World Whisky Wednesday comes back once again in its weekly installment! Here I look every week at a whisky from around the world that’s off the beaten track but is worth trawling through liquor stores at the ends of the earth to find. A week ago, I placed a poll on my twitter page, asking from which continent people are most excited to see new whiskies, and Europe won with a stunning 70% of the votes. I’ve looked at whiskies from Belgium, Germany, France, Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia, but recently I tried something from the Netherlands that surpassed my expectations. Or perhaps you aren’t aware that the Dutch make whisky?
A country with a long and impactful history of manufacturing alcohol, the Netherlands are more commonly known for Jenever. Jenever (or if you prefer, Genever or Dutch Gin) started as a distillate of wine that was… less than enjoyable. Not to be deterred the original distillers would add herbs and spices to mask the undesirable flavours, the juniper berry resulting in the strongest of these flavours. Gradually the berries name, juniper, became jenever, and eventually to gin. While these two spirits have a long-intertwined history, today the spirits differ vastly in flavour, availability and price, though it is not without some controversy regarding the first distillers, as multiple countries within Europe can trace the spirit to their country.
More importantly for the spirits world at large though less commonly well-known is how the Dutch have had such an impact on Brandy and Cognac. When Dutch settlers and traders were heading for France in the 16th century, wine purchased had to take a long route home. Placed in a barrel for its travel time, often the wine spoiled along the way and what was once pleasurable to drink became sour and tart in the barrel. Not having access to easy preservatives, the Dutch instead distilled the wine into an eau-de-vie, first by a single distillation but after realising the depth of flavours a second distillation was employed, resulting in what was first called ‘brandewijn’, a Dutch word meaning burnt wine that through the ages became known as brandy. With all this distillation behind them, it’s somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for the Dutch to be distilling whisky. Today we look at a curious little distillery north of Amsterdam, Us Heit Distillery and the Frysk Hynder Cognac Cask.
Placed in Bolsward of the Frasia region, north east of Amsterdam, Us Heit started life as a brewery using the knowledge and expertise of the founder, head brewer and now master distiller Aart van der Linde. Once the brewery was started by Aart and Marianna van der Linde and they had perfected their select choice of beers, Aart turned his gaze towards something that had always intrigued him, whisky. Taking a pilgrimage to Scotland, Aart crafted his recipe for distillation in 2002, the same year the brewery started distilling and preparing for a release of a three year old whisky in 2005. In the words of Aart and Marianna, the spirit is designed to reflect the beauty and power of Fryslan and Frysian horses and they have made good use of the surrounding Frysian farms for their grain to evoke the spirit of the area. After fermentation, the wash is double distilled in copper pot stills, but here we see Us Heit veering away from what others may consider standard. While most distilleries will make ample use of ex-bourbon barrels, Us Heit more often casks from European countries; sherry from spain, port from Portugal, cognac from France.
While the distillation is small (the distillery produces some 10,000 bottles annually), these cask expressions have seen quite an interest and help the distillery to showcase a variety of flavours. What I had recently was the Cognac Cask variant; single malt, distilled on the 3/2/2011 and bottled 15/2/2018, matured exclusively in ex-cognac casks and bottled at 47%. If you squint at the picture you can see that this is bottle number 67, though I could not find how many bottles were produced. While I understand that this batch has run out, I would encourage anyone making a trip to The Hague to stop through ‘Huppel the Pub’ where I sampled the whisky (I also had an interest argument with a staunch Leave Brexiteer about the worth of world whiskies, I can only imagine he has been asked to leave the country), and would thoroughly recommend them to anyone looking for a wide range of whiskies to dive into, but first, lets dive into this glass.
Now there’s a nose I want to keep savouring; it starts slowly with melted raspberry bonbons, Percy Pigs and thick dark chocolate. After that the confectionary train really starts rolling with marzipan, red sugar boiled sweets, chocolate mousse and cherry gelato and a hefty slug of cherry brandy (around this time the aforementioned Brexiteer smelt my whisky a table away from a table away outside and started asking what it was, hence the debate). Bubble-gum, dark beer, notes of tobacco soaked in prune and raisin juice, the whisky had one last notes of heavy brown sugar to give before starting from the top, and I had to sink my teeth in.
Oh, the palate is thick, a McDonalds Chocolate Sundae that wont stop piling on the sauce, a creep of tannins that move forward but are stopped but a note of oyster sauce of all things. Confectionary comes back, darker this time with liquorice and again the dark chocolate, the dram is sweet, thick and sugary. And that it dives into a barrel of hot tropical fruit and their juices; mango, rock melon, papaya, roasted kiwi fruit and lychee are all present and dancing about the glass. The finish is long and drawn out, the whisky holding onto the palate for dear life as it slowly slips away, thick oily chocolate legs that just don’t want to leave the mouth, and as I woke up the next day I could still taste the whisky until lunch time the next day. For the record, I got a waffle with ice cream and chocolate. It could not compare.
I don’t normally do this, but I would like to mention an additional attribute, the look of the whisky. As I picked it up to first nose, drink and savour it, it looked sleepy in the glass, the whisky taking its time to move, as though the flavour was slowing it down. It’s odd to mention but given the prevalence I felt I needed to mention it. When all is said and done, the Frysk Hynder Cognac Cask is one of the best whiskies I’ve had in some time, it acted beyond its age, explored avenues I’ve not experienced, and left me content. Now, this is only one barrel, but I would encourage anyone who has the chance to sample the whisky, funnily enough I’ll be headed back to Europe over the weekend for the Ghent International Whisky Festival and if Us Heit is there I’ll be sure to give it a try. If you see this on shelf, I say try it yourself. With a whisky this good, you owe it to yourself, and Us Heit, to try the whisky and see just what is coming out of Europe nowadays. It’s your loss if you don’t.
This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any whisky or distillery, Us Heit or otherwise, and is entirely the thoughts and opinions of the author Somewhiskybloke.