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Zuidam - Dutch master

By Dominic Roskrow

Read through the lists of winners in the various drinks competitions and awards events over the last 12 months, and all the usual suspects are there. But one newcomer stands out.

For the name of Zuidam isn't just appearing occasionally in the more obscure spirits categories in the two main judging competitions. It's popping up regularly all over the place. And more than that, it's starting to do so regularly in the whisky categories.

It's just a guess, but Dutch family firm Zuidam might just be the fastest rising star in the whisky firmament right now. The chances are, too, that there's much more to come.

Dutch family firm Zuidam might just be the fastest rising star in the whisky firmament right now

Zuidam has slowly and surely been building an increasingly impressive portfolio of whiskies and is the owner of the Millstone brand, and frankly, it's on a roll. In less than six months it has won awards for its whiskies across the board, and its 12 year old sherry cask not only won European Whisky of the Year in my Wizards of Whisky World Whisky Awards but I have just chosen it as Whisky Advocate World Whisky of the Year.

And if that wasn't enough, the 12 year old had hardly left the room with a 90 plus Whisky Advocate score in its pocket when in waltzed the company's latest rye - and it's a blinder.

Before we start patronising our Dutch friends, though, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the family behind the distillery, and particularly Patrick Zuidam, who has taken over running the business from his father and is building on the company's success and taking it in to new areas.

Zuidam has always been known for quality and the under the direction of Patrick that'a still the case. He is already respected and recognised by people who know spirits, and is a judge for one of the major wine and spirits competitions (don't ask me which).

And the clues have been there for years. The whiskies didn't suddenly become great and the malt of five years ago was already demanding to be taken seriously. Now, though, Zuidam is at the forefront of world whisky and well capable of competing in the big league.

What makes this whisky story so special, though, is the fact that it stems from Patrick's personal passion and determination.

Zuidam is a family company and makes hundreds of drinks products. It prides itself on quality, only using the very best ingredients and refusing to cut corners. When it came to whisky Patrick set about applying the same standards and with his father's blessing, began experimenting.

"When I joined the business I wanted to add something new and exciting," he says. "I guess every generation wants to do things slightly different from their parents.

I always had a fascination for whisky so I started experimenting and distilling grain mashes for genever and whisky in 1994.

"My father always told me: 'If you do something try to be the best at what you do because the world is not waiting for mediocre products'. So that is what we try and do. We try to make the best products that we can and we are always looking for ways to improve our products. Are we succeeding ? That is for people like you and finally for the consumers to decide."

It wasn't necessarily a smooth ride and there were setbacks. But Patrick was never less than ambitious , turning his hand to the notoriously difficult whisky style, rye.

"I remember going to check the first rye I made after 18 months and it was really terrible," he says. "I didn't know whether to tell my father that I had spent quite a lot of money on expensive grain and ruined it.

"I decided to seal it again and say nothing.When I came back to it when it was four years old it tasted great.

"Rye Whisky is very tricky, it is a very difficult grain to work with. We ferment and distill a 100 per cent rye grain whisky. This amplifies all the challenges of doing a rye whisky.

"The problems start with the mashing. When you mix rye with water it creates a very special mash with a consistency comparable to wallpaper glue. Even after the mashing it remains this very slimy, gooey consistency. Fermentation is tricky as the mash forms big bubbles of co2 that are quite persistent and hard to break. If the fermentations starts too vigorously you can encounter a nice thick coating of wallpaper glue on the floor the next morning.

"Therefore we control the fermentation temperature quite rigorously so we can control the fermentation speed and therefore the bubbling...... This also helps to eliminate the second challenge of rye grain. It gets easily infected with lactic acid bacteria the trick is to keep the fermentation nice and cool.

"Then we have the distillation: picture trying to distill 5000 litres of wallpaper glue. It would not be possible without our nice and modern water bath heated stills and agitators in the stills.

"But when all is said and done, I do firmly believe that rye grain is worth all the hassle and problems. It is one of the best products we make."

It is indeed, but the distillery's core whiskies under the Millstone brand are matching the rye step for step. Patrick makes a range of non peated whiskies from a mix of cask styles, as well as peated whisky.

Millstone takes its name from the Dutch windmill connection and indeed, the barley is ground by windmill. There can be no mistaking the quality here, and the older whiskies stands comparison worth a sizeable number of the Scottish single. Bu the prices isn't exactly the same.

"Unlike our Scottish friends we do not produce a clear wort and then ferment that into a clear beer," says Patrick. "We ferment our malt whisky like our rye whisky and genever - on the grain solids. It makes for a good fermentation and although it makes the distillation more tricky, we find that it enhances the richness of our whisky."

As you'd expect of a relatively small distillery and an enthusiast such as Patrick, there are any number of experimental whiskies under trial at Zuidam but Patrick prefers not to be drawn on whether they'll see the light of day. It's all depends on quality, he says. First is widespread international recognition for consistent quality.

"I think that we have to measure our products against the best products that the world has to offer," he says.

"It is the only way to measure how good our products are.

"You can only improve yourself if you are honest about the quality of your products and you are not afraid to face any shortcomings. Only then, when you have an honest measurement on how good your products really are, you can find aspects that still can be refined and improved upon."

Patrick isn't the sort to take to grandstanding or to adopt a superior position to other world distillers, but he's clearly not convinced that all new world distillers share his views. To be taken seriously, he says, the category need to exercise some quality control.

"I think whisky made in new countries should be measured against the best the world has to offer," he says. "It should first and foremost be very or extremely good whisky. Under no circumstances should there be made excuses for lacking quality based on age or place of origin.

"You sometimes see distillers from non traditional whisky countries making and selling poor whisky. Those should be eliminated as soon as possible.

"I have lots of friends in non traditional whisky countries who make super whiskies and offer new and exciting flavour options to the whisky drinkers out there. Only if the quality is as good or preferably better than the traditional whiskies only then shall world whisky become accepted as serious whisky."