Italy’s long history and contribution to the world’s gastronomical canon is unmatched. From pastas and cheese to cured meats and amazing sauces, Italy’s culinary contributions and techniques have simply made life a bit better for all of us. Similarly, the Italians invented espresso. They’ve grown and developed and through the Roman empire spread wine growing, wine making and wine drinking to the rest of the world. They’re responsible for some of the world’s most unique cocktail ingredients: bitter amari and herbal liquors like Fernet Branca, Campari and Aperol. Yet for almost forever Italy has never produced a whiskey, until now.
Tucked away in the Ortler Alpine Range, in the town of Glorenza, the launch pad for many a cyclist looking to tackle the famed Stelvio Pass, sits a modernist marvel, the PUNI distillery, named for the nearby Puni River. That a country with such a rich, intoxicating history has never produced a whiskey is somewhat surprising. But if you consider the intricacies of the Italian palate, the rich smoky nature of Islay’s Scotch or the sweet notes of Bourbon don’t necessarily fit the mold. However, this new Italian take on single malt seems very Italian.
PUNI and the notion of an Italian whiskey was conceptualized back in 2010. The importance of the purity of water often inspires a distiller. For example, the famous Yamazaki distillery in Japan was set in a Shimamoto outside of Kyoto near rivers so pure they were the epicenter of 16th century Japanese tea ceremonies. In the Val d’Aosta the pure alpine water rolls off the high peaks of the Ortler Alpine range. Those pure waters and the climatic changes of the Aosta Valley make for a sweet spot for both distillation and aging.
The South Tyrol terroir and a uniquely Italian approach to aging creates whiskies that are not like any I’ve had before. In 2015, after five years of aging, PUNI released their first whiskies, Nova and Alba, two dramatically different whiskies, aged in very different barrel programs resulting in different flavor profiles. These first two releases showed the chops of their distiller and the quality of spirit they could produce.
In addition to the quality of the whiskey, from their launch PUNI has had a keen eye for design. Their distillery and headquarters is a marvel of modern architecture, a latticed cube design inspired by the design of the valley’s traditional bar construction. The bottles are as pretty as the whiskies themselves, clean and modern designed by young Italian Christian Zanzotti. Inside that wild looking cube tradition takes hold, pot stills made in Scotland and the rye malt from the nearby hillsides go through the mashing, fermentation and distilling before barrel aging in underground bunkers that date to a time when this peaceful region was gripped in military conflict.
This being the first Italian whiskey I’d ever tasted I had no idea what kind of whiskey the PUNI would be. The golden color was quite pretty, and accented by the incredible packaging. The GOLD is perhaps the most universal of the PUNI whiskies, aged in first-filled ex-bourbon casks for five years. The array of different bottlings PUNI offer really demonstrate their unique approach to barrel aging, but the GOLD seems wholly focused on the purity of the whiskey
itself. The aromas are subtle, with hints of vanilla and chamomile and the whiskey itself is extremely elegant and nuanced. Flavors of stone fruit, white pepper, and grass, and a floral lightness of character linger on the palate a long time. This is a very pretty whiskey that is contemplative and nuanced. If you were going to imagine a whiskey that would fit into Italy’s canon of epicurean contributions, it fits perfectly. $95(ish); puni.com