Holle whisky is just the spirit

Ernst Bader and the still that produces Holle whisky

Retired farmer Ernst Bader has over the past seven years put his farm called Holle and the tiny village of Lauwil in northern Switzerland firmly on the whisky map.

This content was published on July 12, 2006 minutes

Bader was the first Swiss to distil whisky when new alcohol laws came into force in 1999 and little could he suspect then that his whisky would make a name for itself way outside the borders of Switzerland.

Holle used to be a dairy farm, which also produced fruit - mainly cherries - from its 600 fruit trees. While the trees remain and Bader still produces a variety of fruit schnapps, the cows have disappeared.

The farm is now best known for its single malt whisky – a labour of love that came about with a little bit of prompting from an alcohol administration official who was fond of Bader's home brewed beer.

When the alcohol law was modified in Switzerland so that local producers were permitted, for example, to use barley to make whisky and potatoes to produce vodka, Bader was advised to try his luck.

"Since I had tried my hand at everything else as a distiller, I tried that too. And the very first evening that the alcohol was running, my daughter bought me a bottle of whisky so I could know what it was exactly," he told swissinfo.

Up until then Bader had never tasted Scotch whisky in his life. He's still never actually been to Scotland.

Practice makes perfect

Practice and a good few books on the subject helped him along the way to producing a whisky that he says has his handwriting all over it.

"People have always been distilling on this farm and the know-how has been handed down from generation to generation. Maybe each one can do it a little better than the last."

While even distinguished connoisseurs from Scotland have hailed Bader's whisky, the modest Swiss steers clear of trying to make a copy.

"I have always said I make a Swiss whisky and not a Scottish one... There is enough Scotch around and I am making a whisky that's particular to Basel Country. It's more malty the way I do it," he explained.

While the "big boys" in Scotland distil in several stages, Bader can produce his whisky in one go in a still that he had specially made in Germany.

Distinctive flavour

There are a number of factors which give Holle whisky its distinctive flavours - organic barley from the northern Bavarian beer-brewing Baroque town of Bamberg, local pure spring water and the climate is right at an altitude of 637 metres above sea-level. Peat is not used as in Scotland.

The whisky is aged in barrels that were once filled with Burgundy red and white wines.

"That's the great thing about whisky. There is a reason for everything. Nothing happens by chance," explained Annamarie Bader who tends to the bookkeeping while her father looks after the still. Her husband Martin Hess keeps the business's website up to date.

Underlining that Holle is a family business, Bader's grandson Andrin was busy labelling empty bottles by hand during my visit.

The production of whisky has increased quite dramatically over the years. At first, there were only three barrels at the farm. That has now risen to 79 and whisky is now more important than kirsch.

"In the past we used to drink a fruit schnapps with our coffee and now we drink almost always a whisky," Hess said.

"It's interesting because there are so many different aromas. There's not just one whisky. Every barrel produces a different one."

At the age of 74, Bader smiled when asked about what plans he had for the future of the business.

"I enjoy my life as best I can and distilling whisky is part of that. And in between I take a holiday. What else do I want?"

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Lauwil

Key facts

There is no shortage of whisky lovers in Switzerland. Holle receives visitors from across the country.
The Baders have to pay the Swiss taxman between SFr8.50 ($6.93) and SFr12 per bottle that is sold, depending on size and strength.
A certain amount of whisky that evaporates through the wood of the barrel is known as the "angels' share". The angels in this way "steal" two 7dl bottles of whisky from the Bader family every day.

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In brief

The Bader family at Holle, which produces much by hand, has made a name for itself with its single malt whisky but production also includes a smoked whisky. Other specialties are kirsch and absinthe.

Holle whisky is aged in 79 barrels ranging from 120 to 650 litres in size.

Annual whisky production at the farm is a business secret but it is "several thousand litres".

To celebrate their seventh anniversary, Holle is selling a five-year-old whisky from barrel number seven.

While Ernst Bader was the first to produce Swiss whisky after the alcohol law was modified, a number of other Swiss are now producing.

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