Even as recently as two years ago the idea of good whisky from Belgium was a strange one. But it took Etienne Bouillon, the brains behind The Belgian Owl, less than an hour to convince me that he's both serious about making malt, and good at it.
He counts the legendary Jim McEwan among his consultants and muses, and he has created a distillery like no other, making malt worthy of its place on whisky's high table. And he makes a sweet, fruity delightful whisky which is a front runner among new world whiskies.
Belgium, it is fair to say, has been very much on the fruity whisky fringes
But making whisky on mainland Europe isn't without its challenges. And two years on from when The Belgian Owl looked set to step up a division, Bouillon remains where he was back then - on the verge of bigger things but yet to fulfil them. Time, then, to find out what has been going on. Even by the relatively modest European whisky achievements Belgium has slipped under the whisky radar. Although it produces the world’s finest beers, its grain-produced alcohols have tended to be distilled in to 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, has 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 2012 as the year Belgium stepped up to the whisky plate. And if all goes to plan The Owl Distillery, the country’s oldest single malt whisky producer, will also ramp up its operation, invest in Scottish stills, and start seeking new markets for its already high quality whisky.
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 a 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 in to 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 as spirit.
Finally the whisky is bottled on 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.”
Nevertheless, Bouillon knows that it would make for greater efficiency to bring the site to one place. He feels that the momentum is with him after a great year in 2011. "We had an outstanding year," he says. "We had a fantastic harvest due to great climatic conditions. We're very proud of our production process, which starts with Belgian barley, and we had a fantastic year with many awards. Now I hope we'll get the opportunity to move the production process in to one place."
“There is always something happening here 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. And who knows, perhaps one day, as much a Belgian icon as Inspector Clouseau and moules et frites.
Random Irrelevant Fact
The Belgian Owl struggled early on with its name. It was originally called Pur-E, but Etienne Bouillon decided to distance itself from the word 'pure', a tarnished word in whisky. Rather than upset half the country by using a Flemish name or half the country by adopting a French one, he decided on on an English one to offend everybody equally!