Deep in the Serra Gaucha within the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, there is a whisky distillery with over 50 years of history producing Brazilian Single Malt whiskies, or Puro Malte as it is known within the country: Union Distillery (full name: Union Distillery Maltwhisky do Brasil)
The company was originally founded in 1948 as Union of Industries Ltd, focused on producing wines and derivative products in the city of Veranópolis and it took until 1972 to start switching its production towards malt whiskies, when the Borsato and Ziero families took control of Union and changed the focus of the business. In the 1980’s the business continued to invest in its production facilities, which included a cooperation with Morrison Bowmore Distillers to develop the technology at the distillery.
More recently in 2015, Union Distillery moved from its original site in Veranópolis to the city of Bento Gonçalves in the Vale dos Vinhedos (“Valley of the Vineyards”). This region is well known for producing wine, as its name suggests, and it is one of Brazil’s main wine regions, heavily influenced by the Italian immigrants that settled in this area over the years, since their first arrival in the late 1870’s. The landscape consists of hillsides and forest, it is humid with 2000mm of rain a year and the cloudy and rainy days makes you feel closer to somewhere in northern Europe. The water is sourced locally and it is clean, cold and abundant, ideal for whisky production.
The Union Distillery new home in Bento Gonçalves took over production in 2016/17 from the original site in Veranópolis, which is no longer used for distilling and instead, it is now used for office space and warehousing. Some of the older pot stills and part of the production equipment from the original distillery can be seen displayed as you walk around the new site.
The distillery is currently producing 2M litres of alcohol per year and it has the capacity to produce up to 3M. They have 3 Copper Pot Stills (2 wash stills and 1 spirit still) and interestingly, the Brazilian ones are made by producers who would usually manufacture pot stills for the local cachaça industry, typically much smaller at around 500-1,000 litres, rather than these at 16,000-18,000 litres!
The production equipment also includes a 30,000 litres full lauter mash tun; 15 stainless steel washbacks of 16,000-18,000 litres and the fermentation time takes 90 hours. Distiller’s yeast is used and the malted barley comes from Brazil and neighbouring countries with the exception of its peated malted barley, which comes from Europe (usually UK and Belgium).
Once a year for a whole month, Union Distillery is filled with the smoky aroma of peat. The peated (turfado in Portuguese) production accounts for 6-7% of the total distillery output, using up to 40ppm malted barley from Scotland and other sources.
Dario Crespi is Union Distillery’s Head Distiller/ Master Blender and responsible for the creation of its range of branded releases. He is passionate about malt whisky production and has previously spent 20 years in the wine industry.
Union Distillery has over 20,000 casks of malt whisky undertaking maturation across its warehouses and the capacity to hold around 35,000 casks. New casks are continually being filled with its new make at 62.5% abv (the new make has fruity and cereal notes). There is an abv reduction of around 0.5%-1% per year and the Brazilian angels are taking 6% to 7% share annually (i.e. the amount lost through evaporation from the cask).
Despite its continued success in the production of malt whisky in Brazil, Union Distillery has only recently restarted releasing products under its own brand name in 2019. This had been completely stopped in 1986 with the focus switched towards selling the product in bulk across the world, which remains the majority share of the business at present, and the only exceptions made were for commemorative releases such as the example below celebrating the 60 years of the business in 2008.
The Union Distillery core range consists of:
Pure Malt Exclusive: Puro Malte; Wine Cask Finish; Virgin Oak Finish; Turfado (peated 20ppm); Extra Turfado (peated 40ppm)
Autograph: typically 20-30% higher price than the exclusive range and consists of limited releases
Vintage or Commemorative Editions
I had the opportunity to travel to Bento Gonçalves and visit the distillery at the end of March 2023, hosted by Union’s very own Dario Crespi, Volnei Trintinaglia and its CEO, Luciano Borsato. Special thanks to Luciano and the whole team at Union Distillery and also to Rafael Nardi (@Barmandeapartamento) for organising the visit on my behalf and joining me on the day.
We had the opportunity to sample across the full range from Union Distillery, including some soon to be released new products. It showcased the fantastic work being undertaken in Brazil developing its own whiskies. Historically, Brazil may not have been a place one assumes whisky comes from, not even for Brazilians, but that is changing and hopefully we will see more of these available outside of Brazil sooner rather than later!
Opened in 201 to visitors, the Union Distillery tour is available to those interested and visiting locally, although currently only in Portuguese (they may be able to accommodate English if you contact them in advance via their website).