The single malt whisky, a well-established high bar in the spirits industry the world over, has long had a strong connection with Scotland.
This instinctual correlation, however, is swiftly being challenged as new players enter the field, bringing drams from countries like Japan, the Netherlands and Belgium to take on the most famous high bar in whisky: the Single Malt.
A Scottish Single Malt must be
According to the Scottish Whisky Regulations 2009, to be considered as a Single Malt Whisky it must be "produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills". Additionally, all Scottish Whisky must be matured in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years (and one day to some), while many sit for much longer.
While a simple enough process on paper, if any part of this is omitted from the creation process, the product is no longer a Single Malt Scottish Whisky.
Some deviations from this process would substantially alter the drink or even disqualify it as ‘whisky’. Changing the location, however, is leading to a growing trend in international single malts, as different countries put their own spin on the potent spirit.
Belgium— more likely thought of for chocolates and beer — is one such place taking on whisky production. After all, the country already has a strong connection to grain spirits.
“Nobody in Belgium has experience in making whisky, but there is a very long history of distilling grain in Belgium through jenever production, and malt wine — ’korenwijn or moutwijn — which is your base for jenever,” explained Wine and Spirits Consultant Patrick Missotten.
“Moutwijn is close to whisky, but you don’t have to age it," he added.
The new age
Founded by Charles LeClef of Mechelen brewery Het Anker, the Gouden Carolus distillery is one such Belgian creator developing the market.
Distilling in a family property in Blaasveld, Charles and his son William are part of a new push into the Belgian whisky market.
"My family used to be distillers of jevener in a cottage just outside of town. By making whisky, we wanted to bring those two family traditions of brewing and distilling together," explained William. “Whisky is made out of malt, which gave us the opportunity to use our beer as wash. This link is important in our story and therefore also the reason why we don’t produce any gins or rums.”
Launched in November 2013, the Gouden Carolus single malt is a meeting point between Belgium’s brewing heritage and a new expansion into the whisky world, which has won a number of international prizes.
“What we are known for is our brewing, and as brewers, we can make a good wash — we use our tripel as the base. By beginning like we’re making our beer and then distilling it, that is a big part of what makes this whisky Belgian,” explained Charles.
According to the Scottish Whisky Experience (SWE): “The wort technically becomes wash as soon as yeast is added to start fermentation. However, the term is usually used to refer to the liquid at the end of the fermentation process. It is the wash which forms the raw material of the first distillation in the pot still process and of the only distillation in the patent still process.”
Then what is wort?
SWE says: “Wort is the liquid drawn off the mash-tun in which the malted and unmalted cereals have been mashed with warm water. Wort contains all the sugars of the malt and certain secondary constituents. After cooling, it is passed to the fermenting vats.”
“As Belgian brewers, we pay a lot of attention to our wash. I think what struck me the most on my visit to Scotland was the difference in the care they give to their production process before and after the pot stills. Our brewers’ DNA forces us to prepare our wash with the same passion as our beers; in fact it is one of our beers,” William added.
Distilling single malt whisky is by no means an inexpensive project, and the processes required to create a single malt demand a certain dedication to the product.
“Unless you have capital, you need investors, and the minimum three years wait before you see a product also means you have to be patient, or find other revenues in the meantime... like gin," said Missotten. “It’s not that easy to start a whisky distillery, but a lot of people are trying,” he added.
Producing whisky requires millions of euros in upfront investment but can take years to show any result, as you have to wait at least three (or more often eight or ten) years before the whisky is ready for bottling and sale.
“We aimed to respect the traditions the product calls for, to use the correct methods of distilling and to obey process,” said Charles. “I’m not saying all 'Belgian whisky' has to be created like a Scottish one, or like ours; just that it has to respect the specifications of the product,” he added.
It was this respect that moved the LeClefs to work with the renowned still makers Forsyths in Scotland to create a pot still to the specifications they wanted.
What is a pot still?
Mostly unchanged in whisky’s long history, a pot still is a large copper kettle used to distill the wash. It is heated from the bottom, which boils off the alcohol and makes it rise up the neck of the still, where it condenses into an oily fluid. That fluid is in turn put through a similar process in the ‘spirit still’, where the condensed alcoholic liquid is separated into foreshots, middle cut, and feints. It is the ‘middle’ liquid which is used to make whisky.
Gouden Carolus saw the installation of its copper pot stills in November 2009, with a first production of pure distillate in October 2010. Using these stills, the distillery has now reached a point where they can constantly have products on the shelves. This is a big step in the whisky world, due to the three-year wait between distillation and bottling that is required for the product to be labeled ‘whisky’.
“From the start we have produced more than we have sold. We still do. We hoped the whisky would be well received when it came out of the barrels, and thankfully it was,” William added.
From the moment the first bottle was sold, Gouden Carolus has been constantly available on the shelves — a fact that is of great importance to the LeClef family.
“I don’t like the idea of false exclusivity that can come with a lack of supply,” explained Charles. “We produce limited versions of special whiskies, but one single malt is always available and the intention is to add another seated one in the future,“ he added.
Ultimately, it is the aspiration of Gouden Carolus to see the whisky market grow. This aspiration goes beyond simply gaining more attention; a reputation for quality products is equally important. “We’re making ‘Belgian whisky’, not just whisky from Belgium. Alongside distillers like Belgian Owl, we’re slowly building a product and it’s important to do it correctly,” Charles explained.
“We’ve only existed for around nine years, so we have to stay humble and keep things realistic. Our entrepreneurial aspirations are to spread, to do more, and not to constantly chase the next goal,” he added.
From brewer to farm
If Gouden Carolus is the product of a brewer’s history, Belgian Owl is the product of farming ideology.
Sitting just outside of Liège is the Belgian Owl distillery, producing its own take on Belgian single malt by taking inspiration and produce from the local area and its ingredients. “The Owl Distillery creates a Belgian single malt whisky, with a strong link to the soil,” explained Etienne Bouillon. “The only two ingredients we need, water and barley, come directly from our terroir,” he added.
The first barrel of Belgian Owl was filled on 29 October 2004 and bottled 3 years later on 30 October 2007. Their whisky has since also received acclaim from the international whisky community.
“When you visit the Owl Distillery, you are surrounded by the field on which the barley is raised,” said Bouillon, adding that the distillery works with six farmers in the local area in fair trade.
One important aspect of the Belgian Owl story, however, was shipped in from outside of the country: the stills.
In 2013, The Owl Distillery had the opportunity to buy two of the four stills from the now-closed Caperdonich Distillery in Rothes, Scotland. “It is quite exceptional to see two stills leaving Scotland for another country as here for Belgium,” said Bouillon.
In October 2016, the first distillate produced in the Scottish stills reached the age of 3 years and was bottled as Belgian Single Malt whisky. Since that moment, Belgian Owl has been consistently available on the Belgian market. Now, the distillery holds aspirations of maintaining its position in the local market and even moving global.
“The Owl Distillery began with five hectares and is now farming 77 hectares,” said Bouillon. “The capacity of the distillery has thus risen from 20,000 bottles to 300,000 bottles per year,” he added.
“Belgian Owl is a product which relies on things lasting — fields, farmer, soil, water. The idea is to protect the soil in order to have the same quality of soil in 150 years… This will allow us to keep the quality in our Belgian Owl Single Malt whisky,” Bouillon added.
The future of the Belgian dram
In terms of market appeal, whisky — like many spirits — also has a strong connection to the brand of the drink. “For whisky, drinkers are looking for an experience, for a story, and the Belgian whisky brands are giving them what they want,” said Missotten. “Imagine the best whisky in the world comes from Belgium, but there’s no story behind it. I’m not sure you’ll sell much of it,” he added.
“Scotland is the benchmark, it's the ultimate example. Everyone copied Scotland or Ireland. I think Belgium is staying closer to Scottish traditional style than say, Japanese whisky,” said Missotten. “If you follow the basic rules of whisky, which you should, you are able to make something good,” he added.
With two well-established players on the market, Belgian whisky remains a small player on the global scale, albeit one with a potential for growth.
“In terms of creating whisky, we’re still very much learning. Our special editions are the result of our distiller, my father and myself trying and seeing what we like and what we think works,” explained William.
“What they do have now is a good local market that drinks the whisky, that buys the whisky, and that’s important. Many of the beer makers in Belgium got their start because of local markets,” said Missotten.
“If the Scots didn’t drink so much whisky, they’d never be where they are today, so Belgium is in good company there,” he added.
“The future for Belgium? I see the distilleries trying with other grain, maybe blends, or the rise of malt wine or "grain eau-de-vie", a more grain flavoured spirit which doesn't get most of its taste from the barrel," said Missotten. "I also expect to see more single malts, but it won’t happen quickly — things move slowly in the whisky world."
By Jules Johnston