggest you go directly to the source = Edinburgh).

  3. georgesdelatour says:

    In Poland in the 1990s there was a Beer-Lovers political party – the PPPP (Polska Partia Przyjaciół Piwa). As Wikipedia notes: “originally, the party’s goal was to promote cultural beer-drinking in English-style pubs instead of vodka and thus fight alcoholism”.

    Intriguing that the UK could serve as a model for sensible moderation in alcohol consumption…

    • The PPPP actually won about 18 seats in the Polish parliament in 1993. This was during the period just after the fall of communism, when Poland had something like 200 political parties.

  4. georgesdelatour says:

    Do Russians like Port?

    • Moscow Exile says:

      Russian “bomzhi” (person of no fixed abode) seem to like it. There is, in fact, a Russian port wine:


      I say “Russian” port, but I guess it comes from the Crimea, which, offficially, is now part of the Ukraine. It always reminds me of the cheap South African port that the alkies in my old part of the world (Northwest England) used to drink inYates’s Wine Lodges.

      Having said that bomzhi like port, I feel I should add that they also like de-icing fluid, metal polish, eau de cologne etc.

  5. Moscow Exile says:

    I used to work with several Poles down the pit in the Lancashire coalfields. They all could knock the vodka back in grand style. I remember one of them always used to blame the Russians for his and many of his fellow countrymen’s adddiction to vodka, saying that it the Russians who introduced the drink into Poland, where it was used as part payment to Polish serfs in order to make them dependent on it and thereby keep them in servitude. Much later, having emigrated, as it were, to Russia, I learnt that my old Polish drinking pal had got it all wrong and that vodka was introduced into Russia from Poland.

    • Ha! I knew it! My father, who grew up mostly in Poland, used to say: “Every Russian knows that a Pole can drink him under the table. But even the Pole must ultimately bow to the Finn.”

    • I used to know a Polish guy called Roman when I lived in the UK.

      He was liberated from a German concentration camp in 1945 and picked up Russian from the Red Army soldiers to a surprisingly high level. Amazingly, he still remembered enough to be able to talk to us in Russian in the late 1990’s, about 50 years since he left Poland to emigrate to Britain. There, without a formal education – as he had spent many of his teenage years imprisoned – he worked as a construction worker until an accident left him disabled. His English wife divorced him soon after and he was left to live alone on his modest pension.

      We were neighbors for a few years. He was a Germanophobe, and unusually for a Pole, also an Anglophobe and Russophile – a natural product of his life experiences, I suppose. He also slipped me £10 notes every so often, most of which my parents forced me to return. 😉

      He drank a lot and smoked a lot, and died from lung cancer in his 70’s. A fun guy but with a sad story.

    • Someone at our table at a wedding in Poland had lived with a family in France for a few months (I think he was an exchange student or part of some cultural exchange in the very early 90’s, when it was still rare for Poles to be in the West). Every morning his hosts would serve him vodka, which he politely drank. After a few days he remarked to his hosts, what a strange custom they had in France, to drink vodka every morning for breakfast. His hosts then said that they thought that this was what was done in Poland, and they wanted him to feel at home.

  6. Alexander Mercouris says:

    An utterly fascinating article. It is especially interesting that there is growing interest in single malts.

    By the way Russia has all the means to become an absolutely outstanding producer of whisky, especially in the form of its own single malts. It has a centuries old tradition of distillation, excellent water available in huge quantities and all the barley and grain one could want. Its range of geographical regions should make for an impressive range of whisky extending from the granite regions of Karelia (reproducing the style of highland and Speyside whisky) to the peat areas of central Russia (perfect for Islay style whisky). The Russians could even experiment with what some Scottish distilleries do, which is mature whisky in flavoured barrels previously used to store other drinks like Bourbon or sherry. Options might include brandy barrels from say Armenia or Dagestan or port and sherry barrels from places like Massandra. Russia I believe also has its own style of Madeira, old barrels of which could also be used in this way.

    Come to think of it there is no obvious reason why Russia should not also produce corn whisky like Bourbon (which by the way I happen to like) though given the different climate conditions this would take longer to mature, which might add to its complexity . Another interesting option would be rye whisky, which was common in the US before Prohibition and is still produced on a limited scale in the US and in Canada and which on the one occasion I have drunk it I thought exceptional.

    Perhaps our friends in Scotland and the US should watch out.

    PS: For anyone interested, malts being complex and sophisticated drinks they should be drunk neat and at room temperature. Some people like adding a drop of water. Never drink them chilled, especially not with ice and never add soda water. If you want to do those things stick to blends.

    • Okay, I hate to admit, but I have NEVER tasted whiskey. I once sniffed it, and I could tell from the smell that I didn’t like the taste, so I didn’t drink it. I usually drink just good old French wine.
      This article has made me curious, though: Can somebody please explain to me what is the difference between single malt and any other kind of malt?

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        Dear Yalensis,

        A malt is a whisky made purely from water and barley from a single distillery. Scotland has scores of distilleries. Though there are various additional factors the single most important thing that determines the taste and quality of the whisky is the water the distillery uses.

        Malts are usually aged for several years in barrels or casks where they have contact with the air and acquire complexity. The period can vary but is usually between ten years and thirty though there are some much older malts. Once a whisky is bottled its development stops and a 24 year old malt kept in a bottle will taste the same in twenty years or as it does in two.

        There are as many styles of malts as there are distilleries but broadly there are five generic styles: lowland (the lightest), highland, Speyside, Camperdown and Island.

        A blend is a whisky that is a mixture of different malts blended with neutral tasting grain whisky. They almost never come with an age statement. The vast majority of whiskies that are sold are blends. Typical examples are Johnny Walker, J&B, Famous Grouse etc. By comparison with malts blends are smoother and more refined and easier drinking but lack a malt’s weight and complexity and character. Malts are generally thought to be the premium product and are usually much more expensive but there are some very fine blends (like Johnny Walker Black Label) that are also considered premium products.

        Whisky is a difficult drink to get to know and is a taste one has to educate oneself to acquire but it is well worth the effort. Because of its strong character it cannot be knocked down like vodka but like Anatoly says must be sipped. It has traditionally been a man’s drink so I am very impressed to learn from Anatoly that Russian women are taking to it because they think it is refined.

        As with a good vodka it is a crime to mix it or use it in cocktails.

        • Dear Alexander,
          Greetings from Scotland.
          Re the single greatest influence on the taste of a malt whisky, most distillers would probably choose the cask as having the greatest influence determing possibly 50% of taste, possiby followed by whether the malt is heavily peated or un-peated and then the shape of the stills and the way they are used.

  7. Alexander Mercouris says:

    One small and ultra pedantic point.

    A Scottish whisky is “whisky”. An Irish or American whisky is “whiskey”. Scottish whisky is distilled twice. Irish whiskey is distilled three times, which adds smoothness at the expense of complexity. All Irish whiskeys are blends. Single malts are almost always Scottish.

    • Yet another small pedantic correction. Most whisky from Scotland is distilled twice but historically whisky from the Scottish Lowlands was triple distilled eg Auchentoschen, Rosebank, Bladnoch. However Bladnoch is now only distilled twice, Rosebank has closed and Auchentoschen continues to be triple distilled.

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        Dear Martin,

        Thanks for this. It is a pleasure to be corrected on such a subject.

        PS: I am sorry to hear that Rosebank has closed. I have only tried it once but it seemed a classic malt and one of the best I have tried in the lowland style.

  8. Moscow Exile says:

    It’s funny how tastes can change, though. In 1991, when I first began to work in Russia and before I decided to settle here, after my visits to the UK I used to bring back whisky to present as gifts. I lived in Voronezh then, and although all my acquaintances were more than keen to try real whisky (you could get Polish “whisky” at the time), the genuine concensus of opinion as regards the “real MacCoy” that I presented them was that it was only “samogon” (Russian hooch, white lightning, moonshine, potcheen). After a while I got a bit tired of this and told one seemingly ungracious recipient of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label that the “samogon” in question happened to be a 12-year-old blended whisky. He then told me he could make the same whisky in much less time. After he had gone, my then girlfriend assured me that her “uncle”, he who had criticised the whisky, was well known for his samogon making skills. A week later we were guests at “uncle’s”, and he presented me with the fruit of his labour: it was bloody good! And he hadn’t just swapped the Johnny Walker that I had given him the week before: he still had most of it. He then showed me other examples of his distilling skills, which included his own “Amaretto” liqueur and “cognac”. There then followed a very interesting degustation. We had to get a taxi home.

    As a postscript to this little tale, I enjoyed a revenge of sorts some 7 years later, when, as a newly wed, I first took my Russian wife (not the Voronezh girl with the talented uncle) to the UK. We were in a Manchester “Irish” pub (real Irish that is: a small backstreet establishment frequented by Irishmen) that I used to hang out in, and the landlord, whom I knew well, invited me to a “stay-behind”. As soon as the doors were locked and the curtains drawn, out from the back came a tray of potcheen (Irish “samogon”). On trying it, my wife was, to use the vernacular, “gobsmacked”. She then said in English “I didn’t know that the English did this!” There was a moment’s silence from the company that we were in, and then the landlord said to them “She’s Russian”. The “craic” was good after that.

    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      Dear Moscow Exile,

      If the man could reproduce a Johnny Walker Black Label then he was little short of a genius. With talent like that how can Russia fail?

      • Moscow Exile says:

        Well, it wasn’t exactly Johnny Walker Black label that he had replicated, but if you had put it behind a bar in the UK, you would have been able to sell it to binge drinkers without any problem.

  9. “In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus”

    There was also Georgian and Moldovan wine, domestic and Czech beer and other stuff. My father’s favorite was something called Rigas Balzams.

    “First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes.”

    People have a long history of getting snobbish about whiskey. Not to the same extent as with wine, but still. I don’t drink, but I have a feeling that vodka is suffering from a snobbishness deficit. By the way, I have no idea if any of this snobbishness is justified. All booze tastes horrible to me.

    “…vodka has the weight of tradition behind it and goes much better with the staples of the Russian diet.”

    I’ve read that it’s also less harmful to one’s health than colored spirits. The stuff that seeps into whiskey from the oak barrels is said to be harmful.

    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      Dear Glossy,

      “I’ve read that it’s also less harmfull to one’s health than coloured spirits. The stuff that seeps into whisky from the oak barrels is said to be harmful”.

      If you drink whisky like vodka that is true. Vodka is the most refined spirit since it is distilled to remove impurities. That is why it is so much smoother than whisky or indeed any other spirit and so much easier to drink. Since vodka is so refined it is far less likely to make you feel ill or cause you a headache than whisky if you get drunk on it though I have to say that the habit of some Russians I know of drinking beer after their vodka to stay sober strikes me as rather odd.

      Having said this one should not exaggerate. If you drink whisky properly it should cause you no more ill effect than any other alcoholic drink. By the way by far the worst effect on me of any alcoholic drink was caused by a homemade rum (samogon?) somebody once sent me from Barbados.

      PS: Whisky, vodka, gin, brandy (including cognac) and rum are spirits because they are made through the process known as distillation. They are to be distinguished from wine and beer, which are made in a quite different way and which are not spirits. Balzams by the way is a spirit. The snobbishness you refer to by the way exists in Britain as well and at the moment Riga Balzams is a beneficiary as you will discover if you visit any top bar here.

      • Moscow Exile says:

        Strange thing is, I used to also bring London Dry Gin back as presents, and nobody really liked it. I used to tell them that it was “English vodka” flavoured with the juniper berry, that it was as pure as the very best vodka, but they thought it inferior to their nationasl drink. And then, in the mid-90s, there appeared small cans of UK (Greenall’s) “gin and tonic” on the Moscow streets, which soon began to be retailed in 0.5l cans and which were clearly to Russian taste. Then the Moscow brewery Ochakovo began to manufacture a horrendous version of “dzhin tonik”. As I said earlier, tastes change, and there’s certianly the “snob factor” to take into consideration with regards to the marketing of Western products in Russia. But I’ve still not met a Russian that likes to drink gin neat.

    • I’ve read that it’s also less harmful to one’s health than colored spirits.

      If you drink it like a philistine, sure. But as Alex correctly points out, it should be – at least the single malts – sipped and swished about in the mouth; not downed.

      That is obviously infinitely less harmful than consuming a bottle of vodka over an evening like many Russians do every other week.

      My worst alcohol experience is probably the one time when we got so drunk that the host ran out of (real) vodka and started serving us medical spirit mixed with water. By that time we were so drunk we did not care. Unsurprisingly it took place in Russia.

    • Riga Black Balsam is awesome stuff if you put a few drops of it in coffee. For sure, I wouldn’t take it straight.

    • My father-in-law regularly gets some incredible Armenian cognacs (he’s an excellent physician, and some of his patients have very good taste and means).

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        I have never tried Armenian cognac though one of my Russian friends is a fan. It is the only brandy outside France that can be legally called a “cognac”. Supposedly this is because it won a competition in Paris in 1900 at which the French cognac producers were so impressed that they agreed it should be allowed to market itself as a “cognac”. There might be a political context to this, in that 1900 marked the high point of the French Russian friendship and alliance, which led to the two countries fighting alongside each other against Germany in the First World War.

        There is a story, which may be true, that Winston Churchill became a great fan of Armenian cognac after trying some at the Yalta Conference.

  10. Moscow Exile says:

    I’ve been on many drinking sessions where medical spirit has been the intoxicant. Towards the end of the USSR and in the early post-Soviet days, the market was also awash with 90 proof alcohol from Germany, which was sold in 2l bottles. It was called “Berliner Bär” (Berlin Bear) if I remember rightly. The natives usually watered it down a little before imbibing.

    The worst thing that I once downed, though, was Russsian eau de cologne. I was dragged into a neighbour’s room as I was returning from my studies to my own in the hostel where I was billeted, and a glass was thrust into my hand. It was my neighbour’s birthday and his tiny abode was already rolling. Thinking it was vodka, I downed the shot Russian style. It was eau de cologne. Bloody awful! On seeing the look of surprise on my face, my jovial host enquired “What’s wrong? Don’t you drink eau de cologne in England?”

    “Not as a rule” I managed to reply, trying desperately to exhibit my British sang-froid.

    I could taste the bloody perfume for a week afterwards!

    That was in Voronezh in 1990. Everything was “defesit” then. And Westerners still wonder why most Russians dislike Gorbachev.

  11. Moscow Exile says:

    That eau de cologne story of mine reminds me of one of the very first Soviet “anekdoty” that I heard:

    A drunkard goes into a Moscow pefumery, staggers up to one of the assistants, and slurs to her “Do you have any eau de cologne?”

    “We have”, she replies, “what kind would you like?”

    “This”, he says, and leaning over the counter, he breathes out forcefully into her face.

    She steps back, and says to him “I’m very sorry, but we don’t have that kind of eau de cologne”.

    “Well, what kind have you got?” he asks.

    “This”, she replies, and leaning over the counter, she breathes out forcefully into his face.

  12. Thorfinnsson says:

    All I can say is I hope Russian whiskey is better than Russian beer.

    I purchased a 40 of Baltika in a “Western supermarket”. It came in a plastic bottle which is never a good sign, but I’m always up for new things.

    I opened it when I got back to my car. I was only able to finish half of it on the way home before chucking it, so awful was the taste. It basically tasted like bitter cough syrup.

    • I’ve never seen a Baltika in a plastic bottle.

      Perhaps try out the one’s in bottles. They are numbered 1-9 and each one correlates to a different flavor and gradient.

      I don’t think Baltika should win any prizes, but it’s certainly far from the worst out there; certainly better than the Buds, Millers, etc.

  13. Moscow Exile says:

    I remember the first time I tried Baltika. I was waiting for the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, where I was going to celebrate Old New Year 1993 the next day, when I spotted the new label amongst the former Soviet beers and gave it a try. Baltika was then like the nectar of the gods in comparison to that Soviet swill. Unfortunately, its quality declined as the decade progressed and competition increased from imported foreign brews or foreign beers brewed under license in Russia. Baltika’s ownership changed as well, which might have contributed to its decline in quality. At first it was a joint Russian, Swedish and British (Scottish & Newcastle Breweries) enterprise. I think Heineken is the majority shareholder now. There are, however, some decent Russian brews. I haven’t drunk for 4 years now, but the Russian beeer that I was fond of when I last drank was Yarpivo (Yantarnoe pivo: Amber Beer).


    • I’m going to defend Baltika. Their numbers 4 (brown), 5 (golden) and 6 (porter) are definitely recommendable and tasty beers. Unfortunately, 5 is very difficult to find in stores, and restaurants tend to serve 7, which is a boring and undistinguished lager.

      So if anyone from Baltika is reading this: bring back 5, dammit!

  14. Thorfinnsson says:

    Are there any Russian beers comparable to mass market American or European lagers? Especially pilsner beers. You know, stuff like Budweiser or Grolsch (no, European lagers are not better than American).

    I am over good beer these days and just prefer clean pounding beers to get smashed when I’m not sticking to whiskey.

  15. Moscow Exile says:

    The pilsner drunk in Russia is, in my opinion, mostly imported Czech Urquell or European pilsner brewed under licence here. As mentioned above, Baltika does a pilsner. So does EFES, which is a Turkish owned concern. Don’t know what it’s like though. However, I should think that EFES is considered to be “European standard” by most Russians.:


    EFES Stary Melnik (Old Windmill) is their most popular brand of top fermented beers brewed for “Russian taste”:


  16. Alexander Mercouris says:

    I have tried Baltika lager and I thought it was good.

    A very remarkable British beer is Imperial Russian Stout. This is a dark heavy beer made by one or two breweries that was once exported to Russia and which was supposedly favoured by Catherine the Great, thus the name. It is difficult to find but it is certainly one of the best British beers. I gather that one of the brewers that makes it has tried to re establish the Russian connection by brewing it in Tartu in Estonia whence it is exported back to Britain. I wonder whether it is known at all in Russia. It is very strong and benefits from being aged in a cellar like wine.

    I have heard that Baltika also brews a dark beer. Has anyone tried it?

    • If you’re referring to number 6 (porter), I think it’s quite good. In fact it’s probably my favorite Baltika at the moment (in the absence of 5, which I can’t find anymore).

  17. Democratist says:

    AK Edit: You have banned me from commenting on your own blog, Mr. Democratist Man; and for that matter, in true democratist spirit, anyone else who doesn’t share your smoldering Russophobia. I am not a democratist like you and don’t hate free speech, so you are free to comment here IF you do so on-topic, but spamming this site with but off-topic links containing no original commentary whatsoever will not be tolerated.

  18. A point Dear Comrade (which will be important when/if you get to Heaven. Which you might, or might not. Where they ask these questions. And it matters. Up or down.)
    WHISKEY — Irish and American
    WHISKY — Scotch and Canadian.

    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      I didn’t know that Canadian whisky is whisky.

      By the way one of the greatest drinks I have ever had and which I strongly recommend to anyone with a taste for that sort of thing is Canadian ice wine. This is made from late harvest grapes that have been allowed to freeze on the vine in the winter frost. It is a style invented in Germany but the Canadians have brought to it a pitch of perfection. The intensity of these wines is staggering. They are amongst the great sweet dessert wines of the world. Those made with the Riesling grape are best.

      • Wow – I once lived near the Canadian icewine making region. Nice to see it so appreciated abroad.

      • Dear Alex,

        Not being a drinker (my body doesn’t tolerate alcohol well at all – must be due to my Asian genetic heritage!), I can’t contribute much to this post but I have heard grapes grown for ice wine must be picked in a critical 2 or 3-hour period early in the morning, some time starting at 2 am, before temperatures change and defrost the grapes, changing the taste. This might explain why ice wine is made only in Canada (I think in southern Ontario near Toronto) and Germany and why it is so expensive. Is this true, do you know? I remember reading a Sydney Morning Herald newspaper article many years ago about ice wine but forgot a lot of the details.

        • Alexander Mercouris says:

          Dear Jen,

          I am afraid I cannot tell you much about the process for making ice wine. I did once see a film that showed the grapes being picked in the dark with torches, which supports your account. However I am not a wine maker and I cannot say more. You are right in saying though that the only versions that are taken seriously are those that are made in Germany (where the style was invented) and in Canada. It is said to be very difficult to make.

          @AP, Canadian ice wine has made a big impact here in Britain, where it is highly regarded amongst those who appreciate good wine and who can afford it. It is now accepted as one of the world’s great dessert wines. All the top wine merchants (Justerini & Brooks, Berry Brothers & Rudd etc) now stock it as do the top food stores eg. Fortnum & Masons and Harrods. It is also a favourite for after dinner drinking by top academics at Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. I cannot say what the situation is outside Britain.

          Incidentally when it comes to the great sweet Reisling wines the trend now is to prefer from Germany wines made with botrytised grapes from such places as the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, the Rheingau and the Pfalz and to prefer the ice wine that comes from Canada.

          • Alex,

            Thanks very much for the information! Your mention of the film suggests my hunch about the time of picking the grapes is correct. I’ve since found out that the grapes must be pressed while still frozen so they have to be picked at night or during the very early morning.

            Australian and New Zealand have very small ice wine industries but the grapes are usually frozen after being picked.

            • Alexander Mercouris says:

              Dear Jen,

              As you of course know Australia is one of the greatest red wine regions in the world particularly Shiraz wines from Barossa. Two of the greatest red wines anywhere are Grange and Heschke Hill of Grace as I can vouch for myself. Even the French acknowledge them as comparable to their greatest red wines. Prices in Britain for these wines are off the scale. They are far better than any Californian reds I have tried including very fancied Californian wines like Opus One.

              As for dessert wines I have heard that Australia makes some heavy sweet Muscat wines, which are well regarded by those with a taste for that sort of thing but I have never come across them.

              • Alexander Mercouris says:

                Just a quick further point, which is that any attempt to make ice wine using artificial refrigeration is almost certainly destined to produce a wine that is inferior to that made in natural conditions.

                Again ice wine ought to be something that the Russians could also do. After all they have the climate for it.

              • Alex,

                The Barossa Valley region is famous for its vineyards which were established by German immigrants in the 19th century. The area is not far from Adelaide and can be visited in a day trip although you might need a couple of days to visit the wineries (I haven’t been there myself) and some food-producing places there. There are bakeries, butchers and cheese-makers in the region that produce for export as well as local consumption.

                There are actually several wine-making regions in Australia and the better known ones include the Hunter valley region which is 200 km north of Sydney, the Margaret River region south of Perth and an area around Mildura in northwestern Victoria state on the Murray river border between Victoria and New South Wales near South Australia. At my last place of work, there was a guy there whose family owned a vineyard in Coolangatta which is 200 km south of Sydney. Coolangatta as a wine-producing region is not so well known as the Barossa and Hunter valley areas.

                The city of Coolangatta in Queensland which is known locally and overseas as a holiday resort town was actually named after Coolangatta in New South Wales.

                The “ice wine”, or icebox wine as it’s usually called, made in Australia comes from Mudgee in central New South Wales. Nowhere in Australia do you get climatic conditions ideal for proper ice wine – the climate is too temperate even in the ski areas near Mount Kosciuszko in far south NSW – and as for New Zealand, there is an area in Otago province in the South Island that possibly meets the climatic requirements but the wine-growing industry there is very new and is still in an experimental stage.