The home of Fading Hill – Birkenhof – filled its first whisky cask in the early 2000s. That makes the place one of Germany’s oldest manufacturers in this domain. Its general history in spirit production, however, is even longer: The family-owned craft unit started way back in 1848 making korn and other beverages. Over the decades, the business expanded significantly. Today, Birkenhof houses six individual distilleries on its premises and employs 40 staff. Across its complete range of 60 products, Birkenhof releases over half a million bottles per year; about 8,000 of which contain Fading Hill Whisky. You see: The category only amounts for a small percentage of Birkenhof’s output at the moment. Yet, it bears lots of growth potential. And it is especially dear to the hearts of the owners Steffi and Peter, who are very passionate about barrel-aged spirits.
In its current form, the core range of Fading Hill, whose name pays homage to a basalt quarry closeby, consists of three expressions: Single Rye, Single Malt, and Peat. In a recent online tasting via Zoom, these highly recommendable drams marked the kick-off trio. Since the distillery’s annual whisky capacity is still quite manageable (they make approximately 15,000 liters of new make per year), there is not yet enough stock for a permanent line-up of consistent bottlings. Thus, the three different qualities are produced batch-wise, with changing cask combinations everytime. If you order a bottle of Single Rye from the shop today, you will get an eight-year-old drop that was vatted from two Oloroso butts and one Bourbon barrel. It is crisp, creamy, and smoothly fading out. The inviting nose provides apricots, cereals, herbs, and modeling clay. The voluminous palate is rich with bananas, peaches, cocktail cherries, and pastry crumble. The soft but pronounced finish adds grapefuit and pepper to the mix, among others. Edition 01/22 of the Single Malt has a complex cask formula: Virgin Oak, Bourbon, Sherry, and Port. The result is an ever-changing dram that provides sweet notes (sugared raspberries), crisp notes (red apples), delicate notes (dark chocolate), deep notes (fine oak), and dry notes (dried fruits) all together.
Edition No. 6 of Peat is made with Belgian malt and distilled “dirtier” than Fading Hill’s other products (e.g., the whisky makers cut off the tail of the distillate later than usual to get more phenols into the spirit). To rest, the malt was put in 2nd-fill Laphroaig quarter casks. Since these vessels contained whisky by Fading Hill before, they did not instill as much smokiness in the liquid anymore as they did in the first round. Also, it turned out that the Belgian malt would bring forth a spirit that started off rather peaty, but lost part of its puffiness with age. Thus, Peat (Edition No. 6) feels surprisingly light, fresh, and fruity – especially in the beginning. For most of the time, only a fleeting whiff of smoke hints at the Islay wood and peated malt used to make this dram. It is only towards the end of the degustation, that the vapors become more dense and dark. But the leading aromas remain as follows: maracuja yogurt, citrus peel, barley sugar, and vanilla pudding. Personally, I found this whisky very good and appealing – just like the other Fading Hill expressions I was lucky to sip that night!
Next up came a total highlight: a 7-year-old cask sample drawn from a 1st-fill Bourbon barrel (Cask No. 337). It was beautiful in every aspect and showed how rich, full-bodied, and flavorsome a distillate the Birkenhof team produces. The copper-colored whisky has a honey-sweet nose that brims with all sorts of yellow, orange, and green fruits as well as mild spices, light wood, and fresh vanilla. The flavor explosion in the mouth provides lots and lots of passion fruit, apple, raspberry, raisin, cream, and white chocolate. Ultimately, the drop culminates in an impressive finish ladden with tropical fruits (pineapple, papaya), shortcrust pastry, and flambéed pear with choc sauce. Once we had sipped our sample, the voices of the partakers rang out in unison: This world-class cask needs to be bottled better soon than late!
The final dram in the line-up was a full-blown sherry bomb – albeit of a special kind: Before it embraced five-year-old Fading Hill Whisky for another 18 months, Cask No. 693 contained sweet and juicy PX sherry from the bodega Ximenez-Spinola. This shows in the malt: The elegant pour has a fruity nose (blackberry, grape, licorice, and wood) and an appealing palate (crème de cassis, purple winegum, cocktail cherry, and differing dark berries). The creamy aftertaste offers dextrose drops, peach rings, cherry lollipops, and milk chocolate with rum, raisins, and nuts (the latter being a popular variety here in Germany). Especially towards the end, the cask strength ABV of 53 per cent also becomes apparent, transporting salivating flavors and producing an bit of a tickle. Unlike Cask No. 337, this one is already available for purchase in the Birkenhof shop … if you ask me, it is well worth buying for the asked price of EUR 69.50 per 0.7 liter bottle.
So much for the drams; what else is there to say? Well, besides the whiskies, the event itself was a full success, too. Steffi and her sons Jonas and Lukas, who broadcasted live from the distillery, were fantastic hosts. Again and again, they were not shy to share specifics and grant deep insights into their craft. Also, crowd participation was good and once everyone had loosened up, lots of individual impressions were shared, questions were asked, and discussions were started. Last but not least, I must also say that the composition of the luxury tasting pack was spot-on: five wee bottles, each filled with 5cl of whisky – that is an ideal amount in my book. On the one hand, the reasonable number of samples gives each dram enough room to shine during the tasting; on the other hand, the generous fill levels allow the participants to fully devote themselves to the presented drops (and even revisit them at a later point). Given how much I enjoyed every whisky in the line-up, I am very much looking forward to do the latter soon and have another exquisite flight of Fading Hill Whisky.
Fading Hill Single Rye (Rye / Germany / Bourbon & Oloroso / 45% / EUR 55)
Fading Hill Single Malt (Whisky / Germany / “Four Wood” / 46% / EUR 55)
Fading Hill Peated Edition (Whisky / Germany / Bourbon & Islay / 46% / EUR 55)
Fading Hill Single Cask #337 (Whisky / Germany / Bourbon / 55.7% / not yet for sale)
Fading Hill Single Cask #693 (Whisky / Germany / PX Sherry / 53% / EUR 70)
*** I was kindly suggested as a participant by Aaron of Drams United
and invited to the event by Birkenhof Distillery. Thank you. ***