Belgium, like the United States, has experienced a steady growth in the demand for and production of artisanal spirits over the last decade or so. The typical Belgian consumer is drinking less, and drinking better, and is willing to pay for quality distillates that enrich their lives.
Belgium’s homegrown spirit is genever (Dutch: jenever), which was first distilled in Flanders in the 16th century. At that time, it was typically flavored with juniper berries. Nowadays, genever is often flavored with all kinds of
fruits, herbs and spices. Brussels sprouts and pine cones included. The spirit lends itself well to experimentation. Genever is also the predecessor of modern-day gin.
One of oldest distilling sites in Belgium, Stokerij de Molenberg, still stands, and has recently been transformed into a world-class visitor’s center and museum, with a tasting room and retail shop. Stokerij de Molenberg is a one-story, U-shaped building with a thatched roof and an attic now used for special events. It is located in the town of Blaasveld, in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, about 23 miles from Brussels. Stokerij is an old Dutch word meaning “distillery.”
The structure was built in 1637 by the Van Breedam family, and barley malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation have been done in the same location, starting sometime in the mid-1600s until 1914, at the onset of World War I. Prior to the 21st century, genever was distilled there; and in 2010, a new whiskey distillery was started. The history of the site and information about the production of genever and whiskey are covered in detail, and many historic items are on display in the museum.
The site is called “De Molenberg” for the windmill built in 1652, fifty yards from the distillery. Millers and distillers lived in the house for centuries, and one of the oldest and best preserved malt kilns in Belgium is inside, as are two much newer copper pot stills, built by Forsyths in Scotland.
In addition to single malt, Stokerij de Molenberg produces other distillates. One is a line of anniversary editions, with a special new whiskey each year. Another, the “Pure Taste” line, showcases the taste of whiskeys aged in specific types of barrels, as each new release has aged in only one type of barrel. Visit online at stokerijdemolenberg.be for more info.
A Family Affair
In 1872, the Van Breedam family also purchased a brewery at the Grand Beguinage of Mechelen, about five miles from Stokerij de Molenberg, and renamed it “Brouwerij Het Anker.” The brewery has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 1990, Charles Leclef, the fifth-generation owner of the brewery, restored Brouwerij Het Anker and its Gouden Carolus beers from the brink of extinction to international prominence. By 2007, Leclef decided he wanted to make whiskey and purchased the distillery site from his uncle’s estate in 2008.
“I like to brew and distill what I like to drink,” Leclef said. “We use the traditional way of double distillation for whiskey, with a cut point of 68% alcohol by volume (ABV). The base for Gouden Carolus Single Malt is our Gouden Carolus Tripel beer, prior to hops being added.”
After distillation, the clear distillate is pumped into first-fill bourbon barrels, aged for 2.5 years, and then transferred to spend an additional 6 months in Het Anker barrels, which are prepared especially for the distillery by a cooper in Portugal. This last step gives the single malt its amber color. It contains 46% alcohol. Gouden Carolus Single Malt Whisky has notes of vanilla and fruits and a light sweetness.
“The two Forsyths pot stills were handmade to my specifications,” Leclef said. “Our investment in the distillery project is more than €2 million.”
To the east, in French-speaking Wallonia, about nine miles from the city of Liège, is the first distillery to produce whiskey in Belgium: The Owl Distillery. The Owl was founded in 2004 by Etienne Bouillon, who dreamed of making whiskey in Belgium for many years.
Bouillon started distilling in 1993, and he is a student of Jim McEwan of the Bruichladdich Distillery in Scotland. Bouillon has earned the title of Malt Ambassador of Bruichladdich.
The Owl Distillery is located on an old farm in Fexhe-le-Haut-Clocher, on the site of a well-preserved 17th-century farmstead. Bouillon said, “There was a monastery here from the 13th century, which we think burned sometime in the 17th century. Sometime after that, the farmstead, built in stone and of the typical construction for this area in that era, was built.”
Luckily, the farm’s stone buildings are substantial and tall, so with some reworking, another dream of Bouillon’s could fit: two copper pot stills dating to 1898, built by Forsyths, from the closed Caperdonich Distillery, in Rothes, Scotland. Bouillon purchased these in 2010. “To work with such beautiful and historic pot stills is just amazing!”
“The reason we chose this farm for our distillery site is due to the high-quality soil conditions here, as we wanted to grow our own barley to use to make our whiskey,” said Bouillon. “In this part of the Hesbaye region, the ground has a high concentration of chalk, which adds to the minerality of the soil. This, in turn, produces a two-row barley that is great for making whiskey, as the minerality is imparted from the barley to the finished product. In my opinion, 40% of the character of our Belgian Owl Single Malt Whisky is due to our barley, grown in the fields next to the distillery. This is not just a Belgian whiskey, but a whiskey of terroir.”
“We have 60 hectares [about 150 acres] of land where six local farmers grow barley. In order to make it a worthwhile endeavor for them, we have to pay two to three times the world spot market price for barley,” Bouillon added. “But we don’t care, as we want the best barley possible.”
The Belgian Owl Single Malt Whisky is in such demand in Belgium that Bouillon and partners Christian Polis (the financier) and Pierre Roberti (the primary farmer) have up until now only had enough stock to last for two months of the year, every year. Fortunately, that is going to change soon, as the distillery quadrupled production beginning in 2013, and the first of those barrels are expected to be harvested this year. “Between June 2016 and June 2017, we should have about 80,000 bottles to sell,” Bouillon said. “About half of that will remain in Belgium, and the rest will be exported, including to the USA.”
The expansion of the distillery also includes a tasting cafe/restaurant and more space for barrel storage. The new additions will be officially opened in mid-October.
As he enters one of the two barrel rooms, Bouillon commented, “It’s only because the local tax authority is here today that we can enter. We both have to be present to enter the barrel warehouses, as distilled spirits are very tightly controlled and heavily taxed in Belgium.”
The barrels are first-fill former bourbon casks from the Heaven Hill Brands in Kentucky. They are stacked eight rows high and fifteen deep in each barrel rack.
The Belgian Owl Single Malt Whisky (46% ABV) has a pale golden color, with notes of honey, pears, vanilla and citrusy fruits. Visit belgianwhisky.com.
Just 25 miles northwest is one of Belgium’s most-visited sites. Brouwerij & Alcoholstokerij Wilderen, in Limburg Province, features a microbrewery and distillery installed in 2011, as well as a great barn built in 1743, now transformed into a tasting cafe that can accommodate 200 people. Its large outside patio has space for hundreds more, and 3,000 to 4,000 people visit the site on summer weekends. Mike Janssen, co-founder of Wilderen, said that 104,000 people visited in 2015. Janssen has been involved with the Belgian beer and brewing scene for more than 25 years. While the site does not have a restaurant, Wilderen offers a large plate of delicious local meats, cheeses and breads sufficient for several patrons.
In addition to a modern distillery, Wilderen contains one of the largest intact distilleries in Western Europe that predates World War I. This distillery was built in 1890, and supplied grain alcohol (95% ABV) to many liquor companies in the region. Also, while the German army confiscated most of the copper brewing and distilling kettles in Belgium, Wilderen’s kettles somehow survived unscathed by the invaders. Perhaps they liked this local product?
The source of water for the new 500-liter German-built distillery is the same 300-foot-deep well used by the original distillers and brewers.
Wilderen’s range of distilled spirits includes Graan Jenever, made with herbs, as well as Eau-de-Bière, which is distilled from the brewery’s Kanunnik Tripel, both at 32% ABV. Wilderen Double You Gin (43.7% ABV) contains 21 herbs and spices, and is so popular that it sells out within days of release.
Whiskey lovers will enjoy three versions of Wilderen Wild Weasel: Finest Blend Whisky (40% ABV), Single Cask (46%) and Cask Strength (60%). The Single Malt Single Cask Whisky version is very smooth and fruity, with notes of caramel and oak. It costs €65 for a 700 ml bottle on site, if available. The whiskeys are aged in former Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve barrels for a minimum of 3 years and a day. The bottles are packaged by hand in wooden boxes. Rare, they are: Since first released in August 2014, only 220 bottles of Cask Strength, 3,300 of Single Cask and 6,600 bottles of Finest Blend have been offered. Visit online at brouwerijwilderen.be.
Thirty miles north of Wilderen, in Hechtel (also in Limburg Province) is yet another historic distillery, De Korhaan. It was founded in 1833, and its name was changed to Likeurfabriek Leukenheide in 1937. New ownership took over in 2014, led by managing director/co-owner Luc Geukens, and its name was changed back to De Korhaan. This was one of the biggest genever distilleries in Belgium prior to the WWI. In September 1944, it was bombed by the Allies, as the German army was storing munitions in its cellars.
The brewery was burned to a shell, and parts of it were reconstructed after the war. Luckily, the original 1833 copper still survived, and is one of the oldest existing in Belgium. Much newer distilling equipment is used now at Korhaan.
Korhaan probably has the largest range of genevers in Belgium, including dozens of spiced and fruited versions, as well as gins. “We make 40 different gins, of which 10 are London Dry. We also produce 50 kinds of genever,” said Geukens. “In fact, we produce about 200 different spirits, of which 70 are in our standard range.” Korhaan is also one of the best at producing such gins, genevers and liquors.
One of their original products from 1833 was Elixir de Spikelspade, which predates the much more famous Elixir de Anvers. The Spikelspade is a liquor made with 19 different herbs, plants and spices, which has a fruity and moderately sweet taste, and 36% ABV.
Korhaan’s genevers are flavored with cherries, pinecones, pears, plums, asparagus, sloe berries, apples, witloof, kiwis, chocolate, honey and much more.
“We produced 50,000 liters of spirits in 2015, and that was 85,000 bottles,” Geukens said. De Korhaan has also undergone a recent renovation and expansion with plans to export to US in the near future. The site also contains a retail shop and a fascinating museum of old clocks. Some date back to the time of Napoleon. Visit online at korhaan.be.
One more distilling stop of importance to mention is the Jenever Museum, in Hasselt, 15 miles south of Hechtel. In addition to covering the history of the spirit, there is a tasting room with over 130 different genevers. The museum also organizes workshops and seminars, and there is a genever festival every October. Visit online at jenevermuseum.be.
The Belgian Owl
Open Up Farm Distillery
Jenever Museum Hasselt
Distilleerderij De Korhaan (Leukenheide)
no official website
Stokerij De Moor
Distillerie ’t Stookkot
Stokerij de Molenberg
Brouwerij & Alkoholstokerij Wilderen
Stokerij Van Damme