Wednesday 2 January 2013

The Belgian Owl - distillery visit

the sign
In October 2012 we went on a little road-trip to Belgium, in order to visit the Owl distillery, where the whiskies of The Belgian Owl are distilled. Around the Dutch city of Eindhoven, we found Studio Brussel on the radio and we left the freeways behind us in order to enjoy the Belgian landscapes and desperately find a petrol station because the care was driving on fumes. €0,35 discount per liter; well worth the discussion with the Mrs.

.two locations
Enjoying the scenery of rural Belgium, we arrive a little sooner then anticipated at the location in Fexhe-le-Haut-Clocher, close to the airport of Li├Ęge. Because of ou early arrival, we decide to have a look around the site. De beautiful Goreaux homestead is at the moment of writing being renovated especially for the Belgian Owl, so that this location will be used for (almost?) all activities that are needed for the production of their whisky. It has to be predominated that the homestead has a pagoda-like tower on top of their gate, something that most distilleries in Scotland are recognised by...

From the start of the whisky-dream of the Belgian Owl owner & master distiller Etienne Bouillon, the owner of the farm grows all barley that he needs on their own fields; around 20.000 acres per year, of which is "only" 10.000 acres used for the production of the Belgian single malt, the rest is stored for next season, in case the production of the barley is less then expected. The fields are use in a rotating fashion, meaning that the fields are used for one season only, after which they are used for other products for the next four or five seasons, in order to keep the ground healthy.

At this moment, the harvested barley is ground to grist at one of the bigger Belgian malters; Castle Malting in Beloeil. During our visit, it was unclear (to me) if the Owl is going to use a part of the homestead for their own maltings or not. The grist comes back from Beloeil in order to be made into mash and wash and then goes to the original location to be distilled. This happens in relatively small stills of around 500 litres. The stills have been in the Bouillon family for many generations since 1880. All water used during these processes is sourced from a well on the site of the homestead.

Of the 500 litres wash only 100 litres pure spirit "heart of the heart" remains, is collected and put into ex-bourbon (ca. 225 litres) barrels, two barrels at a time, with an abv of around 70%. This goes back to the homestead again to mature for at least three years and one day. Behind the homestead awaits a nice selection of ex-bourbon barrels to be filled, originating from the American Heaven Hill bourbon distillery. At this time these are the only barrels used for maturing but there are plans to experiment with ex-sherry or ex port in about five years time. Moreover, the barrels are used only once, so everything that is being bottled from the 200 barrels that are maturing is first fill bourbon.
sad to discover them empty...
After maturation the whisky is hand-bottled at 46%, withour the use of chill-filtration or adding caramel E150a  Due to the small production and the high demand, the whisky does not mature much longer then four years, but that could change someday.

.the future
In 2012, the distillery purchased two stills of the closed Scottish Caperdronach distillery, where the wash-still can contain a good 12.000 litres and the spirit-still can digest around 9.000 litres. Needless to say this will bring a huge expansion for the distillery. From my point of view, the new stills can mean that the Owl can become the first large, serious whisky player in the Benelux, provided that the bigger stills mean more production, resulting in a price reduction of the rather expensive, young whisky to make them more accessible for a broader audience outside Belgium and a small part of the Netherlands.

.nosing and tasting and... now what?
Etienne besides his old stills
At the end of the tour there is a nosing and tasting inserted. First we get to taste the fresh, herbal, fruity new-make spirit, after which we have a sample of an 18 months young spirit where more red fruits and nuts predominate. We end the day with a 48 months old variety of the whisky, where the sweet vanilla notes gain terrain over the fruits. All in all not that bad, although I think there can be gained a lot from maturing a couple of years more in order to lose the young and rough taste.

At the same time I am a little scared that the identity of the whisky can change by the replacing of the stills, but Etienne promised me that the character and taste of the product depends only for a small part on the size and shape of the stills. In order to test this, I have decided to keep my bottle closed until there is a version of the 48 months old whisky available that has been produced with the new stills, so I can compare notes.
I will keep you informed. In four or five years.

Keep an eye out for this one.

.distillery website

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