Alba Huerta first encountered Puni when someone aptly gifted her a bottle of the distillery’s “Alba” release. “It didn’t hit me as a Scotch-style whisky,” says the owner of Houston’s Julep, of the marsala and Islay cask-aged malt whisky from northern Italy. “It could have been a number of things.” Curiosity piqued, Huerta went down a rabbit hole and discovered that Puni was the first contemporary whisky distillery in Italy, founded in 2010 by the Ebensperger family.
Built in the South Tyrolean Alps just outside the tiny village of Glorenza, the Puni distillery is named for the river that flows through the region’s stunning topography and uses 100 percent malted grains, including locally grown rye from the Venosta Valley, famous for its cultivation of the grain since the Middle Ages. Puni sources its alpine water from Stelvio National Park, a massive territory of snowcapped mountains, verdant valleys and freshwater lakes that bridges Trentino-Alto Adige and Lombardia. (The Ebenspergers call that region “the Italian Highlands” according to Huerta.) The region’s dramatic temperature changes—warm summers, cold winters—contribute to their spirit’s typically quick maturation period. Distilled in traditional Scottish pot stills and aged for three to five years in either bourbon, sherry or marsala casks (or a combination thereof), Puni’s approach is “modern-traditional” as Huerta interprets it. “I love spirits that are traditional and ancestral,” says Huerta of her interest in tequila, mezcal and whiskey. “The beauty of these spirits is found in agriculture, the maker and their method.”
Huerta, whose bar has a collection of about 220 whiskies, recently encountered the distillery’s “Sole” bottling when a distributor friend brought it by for a tasting. Sole is aged for two years in former bourbon barrels and then finished for another two years in Pedro Ximénez sherry barrels, which have been rotated through a solera aging system. At 46 percent ABV, it’s higher than average proof for Scotch, but it didn’t hit Huerta this way. “It’s incredibly approachable—I thought, What am I tasting? very much like I did with the Alba,” she says, pointing to its flavors of “wild honey and orange.”
That the terroir is present in such an unusual and striking way is what she believes makes Puni fascinating on its own, but also relevant amid the spirit world’s renewed focus on place and raw materials. “It goes back to what’s in the bottle,” says Huerta, “[and] thinking about grain as an ingredient, not just a baseline, for making whiskey.”
Made by: Ebensperger family
Region: Venosta Valley, Italy
What it tastes like: “A beautiful distillate that has a grain-forwardness I think is lost in a lot of mass production,” says Huerta. She appreciates that the cask flavors are present, but without overpowering the spicy malted rye notes.
Why it matters: At first attracted to Puni as a regional oddity, Huerta finds this “Scotch-style whisky with Italian terroir” has staying power for its “modern-traditional” approach. “They’re using modern knowledge and traditional stills. It’s respectful and intentional.”
Where to buy it: $99 at Total Wine