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Let’s go Dutch

The Netherlands is considered a mature whisky country by various whisky producers and importers. Hans and Becky tour the “low country” and show us a few reasons why. — Ed.

Picture a country of about 13,000 square miles, densely populated with 17 million inhabitants. For a quick comparison, Scotland is more than twice as large with only 5.3 million people. Last year’s figures from the Scotch Whisky Association showed The Netherlands in fourth place among the top 20 whisky importing countries in Europe and its annual consumption of whisky rose by eight percent. The fourth place is a bit flattering: Much whisky destined for Europe arrives in the port of Rotterdam and is then transported to other countries.

Nevertheless, The Netherlands has far more to offer than a series of excellent whisky shops that are stocked to the ceiling with wonderful single malts and blends from Scotland, Ireland and Japan, flanked by bourbon, rye and other varieties of the craythur.

Let’s start with a distillery tour. From Schiphol Airport it is a good two-hour drive to the south where Zuidam Distillers proudly produces a fine series of whiskies in Baarle-Nassau. The company was founded in 1975 and firmly grounded in the distillation of jenever (Dutch gin) but decided to branch out to other domains, producing delicious fruit distillates, vodka and, since 1999, genuine single malt whisky and even a 100 percent rye. CEO Patrick Zuidam is a respected judge at various international spirits competitions. The company bottles its single malts under the brand name Millstone.

Zuidam is not the only commercial whisky distillery in The Netherlands. Driving to the north from Schiphol Airport and crossing the beautiful “Afsluitdijk” that borders the large inner lake called IJsselmeer on the right-hand side and the famous series of barrier islands along the Waddenzee on the left-hand side, you will arrive in Bolsward after roughly two hours. Us Heit Brewery is located on the outskirts of this beautiful old Frisian town. Owner Aart van der Linde decided in 2004 to make whisky and has been rather successful with his single malt Frysk Hynder, named after the Frisian thoroughbred that can be seen galloping in nearby pastures. The province of Fryslân/Friesland is also famous for its lakes and sailing opportunities. As in Wales and on the west coast of Scotland, a different language is spoken here and often place names appear in both Frisian and Dutch. [By the way, Hans is of Frisian stock, “Offringa” being a typical Frisian surname.]

Dispersed throughout the country are various tiny craft distillers, of which one deserves a special mention — Kalkwijck Distillers, owned and run by 28-year-old Lisanne Benus, the only female master distiller and proprietor in Europe (maybe in the world). She started a few years ago on her father’s farm and recently bottled Eastmoor whisky. Kalkwijck is located in Vroomshoop in the rural eastern part of the country, again about two hours from Schiphol Airport.

Lovers of golf and whisky should direct their attention to Engelenburg Castle in Brummen. A beautiful hotel with an excellent whisky bar and ditto golf course, in the middle of the Netherlands and, guess what, two hours from the airport!

Those travelers who enjoy whisky and food might want to visit a restaurant on the largest barrier island in the north, Texel. Het Kompas, owned by Willem Ham and his wife Els, has an astounding collection of whiskies accumulated by Willem during the past 50 years. Another one not to be missed is the North End Pub, in the center of Leiden, home to the oldest university of the Netherlands and just a short train ride from Schiphol Airport.

Our home town Zwolle can rightly be considered the Dutch whisky capital. Visitors can enjoy good whisky, good food and fine Jugendstil-styled lodgings at boutique Hotel Fidder, owned by Patrick Fidder. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of every drink distilled and has a special fondness for whisky. Witness thereof Patrick’s Bar, also open to non-residents. There is an annual launch of a true “Zwolse whisky,” a single cask from Scotland, each year hand-picked by us and exclusively sold by famous whisky shop Bartels. So far a dozen different single malts have been launched. This medieval, partly walled city, that boasts two tiny whisky festivals each year, is a lovely place to stay for a few days; only one hour and seven minutes east of Schiphol Airport, by train.

A fine, authentic place to dine is The Hielander, in the old and interesting city of Alkmaar, renowned for its weekly cheese market. This cozy restaurant is owned by a Dutchified Scot named Wullie MacMorland, who also runs an annual whisky festival in Alkmaar — usually mid-February.

Talking about whisky festivals, The Netherlands host many whisky events throughout the year. The International Whisky Festival (The Hague) and Whisky Festival Northern Netherlands/WFNN (Groningen) are best known, respectively running for 20 and 15 years continuously. Thousands of whisky enthusiasts pass the gates in various four-hour sessions, spread over three days. WFNN also organizes the yearly International Whisky School, where Hans lectures.

The quirkiest festival of all is also held in The Netherlands: Maltstock, the “relaxed whisky weekend.” Modelled after Woodstock, it’s all about fun and sharing, running for the 11th consecutive year. Friday evening is the world-famous whisky quiz, Saturday night is for drams and stories around the campfire. Visitors come from as far as Australia to a scouting camp in the woods near Nijmegen.

The Netherlands is blessed with a professional whisky magazine since 2006: Whisky Passion. The country is riddled with whisky clubs, great and small, of which the Usquebaugh Society should be highlighted. Founded in 1990 it is the oldest one, has been publishing its own club-magazine for 30 years and is entirely run by volunteers. The publication is called De Kiln and may be the oldest of its kind.

Returning to Amsterdam, a visit to whisky bar L&B in the Korte Leidse Dwarsstraat is a must. Owner Leon Elshoff offers at least 1,800 open bottles of whisky from every corner of the world. Prices run from four to 400 euro a nip! A few years ago, L&B was joined by another whisky bar called J.D. Williams, at Prinsenstraat 5. This place has a more modern atmosphere and makes a fine cocktail too. It is owned by American Daniel Watts and his wife.

Since The Netherlands is such a small country, one could easily decide to stay in Amsterdam and make day trips to the various places described. Dutch public transport is well-organized and a fine alternative for those who prefer not to drive themselves. There are B&B’s and hotels by the score, many with a fine whisky bar. Last but not least — those who want to see how whisky crazy the Dutch really are, should consider purchasing a copy of The Netherlands — Country of Whisky, a documentary produced on DVD and launched in the autumn of 2014. It’s available both in Dutch and English.

Slante mhath,

The Whisky Couple

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For those who want to spend more time in Amsterdam, we recommend the Amsterdam Pass. There are great discounts on public transport and museum visits.

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