There is nothing above Groningen – Hooghoudt distillery

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After our recent Scotland trip, we had to come back to the Netherlands and do some work to make some money and do it again (and again) next year (and beyond). Scotland is great, as you can see from our weekly articles these days after the road trip through the promised land, but hang on… we are in the Netherlands, cradle of brewing and distilling! Why on earth have we never decided going on a road trip in our own country and see what the dozens of distilleries have to offer (well, on some different occasions we have)? A road trip on its own, up north, two hours away from what we call home lies Groningen, where we find Hooghoudt, one of the oldest distilleries in the Netherlands. A traditional family company since 1888 and in the top five of producers of our national spirit: Jenever.

We are only just getting started in the world of jenever and her kindred spirits, malt wine and corn wine, and have already found out the Dutch traditional products are much more interesting than the pitcher of “Jonge” our Grandfathers always had tucked away in the freezer. They are all very interesting products with their own traditions, recipes, rules and regulations, where each distillery has their own secret measurements of ingredients and recipes. We had to do some research into what is what exactly and before we continue our journey in Groningen, we would like to summarise our findings for you*.

Moutwijn – “Malt Wine”

Is created from malted grains mash bill, including but not limited to barley, rye and corn, triple distilled in pot stills to at least 46.5% abv. Not dissimilar to making whisky or (maybe even more so) bourbon, which it technically could become after ageing.

Jenever – “Genever”, “Dutch Gin” or “Hollands” 

Has inherited her name from core-ingredient juniper berry (jeneverbes). Originally jenever is produced from 100% malt wine with added (re-distillates of) herbs and spices, very similar to gin, which on its turn has descended from jenever. Modern jenever is split into two main categories, “Jonge” and “Oude”, referring to the age of the recipe, not the product.
Jonge Jenever – “Young Jenever”
Is made since the second world war and is the dominant spirit in the Dutch market since. It is built with a maximum of 15% malt wine, a maximum of 10 grams of sugar per liter, where the remainder is a neutral molasses or grain spirit and flavouring distillates – mostly from a juniper berries and an unlimited amount of different herbs and spices. Most are unaged and without the addition of colour, but there are no rules prohibiting this either. Jonge jenever is bottled at a minimum of 35% abv.
Oude Jenever – “Old Jenever”
Was the traditional jenever, with a minimum of 15% malt wine, a maximum of 20 grams of sugar per litre, where the remainder is a neutral molasses or grain spirit and flavouring distillates – mostly from a juniper berries and an unlimited amount of different herbs and spices. Some are aged in wooden barrels, and / or have coloring added, but not necessarily so. Oude jenever is bottled at a minimum of 35% abv.
Graanjenever – “Grain Jenever”
This name can be added to a product name or be used on its own when the neutral spirit is from 80% or more grain, leaving only a maximum of 20% to be filled in by molasses based neutral spirit, which in practice is hardly ever done.*
Korenwijn – “Corn Wine”
Like “Old Jenever”, and technically still jenever, but with at least 51% malt wine with a neutral 100% grain spirit. If flavour distillates would not be added, this resembles blended whisky fairly close. Korenwijn is bottled at a minimum of 38% abv.
To top it off, since 2008 the term “jenever” is protected by the EU by the form of Appellations (AOC), like wine regions, Champagnes and Cognacs in France, and are limited to the Netherlands, Belgium and small parts of Germany and France.

There are many more Dutch spirits which all have similarities to the recipes above, but we will concentrate to what is Hooghoudt’s core business: jenever. So, back to Groningen…

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“Grietje”

At the edge of Groningen, right off the A7 at an industrial area, we were heartily greeted at the distillery by Laurens Speek – Brand Activation Manager, who opened the doors for us on a Saturday morning in an otherwise entirely silent distillery, because the distillery only operates five days per week with a small team of people. Over coffee we were introduced to the company’s history and what it resembles, and a hint of the interesting plans for the future were revealed to us. Global spirit markets are changing, and as with many companies, they need to change accordingly in order to survive and grow. It is time to change the image of jenever from Grandfather’s freezer to a modern drink that can be used in cocktails, paired with food or drink on its own, neat on room temperature, or over ice with a slice of lemon. New dimensions are explored and discovered to enhance the different aspects their products have to offer.

The distillery started, as many things are, with an idea. In 1888 Grietje and Hero-Jan Hooghoudt wanted to add smells and flavours to the rough, locally produced distillates. They started discovering the craft with creating a range of liqueurs stepped into creating jenevers from the 1920’s, and never stopped tweaking. Todays recipes are still inspired by the recipes of old, and their heritage is important to the descendants still at the helm, which shows from everything you look at in the – now large – factory. Memorabilia like an old still, stain-windows from the original location in the centre of the city and labels from the early days can be found all around the distillery walls. 

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Their malt wine, grain alcohol and neutral spirit are distilled at Filliers and Cargill following Hooghoudt’s own mash bills from 100% natural ingredients. Their own in-house still named after Great Grandmother “Grietje” is used for distilling their self-extracted spice and herbal additives. Where they can, they purchase locally produced grains, herbs and spices, and they are even working together with the juniper berry guild (yes, this exists) to preserve the rapidly disappearing juniper berry bushes, which are a protected species and part of Dutch heritage. Interestingly enough, this means that the core ingredient – the juniper berry, cannot be harvested from the Netherlands (yet).

After drinking our coffee in the quaint (read: rather dark and out-dated) reception and bar area which is completely restyled and modernized right after we left, we were led through the marrying and maturation area, which surprised us with its large size. The many different products running through all the different organ pipes, each ending in its own stainless steel marrying tun where they stay for any time between hours and weeks, depending on the desired product. This is also the area where dilution to the required abv is done with water annealed and purified by reverse osmosis.

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Let’s play a spiritual tune

In the next room we can see a number of casks maturing several different products. Most of these products are ‘only’ used for addition to several ‘blends’ of their jenevers, but exceptional malt wines are sometimes bottled as single cask products. In between the predominantly Andalusian ex-Sherry casks we also find Grietje, the small still of the company where their flavours are distilled. Next stop is the largest area of the site; the two in-house bottling plants with two lines, the larger of the two capable of 6.000 bottles per hour, the smaller about 600, giving you an idea of the size of the company.

Our last stop, gets us back to the bar area, where we get to taste a range of malt wines, jenevers and corn wines. We talk a little more with Laurens, who has his roots in restaurants and food pairing and found a new challenge in modernizing the image and character of the distillery and jenever in general when he joined the company not two years ago. We talked beer and whisky for a while, the differences and similarities, we talked food and even wine (not our area of expertise) before we decided it was time to leave and accept the open invitation to return when the future plans have been finalised.

Dutch spirits are (re)gaining market shares and we see them as a nice addition to our first love; whisky. Let’s say malt wine can be seen as the Godfather of modern spirits, jenever as the Fairy Godmother of Gin, and staying close to our own heritage, seeing how the Dutch of the old (including Belgium and the parts of France and Germany mentioned in the appellations) are spread across the world taking the art of distilling with them, we can see this has a solid base of truth.

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After all the (mostly Scottish) distilleries we have already visited, we are only recently discovering the distilleries around us, including the ones with rich traditions and names we are grown up with and never have thought to look at. The recipes of most distilleries are secret to a small number of people within the companies, but we are learning they are open to visitors with a serious interest into how their product is made and will reveal more of the family of products the Dutch market has to offer.

Most of these distilleries are of great value to Dutch history, and Hooghoudt is no exception here. Have a look at their website and take a look at the growing amount of food pairing and cocktail recipes, or make an appointment to have a look behind the scenes, and get – like we did, enthusiastic about their history, innovative methods of production and their lack of concession towards quality.

When you are Dutch, buy some quality Dutch Spirits and spread the word, when you are not Dutch, do the same! We are convinced there is some great quality spirit to be found around us, and with the right amount of attention, without denying our whisky-roots, we keep exploring our own country and keep you up to date with new discoveries in between our Scottish adventures.

Proost!

Thomas & Ansgar

*Corrections are welcome, we are only noobs and information differs per source.

Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

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