A Single Malt Whiskey From Patagonia

Barley and water. With some careful manipulation, these two simple ingredients can yield stunning single malt whiskey. Yet walking up the dusty track towards La Alazana distillery, the landscape dominated by the dramatic Piltriquitrón hills, the prospect of making single malt in this desperately remote location seems anything but simple.

Buenos Aires, the beating heart and commercial center of Argentina, is a full two day’s drive. It seems like Nestor and Lila Serenelli couldn’t have picked a less convenient location to set up a craft whiskey distillery had they tried.

Yet it is this unique location, blended with the determination of the pair, that makes La Alazana Patagonia Single Malt the award-winning craft whiskey that it is.

The distillery lies in a valley just outside the small village of Las Golondrinas in Patagonia. The microclimate experienced within this valley —cooler summers and milder winters than nearby desert regions— is well suited to distilling and ageing whiskey. The surrounding hills, though daunting in appearance, protect the area from extreme weather and offer an abundance of streams that can be used as water sources.

“The water here is very, very pure”, explains Lila. “In a straight line, we are only 60 kilometers away from the Pacific Ocean.”

Occupying the majority of 60 km that separate the distillery from the Pacific ocean is the Hornopirén National Park – a place of outstanding natural beauty, completely free of pollution sources. As water is one of only two ingredients used to make single malt, it is imperative that the water being used is as pure as possible. The single malt’s journey starts as humid air that rises from the ocean and meets the great natural barriers surrounding La Alazana. Here, it precipitates and flows down the hillside where it can be used for distillation.

The second ingredient, barley, is not quite so local in origin. Of the two varieties used at La Alazana, one is a standard variety; grown and harvested in the province of Buenos Aires. A smoked —or peated— variety is imported all the way from Belgium. “The same as they use in Scotland,” Nestor proudly informs me.

Nestor takes charge of the distillation process. It is a field in which he has years of experience, though he cut his teeth distilling fruit brandies and corn whisky. Scotch whisky was, however, always lingering in the back of his mind and when the couple finally decided to produce their own, they embarked upon a pilgrimage to Scotland.

Touring the distilleries, they tasted and witnessed the production of multiple types of Scotch whisky. On one occasion, they were even lucky enough to meet legendary Master Distiller Jim McEwan, though Nestor reveals that any talk of distillation was of an ideological rather than technical nature – “something,” he adds, “that Jim himself believes to be a much more important part of the [distillation] process.”

The Scotland theme comes up repeatedly during my visit. It’s clear that Nestor and Lila are passionate about Scotch whisky — not just the drink itself but also the knowledge and gusto that goes into producing it.

So great is their desire to produce an authentic Scotch single malt, that they work closely with a laboratory in Scotland, where they regularly send samples of their whiskey to be analyzed.

“It’s something that we invest a lot of time, effort and money into,” reveals Lila. “We admire them in Scotland and we want to make whisky according to their standards because it’s what we like to drink.”

At the same time, however, it is the unique nature of the origin of product, a Patagonian Single Malt, that distiller Nestor values above all else. “I don’t want to imitate any specific Scotch whisky. Instead, what I want to replicate is their idea of the personality of a region, revealed through the whisky. When you decide to make whiskey in a certain location, what you are choosing are the climatic conditions under which you distill and age your whisky, as well as the water with which you make it.” To Nestor, whiskey “is a combination of produce and location” — not unlike the French oenological idea of terroir.

“Even if we wanted to copy a specific whiskey it would be impossible with our stills,” adds Lila. “We designed them and made them ourselves with the exact style whisky we wanted to make in mind.”

The style of whiskey in question is light in body and floral and fruity in aroma — a profile obtained through double distillation using copper stills with relatively long necks and small pots.

Their first release, the 3-year aged ‘Patagonia Single Malt’, gained international critical acclaim in 2014, when it was awarded ‘Best Guest Spirit’ by the Scottish Craft Distillers Association. The winning formula comprised of 80% whisky aged in bourbon casks and 20% in Sherry, with both parts brought together and married in cognac casks.

While this recipe brought them success, by no means have Lila and Nestor closed the recipe book just there. Instead, they believe that whiskey-making is more dynamic process.

After each use, the profile of a cask used for ageing changes. The qualities that it imports to (and extracts from) the whisky also change in strength and nature, meaning that each batch of whisky aged in a particular cask will taste completely different to the previous one. What’s more, with each passing year, they also gain the advantage of being able to blend different vintages. The 2015 release, for example, was a blend of three as well as 4-year aged whisky.

Apart from overseeing things at the distillery, Lila also runs a therapeutic riding school on-site. Just as the cask gives to the whiskey and the whiskey gives back to the cask, the few horses that live on the farm share a similar symbiosis with the distillery. The horses feed on the draff (used, ground barley), once the wort (fermented liquor) has been drained away to begin distillation.

Actually, it is from the horses —and one mare in particular— that the distillery gained its name and identity. La Alazana is a reference to a particular color of horse’s coat, one which bears a striking resemblance to copper stills and aged whiskey. Not only the name, but also the location of the distillery owes thanks to horses and was chosen for its suitability to keeping a few. “We both grew up around horses and we always wanted to live on a farm where could have our own” Lila tells me.

My day ends, as any good one should, over a ‘wee dram’ (small glass of whiskey) and a ‘blether’ (chat) as the Scots would say. The contents of my glass are a feast of organoleptic delights. The copper spirit dazzles in the afternoon sunlight. A deep, long intake of air reveals a complex aromatic mix of white flowers, dried fruits, heavily toasted bread and a mineral quality akin to river water passing over large stones. Moving into the mouth, the whiskey is light bodied, though in no way lacking intensity. Sweet caramel and vanilla notes are complemented by cinnamon and lemon.

As talk turns to the future, Lila informs me of special release that they are working on. “Organic barley” and “virgin casks for ageing” she reveals excitedly.

In the meantime however, the best ingredient the Serenelli couple can add to the ageing whisky is patience. “We’re not in a hurry,” says Lila. “We’ve learned to wait. We’re in touch with nature, we’re doing what we like doing… and meanwhile, we’re drinking good whiskey!”