Ahead of a virtual tasting of 6 brilliant whiskies from one of our favourite brands, Millstone, from Zuidam Distillery in The Netherlands, we spoke to our special guest, Managing Director and Distiller Patrick van Zuidam.
Q: What’s the story behind the name of your distillery Millstone?
A: My father started the distillery in 1975, and it was called Zuidam Distillers. When I got into the distillery after university, I wanted to get into whisky, which was my passion in life. Originally the whisky was to be called ‘Lowlands Whisky’, because Holland is known as the Lowlands. There is also a little region in Scotland also called the Lowlands, so I thought it would be funny. But there was another clash with a concert here also called Lowlands. So after that I had to find a new name. Zuidam would be hard for some to pronounce, for those outside of the Netherlands, so I thought what name would be common to both the distillery and what we do. Back then we had all our grain milled by local windmills, So ‘Millstone’ didn’t sound half bad, so that’s how it started.
Q: The story of using a traditional Dutch windmill to grind your grain is certainly romantic and interesting - do you still do this?
A: People make fun of me these days, saying what a brilliant marketing strategy to use the windmills. But you have to remember this was born out of poverty. When we started the distillery we didn’t have any money. So I went to the local miller, who used a windmill, and asked if he could mill my grain. He said of course, but I like Jenever, so I gave him a bottle of our gin in exchange. This is how it started, at one point we had 8 windmills milling our grain for us. Right now we still have 5 windmills that we use, but we also have a mill in-house that we use for the rest of the grain.
Q: Dutch whisky… that’s different. Can you tell us a little about your whisky process, what styles do you produce and how it might differ from your other regional markets like Scotch, Irish, Japanese or even American Whiskey?
A: You have to keep in mind we make both malt whisky, and also rye whisky. The processes between the two are a little bit different. For malt whisky we don’t mill the grain fine, we crush the grain, and the process is much the same as in Scotland. There are a few things we do differently (I like to say better, of course). The first is that our worts are completely clear. In Scotland most whisky uses cloudy worts. We keep recycling the worts through the grains until it is clear. For fermentation, we mix the traditional yeast strain the Scots use, distiller’s M-strain, with brewers yeast. We do that to get more flowery, fruity flavours. We also use temperature controlled fermentation. We keep the temperature constant during fermentation, which allows us to stretch the fermentation time to 7 days. This gives a long, slow fermentation, rather than the quick 48 hours they typically do in Scotland. There is less stress on the yeast, which is a living organism. When stressed it produces higher alcohols, more fatty, grainy notes. So we get more fruity, cleaner, less grainy ‘beer’. With such a long fermentation, we also get bacteria growing, which isn’t good for yield, but enhances the fruity flavours.
Q: How close is the climate there to Scotland and Ireland? Are there any parts of the traditional whisky making process that you have had to tweak to take local conditions into account?
A: I think we are quite a bit warmer and drier than Scotland, with average temperatures about 10 degrees higher. So this makes a difference to the maturation. Last year, which was particularly hot, we lost 11% angel’s share in some barrels. On average we are between 6% and 9%, a lot more than Scotland.
Q: To what extent do you use locally produced grains, yeast and peat?
A: We are a farm distillery, so we grow most of the grains ourselves. It is important to have a connection to where you are from, whether you call it terroir or not, there is a connection. Some grains we buy, for example I have not found anyone locally who is prepared to do a peated malt for me. So all the peated malts I use come from Scotland. Otherwise the rest is grown by us.
Q: Growing up, was there an expectation, or a hope, that you and your brother would continue the work your parents had started in building the distillery and the brand? It must be every boy’s dream, having the run of a distillery. You must have been the most popular boys at school.
A: Distilling is a wonderful business, and my brother & I grew up in the distillery. Our parents were poor, they worked 7 days a week. So after school we went to help, as well as on weekends. We grew up surrounded by stills, I did my first distillation when I was 12 years old. But my parents always told me, this is not an easy way to make a living. There is long term planning, margins are tight, so go and get a real job rather than joining the family business. I went to university, and got a masters degree in information management, and in the early 1990s it meant you had job offers lining up. But in this business you don’t do it because of money, but with your heart. Probably more with your heart than your head. So after university I thought I would join the business maybe for a year or two and then go into a real job. Now look at me, 25 years, and I’m still here. It’s a wonderful business to be in, we meet interesting people all over the world.
Q: What were the challenges in promoting a Dutch whisky, both at home in the Netherlands, and internationally? Are there any comparisons, or tips, from your own experiences that you think could be useful for Australian whisky producers?
A: I think the Australian industry is doing just fine, they produce great products. I think you have to prove yourself. In the beginning people were sceptical. Whisky came from Scotland. Here in Holland we drank Scottish whisky. We didn’t drink much Irish or American whiskey. It took a long time before that changed. I think it was the Japanese whiskies that changed that. By producing such wonderful whisky it changed the perception of other countries making whisky. I think I profited from that, so over time people realised we were making whisky that was worth drinking. My father always told me, from when I was a little boy, that in order to have a successful business you need to make products that people want to drink. Selling the first bottle is always almost too hard work. But when they come back the next day and say ‘that was nice, I’ll have another bottle’, it makes it worth it. But they have to go and tell their mates as well. That’s what you need, for people to do the talking for you. And that comes from making products that people love to drink.
Q: What wood finishes, or casks, are your favourite to mature whisky in?
A: To be honest, my brother says I have a fetish for sherry casks. That’s my problem, I love sherry casks. Oloroso for unpeated, PX for peated whiskies. And I have lots of them, it’s something we really believe in. But just last week I released a peated American oak cask, and it was wonderful. But if I had to pick one, it would be Oloroso.
Q: For many years rye whiskies were seen as a mainly USA style - What made you venture into rye whisky production, and how are your ryes different to those from the USA?
A: Keep in mind that people grow grains that will grow on the land that they have. Here we have a lot of sandy soil, so they grew rye here. It is hardy and easy to grow. It has always played a large part in Dutch distilling, like in our jenevers. 300 years ago people used to distill what they had, whatever grain they had left over. Probably rye was not as popular as wheat to eat. I wanted to make a rye whisky because it is such a big part of Dutch heritage. Nowadays it is quite hard to get people to grow rye, so we grow it ourselves.
Q: What are the oldest casks you have in the warehouse, and are there any older releases planned? Is there a sweet spot that you think your whiskies would be best at?
A: Personally I think around 20 to 25 years is a very nice age for unpeated whisky. If it gets older you have to be careful it doesn’t take too much from the cask. You have to keep an eye on them. Our oldest casks of jenver are now 30 years old. The oldest casks of whisky I have in stock are from 1996. The oldest we have released is a 24 year old.
Q: Obviously COVID-19 has affected all of us. What particular challenges have you faced over there, in terms of production, distribution, access to casks and marketing?
A: I hope we get through this quickly, it’s a nightmare. We are officially in lockdown here, so bars, restaurants, hairdressers are not open. But for the distillery, we have had a good year. Production was uninterrupted, we had no sick people. Sales were good here, as liquor stores were open. Sales in a lot of European countries, like Italy, France and Germany, were down, while others were higher, so overall it was good, and sales grew 30% last year. But the most important thing is that everyone was healthy and safe. With distilleries we are making product that will only be ready in many years to come, so the effects of production disruption will only be felt 10 or more years from now. Luckily we had no production issues at all.
Q: Does the distillery have a visitor’s centre, that people can look forward to visiting once travel opens up again?
A: The distillery is not open to the public as such.
Q: When you aren’t drinking Millstone, what whiskies do you enjoy?
A: I like old Macallans, Balvenie TUN 1401, and I do love Japanese whiskies, they have amazing balance. I think balance is very important in whisky, and the Japanese are masters at creating that balance. I like the things Dan Szor is doing in the Cotswolds, and what they are doing in India with Amrut.
Q: Once you are allowed to travel again, which country would be top of your list?
A: Outside of Europe I would like to visit Australia, it is on my bucket list. And also Japan.
Thanks Patrick for taking to time to chat with us!