If you can’t spring for a glass of Pinot Grigio on the Canale Grande, why not try a round of smokey whiskies in the Spreewald? March is the ideal time to enjoy the trails and waterways without the summer crowds or gloomy midwinter weather.
A whiskey education
Who would have known that one of Europe’s few rye whiskey hotspots could be found just a train ride from Berlin? Stork Club Whiskey was taken over by with Bastian Heuser, Steffen Lohr and Sebastian Brack in 2016. The trio came to the Spreewald to pick up a case of whiskey from the previous owner and ended up buying the whole distillery. Remnants of its former life remain, from the outbuildings made using local stone collected by the former distiller to the “liquid library”, a collection of samples from every cask of whiskey left when they took over.
So why rye? It turns out rye whiskey in Brandenburg is a bit of a no-brainer. Rye is the dominant grain of the region and the only one that seems to grow plentifully – you also have it to thank for the thin, dark German bread you know and (maybe) love. As Bastian takes us on a tour of the distillery, a combination of yeasty sweet-cherry smells and gleaming Willy-Wonka-esque copper equipment, we’re introduced to the process of turning rye into liquor. The procedure is more delicate than one might imagine, including the preparation of malted vs unmalted ryes, precise temperatures and cook times, and barrels special-ordered to elicit specific flavours (you can request a barrel tasting of coconut and vanilla, for example).
Smoky, smooth, sweet
Bastian explains that although whiskey production is steeped in tradition, there is a collaborative nature to the process. Whiskies soak up the flavour of the barrel they are stored in, from German Pinot Noir barrels to American oaks with toasted interiors. Stork’s Experimental Series came about through a collaboration with Berlin-based BRLO Brewery: Stork’s whiskey barrels were sent to BRLO, who aged their beer in them before sending them back to Stork to house a second round of whiskey. The result is a caramely, malty and round flavour. Their Full Proof Whiskey (at 55 percent alcohol, a hangover guarantee for the overeager) gets its blend of fruitcake-like notes from Spanish sherry barrels.
A personal favourite is the Smoky Rye, not quite packing the peaty notes of its Scottish counterparts but hinting at them. This one is endlessly drinkable on its own, but the classic flavour of the Straight Rye Whiskey is probably best for a long drink or Old Fashioned. The most daring mix, the Rosé-Rye, is a weirdly delicious smoky-fruit combination – courtesy, Bastian tells us, of a tipsy evening with the owners of a winery.
Spreewald is best known for its waterways, but March is an ideal time to check out the hiking trails and bike paths without the regular stream of visitors. To make a day of your Stork Club excursion, cycle or walk up the Wiesenaur Weg from Lübben towards Schlepzig. En route you’ll pass by clusters of small ponds with sandy shores perfect for a snack break and a swim, if you’re daring. The uniform forests are quiet and still, and small islands dot the surface of the mini-lakes as you pass by. Hiking the whole way will take you a solid 3-4 hours – hang a right after Inselteich and follow Dammstraße until you pop out right next to Stork Club, chilly and ready for a boozy lunch.
Getting there & overnights
To reach the Spreewald, hop on the RE2 in the direction of Cottbus and disembark at Lübben, a journey of about an hour from Hauptbahnhof. The 506 bus runs every two hours or so between Lübben and Schlepzig, where Stork Club Whiskey is located. You can also reach the Spreewald by car in around 1.5 hours. In March, Stork Club is open for tastings, tours and dining from 10am – 5pm Thursday- Sunday. From April through the end of summer they resume service from 10am – 5pm every day. You can book tours and tastings on their website at shop.stork- club-whiskey.com
For overnight stays, Bastian recommends the Strandhaus Hotel, where you can book a room with your own private sauna. We stopped in the Strandcafé for cake and coffee by the fireside – highly recommended after a cold-weather hike and open 7:30am – 11am, 2pm – 10pm every day.