After two exhilarating tram rides through the regal peaks of the Alps and a hike up a mountain-hewn staircase, you’ll reach the craggy summit of Corvatsch Mountain and Orma Distillery, where you’ll find the world’s highest whisky stills. At 11,000 feet above sea level, the thin air leaves some visitors slightly tipsy even before the alcohol takes effect. But upon entering the gorgeous, high-windowed tasting room, you’ll quickly agree that the reward was worth the schlep: breathtaking views of the majestic Engadin Valley — often graced with herds of ibex — paired with pours of exquisite, small-batch whisky.
Crafted with barley varietals from the Swiss Alps and glacial water, Orma whisky captures the icy, clean essence of the rugged Engadin, one of Switzerland’s most pristine pockets. With an expert team of distillers and first-in-class operation, Orma would churn out exquisite spirits at any altitude, but the true magic — the qualities that make this whisky worthy of any connoisseur’s collection — comes from how elevation supercharges the aging process. Plus, with a mission to promote the Romansh language, an ancient Alpine tongue at risk of extinction, you can feel especially good about sipping Orma.
Extreme Altitude, Extreme Aging
When Pascal Mittner, co-owner of Orma, retired from a tech career, he toyed with the idea of constructing his sky-high distillery. It was a rather crazy dream: treacherous storms could strike at a moment’s notice on the peak of Corvatsch, requiring Mittner to meticulously monitor weather conditions to select days suitable for airlifting stills and equipment up to the rocky crown. But after three years of helicopter runs and prayers, Mittner finally opened the doors of his spirits laboratory on the roof of Europe.
The gamble proved fruitful: the altitude, as Mittner predicted, works wonders on whisky. Extreme temperature swings — fluctuations of more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit — make for exceptionally pronounced angels’ shares and devil’s cuts, the whisky lost to evaporation and absorption in the wood, respectively. What’s left in the barrels is amber ambrosia sparkling with baking spice, sweet vanilla, rich caramel and other notes conferred by the wood. Since distillation occurs at much lower temperatures in the reduced air pressure, delicate notes of flowers and green herbs likewise shine. Better yet, the cooler distillation process is far less energy-intensive, and Orma can proudly claim the honor of one of the world’s greenest spirits operations.
While Orma ages most of its whiskies in traditional American and French oak, the distillers occasionally experiment with unorthodox woods, including recycled Sherry barrels and fragrant Swiss stone pine, a tree endemic to the Engadin Valley. Ranging from smokey heavy-hitters reminiscent of Laphroaig or Suntory Hakushu to honey-hued fairy nectar, the resulting libations run the gamut of flavors and styles. While whisky is the distillery’s forte, Orma’s gin, infused with a medley of mountain herbs, is also an excellent pour.
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Orma and the Engadin’s Romansh Heritage
The distillery’s name comes from the Romansh word for soul, an homage to the Engadiner hunting tradition of acknowledging the animal’s soul before a meal. “In Romansh culture, when we cook meat, we thank the creature for its sacrifice,” says Mittner. “We raise a glass to the animal’s soul.”
Part and parcel of Orma’s mission is promoting the language and culture of the Romansh, an ethnolinguistic minority in the Engadin Valley. Although recognized as Switzerland’s fourth official language, only 1% of the modern Swiss population speaks it, and the ancient tongue’s long-term survival remains uncertain. Each bottle produced by Orma bears an emblazoned ibex, a rugged mountain goat native to the Engadin and long a symbol of the Romansh. Additionally, the distillery’s five flagship whiskies are named after the language’s five dialects.
Popular and Experimental Bottles
In homage to the mountain atop which the distillery sits, the Corvatsch Edition is Orma’s most popular whisky. Aged in American oak barrels, the flagship style sparkles with whiffs of vanilla and brown sugar, evoking a classic dark bourbon like Buffalo Trace or Weller. Deep amber in color, pours of Corvatsch Edition also showcase classic whisky notes of molasses and spiced caramel. The low-temperature distillation tames any alcoholic bite, and the liquor is dangerously smooth and silky.
Here is a whisky complex and mellow enough to enjoy neat or with few rocks — skip any mixers or garnishes. As with most fine whiskies, the flavor profile evolves in the glass as the ice melts, with an initial smokiness yielding to complex sweetness and a delicious parade of baking spices.
If a distiller could somehow bottle a crisp alpine gust buffeting your face from the seat of a chairlift, it would taste like Orma’s stone pine-aged whisky. In a nod to the traditions of the Engadin, Orma ages some whiskies in Swiss stone pine, a resinous conifer cherished in the Alps for its fragrance. Engadiners have long used stone pine in the staves of their snug lodges and cabins, and the wood’s clean smell evokes cozy nights in a ski lodge. Orma’s most experimental offering, the In Lain Edition packs bold, woodsy flavors reminiscent of fresh pine nuts. Those who take to pine-flavored schnapps or piney gins like Tanqueray will love this whisky’s avalanche of arboreous flavors.
Where to Try Orma Whisky
While Orma plans to export in the future, for now, the whisky is only available in Switzerland. Tours of Orma Distillery, including a tasting flight, will run you 44 francs (about $52) — the postcard-worthy views included. If possible, make the trek up to Orma on a clear day to fully appreciate the sublime vistas from the tasting room. To fortify the belly before the whisky tasting, Restaurant 3303, next to the distillery, sells Romansh comfort fare like barley soup and polenta studded with shredded sausage.
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