What comes to mind when you think of Belgium? Chocolate, perhaps? Frittes with every meal? Definitely drink, either beer or genevre.
But would you think of whisky?
The more traveled drinkers will know that Belgium has a few small whisky distilleries dotted about but they certainly don’t have the same amount of exposure as those of Scotland and Ireland, Japanese or even Australian. This World Whisky Wednesday we’re having a special look at a special distillery, De Molenburg Distillery of Belgium.
I promise you, it is something else.
What a lovely brewery
First things first, when we look at De Molenburg, we also need to look at Het Anker Brewery in Mechelen. The brewery sits proudly in the city center with a history stretching back to 1471 in where the beer was made in a religious commune for the ill for centuries under the name of Begijnhof Brewery. This changed when Louis Van Breedam and his sister Anna Boonaerts, owners of the nearby Blaasveld Genevre distillery (which distilled genevre from 1637 to 1927) bought the brewery in 1872, beginning what would grow to be one of Belgium’s most awarded breweries. Present-day owner Charles Leclef, nephew of the Van Breedam family, renovated and revamped the brewery in 1990 and saw his families now quiet but once-thriving farm, and in 2003 a dream came; what if we were to distill once again, turning our beer into whisky? While their award-winning ‘Golden Carolus’ carries hops and herbs making it unsuitable for a wash, with the removal of those it would be. And as such, De Molenburg distillery was born.
Now that’s a beautiful distillery
De Molenburg (derived from the phrase from ‘molenmill’, meaning mill mountain) is only a twenty-minute drive away from Het Anker Brewery, a tiny distillery hidden away in a quiet part of the world.
Not much of a mountain, but there is the mill.
The Van Breedam family has used Molenburg for a variety of purposes: producing genevre (obviously), a weekend home, a residency, and Livinius Victor Van Breedam and Jan Dominicus Van Breedam also once hide a nut tree sitting in the distilleries courtyard from the German forces during the second world war (the wood used is apparently perfect for gun stocks). And now, this place of family history has been transformed by Charles Lechef, re-envisioned as a whisky distillery.
They have come quite a long way
Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. You have a large availability of great quality wash, you have a family history steeped in distillation, and you have an area almost ready for the distillation process. With the stills commissioned, custom made by Forsyths in Scotland and installed at the tail end of 2009, there was just one more thing missing: what to mature the whisky in. We see so many new whiskies in today’s world that it can be a bit more difficult to set yourself apart from the crowd. Enter Dr. James Swan. Those who read blogs such as this will know the name already, but for those who don’t, he was arguably one of the most prominent people in the whisky industry in the past few decades. He, along with Harry Cockburn (former manager of Bowmore distillery) and Charles Leclef, began tinkering and tailoring, finally settling on a key characteristic of the distillery that would set Molenburg apart from the multitude of other world whiskies.
Our whisky begins at Het Anker brewery, with the same wash used for the Golden Carolus sans the hops and herbs brewed, before being sent down the road to De Molenberg. Monday to Friday, with the wash coming in on the Monday delivery, De Molenberg distills between 12000l and 15000l. The pot still has a capacity of 3000l, dropping the wash in at 8.5% (the original roof had to be changed due to the neck height and angle of the swan neck, funnily enough). After the first distillation, it runs to the spirit still, and the distiller takes the cuts after 10 minutes of the tails run, before collecting the hearts.
The face of happiness
Photo credit to Caitlin Powell
After that? We go back to the brewery where the spirit sits in ex-bourbon barrels for a minimum of 3 years, typically 30 months, before being transferred to the “Anker” casks; American Oak ex-fortified wine casks from Portugal rejuvenated with a deep char for a minimum of 3 months (though I have been told as long as 14 months) to reach the optimal flavour and consistency, as envisioned by the late Dr Swan. Angels share is a touch higher here than we see in the more well known countries, reaching between 5 – 6% per annum.
Beautiful barrels, sleeping softly
Damn, if it isn’t a fine dram. The distillery also released a limited anniversary edition each year, a highlight being the 2017 Muscad’ or edition. While visiting the distillery, they were kind enough to share that peat farming has been commonplace in the area over the centuries and tipped a heavy wink. My my, what could they mean by such a thing.
Now I had a choice when reaching this part of the article: review the standard Golden Carolus release. or more interestingly, to my mind at least, the Muscad’or edition. In the end, I compromised and decided to review both.
Golden Carolus Single Malt
A stunning colour on that dram
Soft scents of berries flow off the whisky, warmed by an afternoon sun and laying down next to a soft bed of creme brulee, rhubarb, melting vanilla ice-cream and grapefruit juice. After a time the nose opens and we see apricot jam coming through, with stewing peaches, cherries, and melon dipped into golden syrup. A touch of ginger floats down and suddenly we have some brandy snaps, light meringue and some boiled strawberries with a dash of star anise.
Our palate is soft, with malt, coconut, soft homemade marshmallows, ginger and vanilla, turning a touch tart but full flavored and luscious. Touches of creme brulee and meringue come through again, with a light fruity finish, a pinch of lemon zest and tart apricot jam, a refined young whisky.
De Molenberg 2017, Muscad’or Release
Whisky, beer and Wine…
A limited release for the 4th anniversary of De Molenberg, this edition was matured for 33 months in ex-bourbon barrels, finished for 10 months in French muscat casks, previously used to mature Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, coming into the glass at 46%. Now doesn’t that sound tasty?
The nose is sweet off the top, overflowing with pressed grapes, sugary almonds, thick maple syrup and a whollop of sweet wine, it even smells sticky. When the glass is warmed by the hands, then it truly opens, pouring apricots, nectarines, peaches and sweet turkish delight. While whisky is a often called a winter dram, this is a summer time drink.
The palate packs a small punch with honey suckle, elderflower and full floral roses, a big bodied drams, wetting the cheeks and drying the roof of the mouth. Pollen feels splashed through the mouth, brilliant raisins and a touch of tart orange juice. The dram does not deal well with sitting, beginning to pucker slightly towards the end as the mouth loses moisture, however it has an incredibly long finish that plants raspberries, honeysuckle, apricots and citrus through the night as a pleasant surprise, taking you back each time to the first sip.
It is not often that you run into something such as this. I make it a point of pride to try a whisky from every country I travel to, order whiskies from all around the world, and try as many as I can. And you find gems, you really do, but this was something more. I like to say that whisky is a puzzle of a million pieces, each coming together to form that perfect dram. Some folk have come close, some people have not, a few have lost the puzzle box along the way, but De Molenberg has put the puzzle together better than almost anyone I have seen, bringing an Award-winning wash to the table and starting from there, with truly fantastic stills, a brilliant location for maturation, and some of the finest whisky minds the world has ever seen. Even the bottles have been designed to replicate the original kiln, and the glass the current stills.
A piece of history
They have hit it out of the park at every opportunity and I simply cannot wait to see what else they produce going forward. If De Molenberg is reading this, they should feel proud, and reach for one of their fantastic drams to toast themselves.
To book yourself a tour of Molenberg, click the following link below
For their brewery, click here
And to try some of their product yourself, simply click below
Please note that this review was not sponsored or endorsed by any distillery, Molenberg or otherwise, and is entirely the words of the author Somewhiskybloke.