Whisky and gin are the chalk and cheese of the world of spirits. But actually, they aren’t as different as they seem – not historically, at any rate. For both were originally distillates of the unhopped barley-derived ale of the late medieval period – wash to all intents and purposes – and their divergence over the centuries has more to do with economics than anything else.Once the art of distilling had seeped from the Arab world to the West in the late 14th century or thereabouts, inquisitive monks – the first scientists, in effect – enthusiastically started pouring their ale into alembics to see how it would come out. And it came out undrinkable: a clear, fiery liquid that burnt the lips and gullet and would clearly have to be processed in some way to have any value whatever.In Ireland and Scotland, where distilling was first practised, no-one was in any rush.Their solution was to lay the new spirit to rest in oak tuns, to mature and mellow and eventually turn into a potable whisky. But in the Low Countries and, eventually, England, long maturation was simply too slow.Distillers in these much more industrialised and urbanised countries had invested big sums in large-scale production and needed a quick return. Their solution was to flavour the spirit with herbs and spices, redistill it, and sell it young... as gin.The relevance of this brief history lesson to the genesis of Belgium’s newest distillery is simple. When Charles Le Cleef of Het Anker Brewery in Mechelen, near Brussels, decided to try distilling his beer, he didn’t know what he was going to get. Intuition said it would be gin. This is, after all, Belgium, where genever is still made as it has been for five centuries. And Charles’s ancestors, although their main occupations had been farming, malting, and milling, also had a long pedigree as gin distillers. Indeed, the family history was one of the reasons that prompted Charles to try his hand at distilling in the first place.“My family had distilled gin since the late 17th century,” says Charles. “They had a small distillery at the family farm until 1928, when my great-grandfather bought Het Anker as a town house; but it had a small brewery attached which became the main business.“I decided to make whisky out of our beer because of the family history. The idea of distilling had always been in my mind. I just thought that as there had been two roots of our business, brewing and distilling, we would go back to them.“But I didn’t start out by saying we would make whisky. I just wanted to experiment with distillation. We made a first trial and only after that did I decide on cask maturation to create a whisky. Maturation has always fascinated me, and it seemed more logical to go that way than to go back to genever.” Plans to build the new distillery are well in hand: after briefly considering adapting one of the brewery’s old coppers by fitting a condenser, it was decided to commission a brand new one from Scotland, very like the plant at Islay’s Kilchoman distillery. The still has already been designed and is only awaiting a premises. Which won’t actually be Het Anker itself – Charles has decided that it should be, in his words, “an entity in its own right”, and its home is to be the old family farm at Blaasveld five miles away.There’s an awful lot of rebuilding to be done there first, though, and the still is unlikely to be charged until early 2010.In the meantime, Charles has had several experimental batches of Gouden Carolus whisky made by a nearby genever distiller.The first distillation was in 2004; it was bottled in February 2008, and brand manager Ali Bosman says: “We started as an experiment just to see how it was going to turn out. It might be good, it might be bad, we might have to throw it away.“After two years we tasted it and it was coming along well. There’s a lot of aroma, fruit, flowers and sweetness. After three years we could legally have bottled it for sale, but it wasn’t ready. After four years we decided it was ready. We did 3,000 bottles and it was all sold in six weeks.“Distillation in a genever still is a different process, of course. But it gives us a good idea of what it will be like. And in a pot still it will be even better.” Gouden Carolus won’t be Belgium’s first whisky – Belgian Owl comes from Grace Hollogne in the Ardennes, and according to Ali there’s another genever distiller in Ghent also producing a whisky. But, he says, Het Anker will be the first in Belgium to use a proper pot still from Scotland.The wash is, quite simply, the brewery’s existing 9% ABV Tripel recipe, which Ali claims is another unique feature. “The wash is a perfectly drinkable beer,” he says. “If you go to a Scottish distillery and taste the wash, it isn’t really a drinkable beer.“The only difference between our wash and Tripel is that it is unhopped; other than that it’s the same liquid. There’s a slight banana flavour about the Tripel because of the yeast we use in the mash, and that character comes through in the whisky. It also has a fruity sweetness; not overwhelming, but it’s definitely there. But it’s different from Scotch or Irish or Bourbon – it’s a Belgian product with a new taste.” A tasting of one of the last remaining bottles of the first distillation reveals a phenolic nose with a citrous sharpness to it.The palate is very sweet and still quite fiery, with an interesting contrast of lighter citrus notes and rich, almost chocolaty, undertones.But you’ll be lucky ever to try it for yourself for, says Ali: “We haven’t built up a stock because it is still experimental. But it’s very good and now we have a problem – we don’t have enough for everybody who wants it.There is a buzz about it, a lot of vibes, with people contacting us about when each new distillation will be ready.” The current stock has been aged in old barrels, but Charles has bought 105 new deeply-charred Bourbon casks to give colour and flavour to future distillations. And although the new still at at Blaasveld will be a standalone operation with its own visitors centre, the stock will actually age in the old maltings at Het Anker, which are being restored and fitted with heavy-duty steelbarred gates to satisfy Belgian Customs regulations.It will be a long time – perhaps as long as six or seven years – before enthusiasts can sample custom-made Gouden Carolus whisky from Blaasveld. But in the meantime, Het Anker itself is well worth a visit, although there are no guided tours at present because of renovation work. But Mechelen itself is a splendid city, with a noble cathedral overlooking a typically Flemish market square lined with excellent bars and restaurants. Het Anker is on the edge of the historic city centre, only a few minutes’ stroll from the sights; and the original warehouse has been converted into an extremely comfortable hotel, with the brewery’s own charming olde-worlde pub a part of the complex.So why wait? Take the Eurostar now, and change at Brussels for the short ride to Mechelen. And who knows? They might even have the odd bottle of “experimental” whisky left for you to sample...Brouwerij Het Anker,
Guido Gezellelaan 49,2800 Mechelen.
Tel 0032 15 287 147