Up to now, it’s been a fairly well-kept secret, but Belgium does happen to produce an extremely fine whisky – nowhere near on an industrial scale, by any means, so demand can be known to outstrip supply every now and then. Perhaps because it’s unpeated and distilled in a swan-necked pot still, or perhaps because it’s bottled without being cold filtered first to preserve its rich aromas and scents, Belgian Owl was named European Single Cask Whisky of the Year 2011 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
2011 was a very good year For Belgian Owl: it also received the Gold Medal at the annual wine and spirit tasting championships, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, held in Luxembourg that year.
Next, Belgian Owl joined the closed circle of the Whisky Bible 2012 Liquid Gold Award winners, showing that Belgium really is beginning to join major players like Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States in the whisky production league. To start with, distiller Etienne Bouillon merely enjoyed whisky as a hobby – but a hobby he took a very seriously indeed. In 1994, he somehow acquired two hand made stills, each over a hundred years old and each with a capacity of just 500 litres. After attending the Whisky Academy on the Isle of Islay – and where else should one go to learn the distiller’s art and craft? – he returned to Belgium and, in 1999, sold the very first whisky ever distilled in the country.
Not satisfied with that, Etienne had ambitions to create a single malt whisky. A Belgian single malt. It took until October 2004 for him to realise those ambitions, and in November 2007, eager whisky buyers held the first bottles of Belgian Owl in their hands. So what was that very first taste of Belgian Owl like? Belgian barley – grown on the same farm, in the same way for seven generations – and local water give Belgian Owl a completely different taste and feel than a Scottish single malt – even though it’s distilled using traditional Scottish methods. It’s still a very young whisky, but whisky aficionados are giving it rave reviews.
As it matures, though, like other whiskies it’s going to change, with its distinctive flavour becoming more complex and deeper over the years. In fact, even now the whisky world is on long-term tenterhooks, waiting for a twenty-year-old Belgian Owl, which they’re already convinced is going to be a classic. But until then, this warming whisky, with its light feeling and grassy tart fruit tastes together with its citrus, honey and vanilla undertones, is creating waves with connoisseurs around the world giving it a very definite thumbs-up.
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