Going Dutch

Going Dutch

Hans takes a whisky tour of the Netherlands

Travel | 05 Jun 2015 | Issue 128 | By Hans Offringa

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The Netherlands is considered a mature whisky market by a large number of whisky producers and importers. Picture a country of about 13,000 square miles, densely populated with 17 million inhabitants. By comparison, Scotland is more than twice as large with only 5.3 million people. Last year's figures from The Scotch Whisky Assocation (SWA) showed The Netherlands at fourth place in the top 20 whisky importing countries in Europe and its annual consumption of whisky rose by 8 per cent. Fourth is a bit flattering. Much whisky destined for Europe arrives in the port of Rotterdam and and is then transported to many other countries.

The Netherlands has a lot to offer for the whisky lover with a series of excellent whisky shops, such as De Koning, Verhaar Van Wees and WhiskyBase, which are stocked to the ceiling with wonderful single malts and blends from Scotland, Ireland and Japan, flanked by Bourbon, rye and other varieties of the cratur. Let's start with a distillery tour.

From Schiphol Airport it is a good two hour drive to the south where Zuidam Distillers proudly produces a fine series of whiskies in Baarle-Nassau. The company was founded in 1975 and firmly grounded in the distillation of jenever (Dutch gin) but decided to branch out in other spirits, producing delicious fruit distillates, vodka and, since 1999, genuine single malt whisky and even a 100 per cent rye. CEO Patrick Zuidam is a respected judge at various international spirits competition. The company bottles its single malts under the brand name Millstone.

Zuidam is not the only commercial whisky distillery in The Netherlands. Driving to the north from Schiphol Airport and crossing the beautiful 'Afsluitdijk' that borders the large inner lake called IJsselmeer on the right hand side and the famous series of barrier islands along the Waddenzee on the left hand side, you will arrive in Bolsward after roughly two hours. Us Heit Brewery is located on the outskirts of this beautiful old Frisian town. Owner Aart van der Linde decided in 2004 to make whisky and has been rather successful with his single malt Frysk Hynder, named after the Frisian cow that can be seen in nearby pastures. The province of Fryslân/Friesland is also famous for its lakes and sailing opportunities. As in Wales and on the west coast of Scotland, a different language is spoken here and often place names appear in both Frisian and Dutch. Fryslân is also the home of the Boomsma company, that created a special whisky brand for the Netherlands only, called Glen Talloch, in close cooperation with Inverhouse.

Dispersed over the country are various tiny craft distillers, of which one deserves a mention, Kalkwijck Distillers, owned and run by 25 year old Lisanne Benus, the only female Master Distiller and proprietor in Europe (and maybe in the world). She started a few years ago on her father's farm and recently bottled Eastmoor whisky. Kalkwijck is located in Vroomshoop in the rural eastern part of the country, again about two hours from Schiphol Airport.

Lovers of golf and whisky should direct their attention to Engelenburg Castle in Brummen. A beautiful hotel with an excellent whisky bar and golf course, in the middle of the Netherlands - again two hours from the airport!

Those travellers who enjoy whisky and food might want to visit a restaurant on the largest barrier island in the north, Texel. Het Kompas, owned by Willem Ham and his wife Els, has an astounding collection of whiskies accumulated by Willem over the past 50 years. Another one not to be missed is the North End Pub, in the centre of Leiden, home to the oldest university of the Netherlands, and just a short train ride from Schiphol Airport.

Zwolle can rightly be considered the Dutch whisky capital. Visitors can enjoy good whisky, good food and fine Jugendstil-styled lodgings at boutique Hotel Fidder, owned by Patrick Fidder. He possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of every drink distilled and has a special fondness for whisky. Witness thereof Patrick's Bar, also open to non-residents. There is an annual launch of a true 'Zwolse whisky', a single cask from Scotland; each year hand-picked and exclusively sold by the famous whisky shop Bartels. So far eight different single malts have been launched. This medieval, partly walled city, that boasts two tiny whisky festivals each year, is a lovely place to stay for a few days and only one hour and 15 minutes east of Schiphol Airport.

A fine, authentic place to dine is The Hielander in the old and interesting city of Alkmaar, reknowned for its weekly cheese market. This cosy restaurant is owned by a Dutchified Scot named Wullie McMorland, who also runs an annual whisky festival in Alkmaar - usually in mid-February.

Talking about whisky festivals, The Netherlands host many whisky events throughout the year. The International Whisky Festival (The Hague) and Whisky Festival Northern Netherlands - WFNN (Groningen) are the best known, respectively running for 15 and 10 years continuously. 5,000 whisky enthusiasts pass the gates in various four-hour sessions. WFNN is the only whisky festival I know of where guests can get a wet shave followed by a single malt afterwards.

The quirkiest whisky festival ever is held in The Netherlands: Maltstock is the most relaxed whisky weekend. On the Friday evening there is the world famous whisky quiz and on the Saturday night it's drams and stories around the campfire. Visitors come from as far away as Australia to camp in the woods near Nijmegen. Maltstock is all about fun, sharing and enjoying. The unique feature is that every visitor brings a whisky to Maltstock that he or she wants others to taste. These bottles are placed on large tables, which results in 200+ open bottles that are all free to try, taste and enjoy.

The country has a plethora of whisky clubs, great and small, of which the Usquebaugh Society should be highlighted. Founded in 1990 it is the oldest one and has been publishing its own club-magazine for 25 years and is entirely run by volunteers. The publication is called De Kiln and may be the oldest of its kind.

Returning to Amsterdam, a visit to whisky bar L&B in the Korte Leidse Dwarsstraat is a must. Owner Leon Elshoff offers at least 1,800 open bottles of whisky from every corner of the world. Prices run from 4 to 400€ a nip! Very recently L&B was joined by another whisky bar called JD Williams, at Prinsenstraat 5. This place has a more modern atmosphere and makes a fine cocktail too.

Since The Netherlands is such a small country, one could easily decide to stay in Amsterdam and make day trips to the various places described. Dutch public transport is well-organised and a fine alternative for those who prefer not to drive themselves. There are B&Bs and hotels by the score, many with a fine whisky bar.

Last but not least - those who want to see how whisky crazy the Dutch really are, should consider purchasing the DVD documentary, The Netherlands - Country of Whisky. It's available in both Dutch and English.

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For those who want to spend more time in Amsterdam, I would recommend the Amsterdam Pass. Great discounts on public transport and museum visits.

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