A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.
It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.
“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.
He considers a moment.
“It’s not bad” he says.
Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.
From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.
Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.
And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.
The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.
It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.
It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.
The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.
The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!
Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.
Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.
The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.
The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.
A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting
My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.
MORE INFO: Nestville Park website
ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)
OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.