The sat nav was obviously confused. We had arrived in the village of Baarle-Nassau easily, but it was now forcing us to drive into a small industrial estate which, as any fool knows, is not where you find a distillery. Whisky distilleries are normally surrounded by fields, they are rural, they’re also big, what they are not is plonked next to a car-dealership. Maybe the sat-nav wanted to turn itself in for a new model. It was, however, persistent. “Turn left!” We went straight on and turned around heading back out, “Turn right!” I swear there was an exasperated note in its voice. We stopped outside a modern grey building.
The door opens and Patrick van Zuidam walks out. “You found us OK, excellent!” We keep schtum.
He ushers us inside a spacious, airy, modern building that could pass for a trendy art galley. Built in 2002, it acts as reception and offices for the distillery next door, which was started by his father Fred in 1974. Around the walls are display cases of beautifully packaged genever, gin, liqueurs.. and the prime reason for the visit, Millstone single malt whisky. From a Scottish perspective the juxtaposition of gin, liqueurs and single malt whisky on the same small site would be unusual, but it is less so in Holland. The Dutch, after all, are among the greatest distillers in Europe, conceivably the first to bring some form of scientific and commercial control over spirits production, the first to innovate with new flavours and experiences. In some ways, you wonder why Dutch whisky is a newcomer.
One reason could be the dominance of genever in Holland, which means that until recently there was no reason to spread outwith the genever/liqueur template. Genever was the Dutch national spirit and, as I found, to understand Millstone you first have to understand genever. “When I started as a distiller at deKuyper in the 1950s,” says Fred van Zuidam. “There were 200 distillers in Schiedam. Now there are 30 ‘distillers’ in Holland but in reality only five actually distil spirits. In the 1980s, 55m litres of genever were drunk every year in Holland, now there’s little more than 17 million litres being sold.”
He outlines the reasons for the decline: a new generation looking for other drinks, prompting price cuts in genever resulting in a loss of image, culminating in a loss of sales and further price cuts and so on into a seemingly permanent downward spiral. Sound familiar?
Fred van Zuidam however believed in the quality of his product and so started up on his own in 1975 with the stated aim of making the best genever in Holland, a high-quality product for a small customer base. “Its taken a while,” says Patrick, who has now taken over from his father as distiller. “Though our genevers are the most expensive in Holland, our sales are up 39 per cent in a market that’s still in decline.” The reason? The family’s decision to specialise in aged genever.
Genever, you have to understand, is not London gin. It starts as a mash of malted barley, corn and rye which is fermented and then, in van Zuidam’s case, triple distilled in a pot still. A percentage of this is then redistilled with botanicals, blended back with the original distillate and some neutral grain spirit and then aged. He also makes a quadruple-distilled range of aged ‘Korenwijn’. The range is unified by a delicate, subtle range of aromatics and smooth texture, world class spirits which are kilometres away from the greasy cheap examples which prompted so many drinkers to reject genever.
But hang on a minute. Corn, barley, rye? Were it not for end part of the process, this is bourbon!Surely it must have been a pretty simple step into whisky making?Laughing, Patrick opens the door to the distillery. “Everyone with a garage thinks he can produce whisky, but it’s not that simple!Millstone isn’t simply a by-product of genever, though my first idea of making whisky came as a result of experimenting with single grains in order to understand how to make a genever which aged well.
“The most important grain in genever is barley, because of the enzymes, therefore you could say that the experiments with barley were actually whisky making, but I realised early on that it wasn’t the same. Technically, barley is easy to distil but it makes a simple spirit. The quality of great Scotch is in the detail. You need to build in character during the process and in aging.”
He pauses and looks around the compact room. Though open and friendly, there is a steely precision about him, from the crisply ironed shirt to the strongly expressed opinions. This, clearly is not a man who is happy to make a barley spirit in his spare time. He wants to make Dutch whisky and if that means ignoring what is the norm in Scotland then so be it.
The name, ‘Millstone’ comes from the fact that the barley for the whisky, like all the grains for the distillery, is ground by a windmill. How Dutch can you get?It’s not just simple PR though. There’s a quality reason underpinning this, as Patrick believes that this traditional technique doesn’t damage the grain and helps to preserve aroma.
The milled grain is mashed into a thick porridge, “We use the same process as for genever. You can’t make genever from clear beer”, which is then pumped into temperature-controlled fermenters,“I think we are the only ones in the world using this technique. I think it helps create a fruity character,” where it ferments with two strains of yeast for five days, “which helps to create esters.”
Distillation takes place in Holstein stills whose base is heated indirectly through a water bath. This allows a thicker mash to be distilled. Though the neck of the still has rectifying plates in it, these are not used for whisky production. “There’s a huge amount of copper in this still. The catalyst convertor on top is filled with it, which effectively adds 300 per cent more copper. This cleans all the sulphur compounds out.
Part of Millstone’s delicate and fruity character comes down to this huge amount of copper.”
He is making three styles, unpeated, lightly-peated and heavy-peat (of which more later). “We only sell unpeated, which is the most difficult to make as it must be fruity and not grainy. The peated ones are much easier to make. I sometimes wish I’d started there, but I wouldn’t have learned so much.”
He grabs a valinch and rushes off to the barrel store. “I don’t understand the Scottish way of maturation,” he says standing atop a rack of barrels extracting a sample. “Keeping the whisky in the same cask for its entire life doesn’t use the full potential of the wood. Using the same cask over and over again is strange.” He pauses. “It’s gives the spirit a big hit of wood extract at the start of aging, followed by a more relaxed maturation, though the lack of second fill means that the oak always has a significant part to play. The whisky is married before bottling.
The samples keep flying out: comparing different chars, ages... “Hang on,” he says, disappearing into a stack. “I suppose you might as well try this.” The whisky he pulls is sweet and smoky, fruity yet peaty and beautifully balanced. “It’s excellent,” I say. “Heavy peat? I hate it!” he laughs. “My girlfriend likes it though.” Maybe she can persuade him to bottle it instead of using as the base for a liqueur.
“Oh, there’s this as well,” he says, heading into another stow. This time the liquid is darker, spicier with intense citrus and a bready note. “Rye,” he says simply. Dutch rye, 100 per cent rye at that. “We use rye for the genever,” he explains, “and source it from near Groningen where it’s been planted as part of a conservation plan for ortolans [a small bird so loved by French gastronomes that it is now endangered]. The farmer had a surplus (of rye, not ortolans) so he contacted me and since I thought rye whiskey is more interesting than bourbon I gave it a try.” It is a triumphant first attempt and unlike the heavy peat Millstone has now appeared on the market.
We head off to try some 20 year old Korenwijn from the barrel. It strikes me that it’s too glib to say that the van Zuidam approach is ‘innovative’, instead it is intuitive, as if there is a genetic understanding about quality, about specialisation, of seeing the big picture whether that’s in production or in packaging. Patrick’s mother Helene designs that, as well as it transpires the offices. I think back to something that Fred said earlier. “We are one of the last specialist distilleries, but maybe we’re not a dying breed. Maybe we’re now at the start of the next cycle.” I think he’s right. Look at distillers in Australia, Brittany, Sweden, the USA and Holland and how they are approaching the distillation of whisky with their own perspective.
The next cycle promises to be fascinating.
5 Years Old 40%
Light gold. The nose initially is green apples in a bed of sweet hay. This is followed by pineapple and green plum. The overall effect is clean sweet and fresh. In time it gets more bready with a whiff of a discarded banana skin sitting on wet green leaves. The palate is sweet, smooth and clean with more creaminess that becomes custard rich in the middle of the tongue. The finish has fruit dusted with nutmeg.
8 Years Old 43%
Deep amber. The nose is much more scented, perfumed even, with cinnamon but also light dried fruits and black cherry. Good oak extract an reminiscent slightly of a manzanilla amontillado. The palate is rounded and fruity with good depth and once again a tingling citric spiciness.
5 Years Old 40%
Rich amber. The nose is scented, like beeswax, along with rye sourdough starter, then comes ginger, cumin and coriander cooking in butter, some light suede and vanilla. There’s none of the dustiness you get with American rye. The palate is controlled smooth and clean with orange pulp and peel then a slow release of rye spice to the end. The finish is tart but not too acidic. Millstone? Milestone more like.