The whisky wonder of Zorge

Yes, indeed, in Zorge in the southern Harz there is a whisky distillery that has succeeded in establishing a special reputation for itself in the world of exquisite malt´s. None other than Jim Murray has praised the whiskies as absolute top products in his Whisky Bible, even in comparison with Scottish Malt´s. The 200 types of whisky produced with Harz water are sold under the umbrella brand “Glen Els”; distilled in the so-called “Hammerschmiede” in Zorge, whose salesrooms have become a tourist attraction. Commenting on the current good demand for whisky, company boss Alexander Buchholz says: “We produce 30,000 bottles a year. If I want to, they’d be sold out by February.”

Harz-Beat: How many people visited your distillery in 2018 and how many of them bought something?

Buchholz: Over 20,000 people visited, and 60 percent purchased something, which means that a good half of our whisky production is sold right over the counter in our distillery shop. Nearly 15,000 bottles are sold via a retailer, and a considerable quantity through our online shop.

“The Crescent Moon of Tourist Flows”

Harz-Beat: There are many tourists among your visitors. Do these customers come from the closer areas of the southern Harz?

Buchholz: Rather less. You have to imagine the normal tourist streams as a crescent moon, which – to put it simply – stretches from Goslar in the west to Wernigerode in the east and Braunlage in the Upper Harz mountains. From a touristic point of view, there is quite a lot going on in this crescent moon. St. Andreasberg and Bad Lauterberg, where there is still a little bit going on, are slight outliers. Here in the southern Harz, i.e. in Zorge, Wieda and Walkenried, there is not nearly as much going on as in Braunlage.

The impressive warehouse of the “Hammerschmiede” contains about 700 barrels.

Harz-Beat: So many tourists accept a longer journey to come to you? Then it is fair to say that you are sort of a visitor magnet for the Southern Harz.

Buchholz: We do not see ourselves as a lighthouse, but as one building block. The problem is that there are hardly any other building blocks. Guests, for instance from Wernigerode, need about one hour for the journey. When he stays with us for two hours, the question quickly arises: “What do we do now?” I am therefore delighted that a World Heritage Information Centre will be opened in the Walkenried Monastery this year or next year. Then guests can easily spend a whole day in the southern Harz.

Harz-Beat: Aren’t you a little too hard on the southern Harz?

Buchholz: Nature is really awesome, here. Hikers and mountain bikers will find a small paradise. But these tourists also want accommodations that are up to date. In Zorge, for example, there are 400 guesthouse beds. 100 of them are really top, but with the others you want to shout to the owners: “Do something!” It’s not right to keep on saying for decades: “We’ll just make it a few euros cheaper.” This attitude must change in order to give the development a positive direction again.

Good reports on the southern Harz are also a small building block, but they only lead to success if the region is also really good. Otherwise, you risk losing your credibility. What I would wish for Zorge would be an overall concept.

The “Hammerschmiede” from the outside.

“Interested in sustainable development”

Harz-Beat: Your company is doing extremely well. You could sell a lot more bottles than you actually produce. Are you thinking of increasing your production?

Buchholz: Our industry is not comparable to the production of screws, where you can buy a new machine today and produce twice as much tomorrow. According to the legislation, a whisky must be at least three years old, but this only means that it may then be sold, but not that it is already mature. In most cases this is only after 5 to 10 years. The problem is: the market can look completely different after this time. We are therefore more interested in sustainable development. The 10 employees who work here and we in the management can make a living from it. That’s quite enough for us. The whisky market is traditionally a roller coaster ride. It’s never been any different.

“You can taste the ripening time”

Harz-Beat: You are 34 years old and have a degree in business administration. In addition to business administration and economics, you have also studied modern and middle history. What is your main task in the company?

Buchholz: It’s called a master distiller. So, I am responsible for the entire distillation process.

Harz-Beat: Which characteristics should a master distiller have?

Buchholz: Patience! Especially the jewels among the malt´s need a long ripening time, time you can taste. Of course, every master distiller has his secrets.

Buchholz: 'The whisky production simply matches the Harz'

What triggered Alexander Buchholz to start making whisky in the Harz Mountains? “It just fits in here,” he stresses. The good Harz mountain water is the essential thing for a distinctive whisky. Another important ingredient: the malt of barley.

According to him, barley used to be the only grain in the Harz Mountains that could be seriously cultivated up to a height of 900 metres, at a time when the scythe was still used for mowing. But for the large harvesting machines that were used later on, the slopes were hardly passable, so that barley cultivation was abandoned. Today the Harz Mountains focus on tourism.

From 1543 on, the Count of Hohenstein granted the people in the Harz mountains so-called mountain freedoms. They were not only exempted from military service, but were also allowed to produce wine (from fruits and berries) as well as beer and brandy (from barley) for their own needs.

Today the barley comes from the Harz foreland, for example from the Goldenen Aue (direction Nordhausen) or from the Hildesheimer and Magdeburger Boerde. It is further processed in a medium-sized malthouse located between the Harz mountains and Hanover.

Harz-Beat: How would you describe the premium quality of your whisky? How do you assess your position in Germany?

Buchholz: I don’t know if our products are premium. You have to ask the lovers of our single malt´s about that. I’m not going to stand up and say, “Our whisky is the best in the world” because we’re talking about taste here. And taste is a super-individual thing.

It is therefore also difficult to assess what position we have in Germany. We are certainly one of the oldest companies. There are over 400 distilleries in Germany, four times as many as in Scotland. But all together they don’t even produce as much as a medium-sized Scottish distillery alone. Also, the 30.000 bottles we produce per year, a medium-sized distillery in Scotland will make at least the same amount in one day. The really big ones like Glenfiddich produce several million bottles a year.

Distillery plants for whisky.

Because everything we do is in “miniature format”, the quality of the Glen Els can of course be controlled more precisely. On the other hand, the “whisky miracle” sometimes happens just because of the limited controllability of the whisky’s development.

We see ourselves as a manufactory, as a craftsman’s business, and of course we are very happy when in the end we get great products out of it. We’re still trying to get a bit better.

Harz-Beat: What do the prices of your whisky types, which start at 49.50 euros and reach up to about 160 euros, depend on?

Buchholz: For example, exclusivity, alcohol content or rarity.

Harz-Beat: Since you can’t even cover domestic demand at the moment, foreign markets are probably not an issue for you at all …

Buchholz: We do not export directly. Our biggest foreign market is the Netherlands, with a very, very large number of visitors coming to Zorge.

“Enjoyment more important than image”

Harz-Beat: Word is that the Chinese have discovered the taste of a good whisky. Can you confirm that?

Buchholz: Yes, but that’s a completely different story about some Chinese consortia with a suitcase of cash standing in front of our door and wanting to buy a share of the distillery from us, which we thankfully rejected.

I also have my doubts about the Asian markets as to whether the increasing interest is really due to the fact that people have seriously come across the enjoyment factor “taste” or whether it is not rather the positive image of the whisky. I would very much welcome it if the concept of enjoyment became more and more accepted. We don’t produce the whisky to keep it on some shelf for 20 years. As investment projects, stocks and gold are better suited than whisky, which is made for drinking. But I am afraid that the idea of prestige is still in the foreground for many people.

Events for absolute whisky lovers

Once a month Alexander Buchholz serves something very special in an impressive, cosy whisky lounge. Then brands of exquisite quality – also from other manufacturers – are tasted, sometimes in a price range that an individual would hardly be able to afford. “But in a group of 12 it is easier to make whisky dreams come true”, Buchholz describes the high level of the event.

These are often people who have received the tasting as a gift, for example in recognition of special achievements: an unusual business transaction of an entrepreneur, a complicated operation of a doctor, etc.

Harz-Beat: What is your most important marketing instrument?

Buchholz: We don’t have one. We have a sales department, but no marketing department. Against the background of our good sales situation, word of mouth is completely sufficient.

Harz-Beat: You maintain very good contact with your Scottish colleagues. On what occasions do you meet with them?

Buchholz: We don’t see each other at normal whisky fairs, which are attended by the end consumer, but at special trade fairs, where the topics are equipment and advanced training, for example on questions of micro-bacterial processes.

“More products: Herbal liqueurs, fruit brandies and gin”

Harz-Beat: You produced your first whisky at the age of 18 shortly before graduating from high school. Your father, who continues to work in the company, started producing spirits in the “Hammerschmiede” in 1985. What other products do you make besides whisky?

Buchholz: Herbal liqueurs, fruit liqueurs and a few fruit brandies. We have also been producing gin since 2015. Today, these products account for about half of our sales. They made it possible for us to set up a whisky distillation plant, which costs an awful lot of money. If the equipment had not already been available, it would have been impossible for an 18-year-old.

Bluhm: 'Inspired by the ambience of the Hammerschmiede'

Whenever Jan-Peter Bluhm visits the Harz Mountains, whether in Bad Sachsa, Wernigerode or on the occasion of the Brockenmarathon, he visits the “Hammerschmiede” to take a bottle with him. The man from Gütersloh appreciates the aroma and taste nuances of the Glen Els. He is particularly fond of its milder types.

He is enthusiastic about the ambience of the Hammerschmiede. “Very professional, also regarding the way whisky samples are served in the distillery shop,” says Bluhm, who has just arrived from Bad Sachsa with his whole family.

Jan-Peter Bluhm from Gütersloh works for the agricultural machinery manufacturer Claas and often comes to the Harz for running and mountain biking. He regularly makes a detour to the “Hammerschmiede”.

When he came to Zorge for the first time in 2015, Jan-Peter Bluhm was a little surprised that some of the houses in the village were no longer in the best condition. He did not expect to find a whisky distillery of this format here.

Text, photos and design: Jochen Hotop, Michael Hotop