Every self-respecting Dutch whisky connoisseur knows of the existence of van Wees‘ shop in Amersfoort, their different lines of independent bottlings and their relationship with the industry in and outside of Scotland.
Responsible for the fame and success of this business is Mr. Han van Wees, born in 1931 and still going strong. On November 28 2014, the Nestor of the Dutch whisky community held a tasting in the attic of his store in Amersfoort, reason enough for us to go there and enjoy the remarkable line-up.
As with many tastings, this tasting also started with a small piece of history, albeit a little different from normal; a small history about the shop and Mr. van Wees himself. In the beginning of the 1960’s Mr. van Wees and his brother were cigar wholesalers, and when buying a bottle of his favorite drink for the weekend, he was challenged by his liquor shop to get enough knowledge of the industry and different kinds of liquor to obtain his own licence to sell liquor.
Four weeks later, he passed the exams and was an official retailer taking into account that he could not get a local licence because there were too many retailers in the area already. Already familiar with the wholesale idea of cigars, he found a loophole in the local law and started selling liquor by volumes of ten litres or more. An instant hit, and only the start of more exceptional splendors.
In the harbors of Rotterdam, many cargo is handled and transshipped to go to other parts of the world. This is the same for whisky, distilled and bottled in Scotland and from Rotterdam transported to the corners of the world in container ships. Some of these ships do not make it to their final destination, and get stuck or sink in the vicinity of the Dutch harbors. This is still the 1960’s we are talking about, and on one day, Han van Wees received a tip from a client buying several boxes of whisky for his lawyer/ doctor/ banker boss, that the Dutch customs had a warehouse full of retrieved whisky-cargo that the insurance could not get rid of easily. Curious, he jumped into his car, had a look at the warehouse full of whisky, and asked to sample some of the product.
Back home, tasting the whiskies next to the “same” versions he sold at his store to find out if none of the cargo had gone bad from the seawater, he found out the opposite: the whiskies from the lost cargo was better. Much better. Not looking into the how and why at this point, he decided to buy the whole warehouse and sell the whiskies in his store. Another immediate success. With a small advertisement in a national paper, people from far and beyond now could find the little store in Amersfoort and purchase these exceptional whiskies that originally were intended for the Americas. Soon after the sales had started, the phone rang, Scotland calling; they wanted their whiskies back, because it was not intended for the European market.
Apparently there were (and according to Mr. van Wees there still are) three classes of whiskies, intended for different markets. A-class: the Americas and Sweden. B-class: Europe and the rest of the world, including the UK itself. C-class: the midlands of Africa. Having no further information about this, we will not explore this for now, but it is an interesting subject to keep an eye on.
Even more than today, the whisky-industry was very much controlled by whisky blenders. Some of these blenders or an independent bottler would release an exceptional cask of single malt whisky every now and then, but there were not many distilleries bottling their products themselves. The rare single malt found in van Wees’ shop was a Laphroaig, a Bowmore or an Ardbeg, intended for “Dutch Whisky”, a local blend of single malt and Koornwijn. Having a clientele interested and wealthy enough to purchase more single malt whiskies, Mr. van Wees traveled to Scotland to try to get a foot in the door with some of the distilleries, blenders and independent bottlers to get some of their stock and sell it in the Netherlands. Without much result with the distilleries, he ended up with Gordon & Macphail, where he met John Urquhart – his whisky-father, of whom there is still a portrait on the tasting-room’s wall. A long lasting relationship with Gordon & Macphail started, and is still very much in tact.
Needless to say, Mr. van Wees is full of stories and instead of telling us what he was nosing and tasting with each whisky or the history of the distillery, he rather talked about the differences in the product of many years ago, versus the production methods of today’s whiskies, where all but a few distilleries purchase their malted barley from malting specialists, many are computer controlled and whiskies are in many cases no longer matured at the distillery warehouses, but in the central belt – “terroir really matters, it just does”.
Together with the numerous other changes in the process of making whisky and his vast experience over the years, he is convinced that today’s single malts have a different quality than the ones of 40 or 50 years ago. He is even bold enough to state that today’s single malts are generally out-qualified by the blends of that period. The past ten years or so he has also witnessed an increase of quality whisky making, especially from the newly built and smaller distilleries, which gives him hope. Hope that we get to taste some that what he has once experienced. Not from expensive bottlings of old stock or via an obscure website that deals in ancient releases for too much money, but from the distilleries themselves. Preferably younger whiskies from reused casks, so there is whisky to be tasted, crafted by people who care about their product and made it by hand, 24 hours per day, seven days a week, 50 weeks per year – with passion.
If we only would have that same passion about whisky when we have reached the age of 83, have the look in our eyes of a 25 year old full of energy, and most important, that enormous amount of stories and experience, we would be very, very happy.
To wrap things up, we were at a tasting, and there were some whiskies to be had. All great whiskies, from an age long gone of unexpected age and quality. We were spoiled.
2 – Caperdonich 1994 – 18yo – Ultimate
3 – Mosstowie 1979 – 34yo – Ultimate
4 – Glen Mhor – 1982 – 29yo – Ultimate – for Han’s 80th birthday
5 – Longmorn – 1969 – 42yo – Gordon & Macphail Reserve
6 – Blended Whisky – 35yo – Duncan Tailor
7 – Bunnahabhain – 1966 – 40yo – Duncan Taylor
8 – Ardbeg – 1996 – 9yo – Gordon & Macphail – Spirit of Scotland