Whisky Connosr

Zuidam - whisky's flying Dutchmen

By Dominic Roskrow

The Zuidam distillery on the Holland-Belgium border is an impressive and complex one making 600 different spirits products. But never mind the quantity, I'm impressed with the quality too.

There are great parts of central Europe where despite the economic difficulties, they're living the Euro dream.

In places such as Maastricht, where the treaty was signed citizens from different countries live like Europeans while maintaining their national identities, at ease with each other, and respectful of each other.

It looks like chaos, though Patrick tells me it's anything but

Baarle Nassau is one such place. It's in Holland, but some houses straddle the border with Belgium, the national determination of which country you live in decided by which country your front door opens in to. And it's here you'll find the highly impressive Zuidam distillery, home of Millstone whisky and Dutch Rye. Zuidam is a pleasant surprise. The distillery has no less than 600 different product lines, including many liqueurs, genevers and gins. So far so European. But what sets Zuidam apart from many of its competitors is the fact that it's only been in business for 37 years, and its whole raison d'être is to make the very best premium spirits. When the family company turned to making whisky the mantra was simple: good things come to those that wait.

The Zuidam distillery isn't much to look at on the face of it. It's on an industrial park and from the road at least it looks like any other industrial warehouse unit. But enter the reception area and you're faced with gleaming examples of old copper stills, smart offices and tasteful bottle displays. Once you're past the packaging area you're in an Aladdin's cave of pot and column stills, of large glass extracting vessels containing everything from cinnamon and cocoa to roses and vanilla pods for the distillery's naturally flavoured liqueurs range, and tables of labels, bottles and heated wax pots for hand labeling and sealing the large number of bespoke premium genever products.

There are boxes of fruit and teams of workers cutting oranges ad lemons, piling up boxes of blackcurrants, or squeezing casks in-between the distilling equipment.

It looks like chaos, but young, intense and highly knowledgeable managing director Patrick Zuidam says that in reality it's anything but.

"It is an organisational nightmare because there are so many different product lines here and each has to fit in to the schedule," he says. "We use fresh fruit so we have to produce those drinks to suit the seasons. It means we're constantly changing so no two days are the same. It's never boring for the staff. My biggest worry is that we'll run out of something but at the same time I can't buy too much in because there is't the space to store it. Space is the biggest issue for us at the moment."

Zuidam is very much a family firm. Set up by Patrick's father Fred and with mother Helene still involved with what is outstanding design and packaging, Patrick runs the business and genial and slightly kooky brother Gilbert heads up sales.

Spend anytime with Patrick and it becomes obvious that he is, in the nicest possible way, a distilling geek. His distillery allow him to experiment with drinks such as caffeine-infused energy vodka, sherry aged genever and five grain genever. But he has an impressive self confidence about what he does, and he can be disarmingly frank. Take the use of spelt in the five grain genever, for instance.

"I use corn, malted barley, wheat, rye and spelt," he says. "Spelt is an ancient form of wheat and I'd like say it adds something special but the truth is it's pretty useless. I use it because I wanted five grains."

Such disarming directness coupled with humour make Patrick an engaging and formidable host. He's equally frank about the way his Millstone malt whisky range is made with malted barley produced at local windmills.

"It might seem like a gimmick but the truth is that when I took over here I wanted to introduce a new genever but there was absolutely no money so I asked a local miller if he would do it cheat and he said he would do it free in return for a bottle of genever. We now use seven local windmills and it's a big job because you can't drive a truck to the windmill because it's up a hill. Every bag of barley must be carried up and back again.

"The millers say making the grist this way without heat makes for an unscorched and better product. It's a good story, and a nice local angle. But if I'm honest with you, I don't believe a word of it."

Patrick might be a bit cynical about the milling process, but the fact that the distillery pays such attention to detail, reflected elsewhere in the distillery process, is indicative of the high standard it sets itself. Zuidam makes peated and unpeated malt whisky matured in virgin American oak casks as well as small 250 litre sherry casks, and has added an impressive rye whisky to its repertoire. The distillery has taken to whisky making with the same determination to be the very best.

It takes a huge amount of skill to make rye whisky, for instance, and it tests distilling skills to the limit.

Rye is notoriously difficult to malt, and it doesn't convert sugars to alcohols without a fight, either. Most rye whisky will be made with a proportion of malted barley to help the conversion process. You can make 100 per cent malted rye whisky, but be prepared for a struggle.

Patrick Zuidam explains: "I really like the taste of the rye whisky, which has a velvety side to it unlike American rye whiskeys. But it is a hard grain to distill. The mash goes thick like wallpaper paste and has the same oily texture. "if it ferments too quickly big bubbles of carbon dioxide explode up, sending this thick substance all over the place so you have to wade through it. It takes some cleaning up."

Patrick is understandably confident about the future, believing that the current growth in interest in world whisky coupled with a demand for hight quality premium spirits creates a tailor-made market for Zuidam. "In Holland there are not many people doing what we do," says Patrick "We take our whisky very seriously."

Millstone 5 Year Old. 45%

Although relatively young by Scottish standards the maturation conditions help this shoot above its weight. Smooth, richly fruity and with peach and apricot in the mix, this is a more-ish accomplished malt with no jagged edges and a pleasant vanilla conclusion.

Millstone Heavily Peated 40%

A not overly complicated whisky and despite the name, the peat isn't overly dominant, complimenting the standard fruit, toffee and vanilla of the standard bottling. The peat doesn't linger too long in the finish.

Millstone rye 40%

This has improved significantly in recent years and now the rye is an assertive senior partner in a whisky which boasts aniseed, liquorice, cherry and dark chocolate as well as some citrus fruit in the mix.