Great beer. Chocolate. Hercule Poirot. Moules et frites. Eurocrats. The European President. Sprouts...Belgium is famous for several things, but whisky isn’t among them.
Even by the relatively modest European whisky achievements Belgium has slipped under the radar. Although it produces the world’s finest beers, its grain-produced alcohols have tended to be distilled into genever rather than whisky. What whisky there is is produced by four and possibly five distilleries, all of them with roots in genever or other fruit liqueurs.
The results are patchy. At least one produces a spirit that is to our common understanding of what whisky should taste like what Kaliber Low Alcohol beer is to a fully fermented Belgian Trappist ale. Another is producing a three grain whisky that it didn’t even realise was whisky until it was pointed out by a visiting journalist.
Belgium, it is fair to say, is been very much on the fruity whisky fringes.
All that, though, might be set to change. Indeed, we may look back in a few years time on the year 2010 as the year Belgium stepped up to the whisky plate.
Ted Bruning’s excellent article on the Anker Distillery at Mechelen near Brussels revealed that some time in the coming months the distillery will start producing malt spirit in Scottish copper stills.
And if all goes to plan The Owl Distillery, the country’s oldest single malt whisky producer, will also step up its operation, invest in Scottish stills, and start seeking new markets for its already high quality whisky.
Let’s clear up the name first and foremost. The Owl Distillery was established some five years ago by distiller Etienne Bouillon, farmer Pierre Roberti and the man with the cash, Luc Foubert. Bouillon owns a fruit liqueur company called Lambicool, which is why in some older books you will find Bouillon’s whisky referred to as such. Initially he called the whisky business PUR-E and the original underage malt spirit was called Pure Malt, but alerted to the possibility that the word ‘pure’ was likely to be cast adrift (and indeed now has been) the Belgians decided to call the new enterprise Owl and to name the whisky Belgian Owl.
He may have his roots in fruit distillation but Bouillon is certainly no slouch when it comes to whisky making. He has worked hard to learn the complexities of distilling and to find a way to create a distinctive but high quality Belgian malt. And when he needed to unlock the specific secrets of distilling malted barley he turned to no less a mentor than Jim McEwan to help him out. He attended McEwan’s whisky school at Bruichladdich, and has remained in touch with ever since, seeking out advice and help. McEwan has even travelled over to the distillery to see the operation for himself.
And it’s some operation. Certainly like nothing else in the world of whisky.
Why? Well for a starter, the whisky making process operates on three sites – the distillery in the Liege suburb of Grace Hollogne, the nearby farm belonging to Roberti, and a modern garishly lit warehouse storage unit on an industrial estate under the main motorway link between Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg. City, town and countryside all in one production process. The amount of moving liquid and casks between the sites means a huge investment in time and effort. Efficient it isn’t.
But there’s no compromise on quality. The region, bordered by three rivers, is ideal for growing barley and the fields around Roberti’s farm produce a rich strain known as Sebastian.
This is malted elsewhere in Belgium before being mashed at the farm. Then a tank full of wort is transported on the back of a truck back to the distillery.
Which brings us to the stills. There are two principle stills but they look like a pair of steam engines and trace their roots back to the late 19th century, dinky kettles comprised of black metal and copper mounted on wheels.
“They were probably used by French vineyards in the 19th century,” explains Bouillon. “They formed co-operatives and the stills would travel round distilling the wine from vineyard to vineyard. Each of them can take 500 litres and they are attached to a fermentation tank which can take 20,000 litres of wort. It takes about two weeks to distil all the wash.”
The new spirit is put into casks and transported to an industrial warehouse. The dry conditions of the modern concrete structure has resulted in a whisky leaving the cask at 74% ABV – more than two degrees higher than when it was put in.
Finally the whisky is bottled in a small bottling unit back at the distillery and labels applied by hand.
It’s a clumsy, inefficient way of operating and one that has developed with its own momentum. But to take the next step up Bouillon and his partners realise it must change. And if it all goes to plan, that will happen this year.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us but we are hoping to move the whole operation to the farm,” says Bouillon. “We know what we must do and how we will do it but there remain one or to obstacles in the way.”
If it does happen The Owl Distillery will be a total delight. Surrounded by fields of barley deep in the countryside, production and storage will take place in one self-contained courtyard. It’s an ideal spot, and there’s even a little pagoda built above the main gateway.
“It was put there before there was any distilling and no one knows why,” says Bouillon. “It was if it was always meant to be that whisky was made here.”
A fitting place for whisky, then, especially one as good as this one – and it is good. Even at three or four years it’s a masterclass of fine whisky making – ample evidence that Bouillon was paying attention when Jim McEwan was doling out the advice.
Later, after a tour and vertical tasting from fledgling new make Belgian Owl though the early months and to the bold cask strength malt bottled just days before, we travel in to Liege for dinner.
It’s an amazing place, vibrant and dynamic, even mid week in winter.
Once a neutral principality which became a rest and recuperation centre for soldiers from the countless wars that were once fought across central Europe, the city has a reputation for fun, and for outstanding food and drink. As we drive to dinner we pass a fun fair that occupies a site more than a kilometre long.
“There is always something happening at all times of the year,” smile Etienne. “The people of Liege know how to have fun.”
A city of fun hosting an exciting new whisky? It works for me.
Yes, undoubtedly Belgium’s on the whisky scoreboard at last. Who knows, perhaps one day, as much a Belgian icon as Poirot and moules et frites.
The Belgian Owl 46%
Bottled: 17 February 2009
Nose: Vanilla, toffee, sweet pears and soft squidgy banana. Dessert whisky.
Palate: Lots of green fruits, especially over-ripe apple and pear, then a sharp turn into peppery territory, effectively keeping the taste from becoming flabby as some young whiskies can be.
Finish: Medium but dies away quite quickly. The after taste is delightfully fruity.
The Belgian Owl 46%
Bottled: 14 October 2009
Nose: Tinned peach, more intense than the last bottling but still very sweet.
Palate: The extra months have made for a more cohesive and integrated whisky, the sweet pear and apple forming a blanket with the spices and the distinctively crisp barley. Richer and fruitier, with some melon in the mix.
Finish: Medium, fresh and fruity with some late sweet spice.
The Belgian Owl Single cask 74.2%
Bottled: October 2009
Nose: More subtle than the other two samples, with delicate melon and pear and almost summer meadow notes.
Palate: Unsurprisingly intense, and needs water. But the water releases marzipan, apple pip, trademark sweet pear and some biscuity notes.
Finish: Rounded and warming, and given that it’s not quite four years old, well balanced.