If you buy whisky on a regular basis, you are probably used to seeing a handful of countries on the label. Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the United States are generally considered the ‘major league’ players while India, Japan and New Zealand (among others) are beginning to make a name for themselves in this industry. However, a new name is emerging in the whisky field: The Belgian Owl Distillery in Belgium. That’s right, Belgium.
Belgium is certainly not a nation with a long and established history of whisky making, but everyone has to start somewhere. It should be noted that the country does have a long beer brewing tradition. Because whisky making originally was an offshoot of beer brewing, it is surprising that Belgium has not entered this business before 2004, when the sole whisky distillery, the Belgian Owl Distillery, was founded.
The Belgian Owl Distillery is located on a beautiful garden site near Liege that is typical of the picturesque country, but it uses the traditional Scotch techniques with which most of us are familiar. The distillery was opened by Etienne Bouillon, a passionate whisky lover. As part of his hobby, he traveled to Scotland and attended a Whisky Academy on Islay to educate himself about the process.
The product is not a carbon copy of your average Scotch whisky, however. The Belgian Owl Distillery uses the Scottish methods, but with local peat, barley and water. The product has a distinctive terroir that is most decidedly not Scottish. It is delicate, sweet and green. You can taste tart fruit and freshly mown grass. There is a very light feeling and a pleasant tang that is completely absent in Scottish whiskies despite their being made by the same methods. There are also undertones of vanilla, honey and citrus fruit along with a heat reminiscent of hot chilis.
Sound good? We think this is an exotic and very different whisky selection that delightfully showcases how terroir can affect a spirit. However, it is still rather hard to find. The distillery is releasing about 50,000 liters per year and selling only to mainland European markets. This is really a shame, because we could see this whisky becoming the next spirit phenomenon. It is that different, and that good.
One thing to remember about Belgian Owl is that it is still a very new whisky. Yet, it is a young whisky that gets rave reviews from almost every taster. It has beautiful, bright flavors that will become deeper and more complex as it matures. It is easy to see the Belgian Owl 20 year becoming a classic if it is ever released. Meanwhile, the whisky world is watching eagerly to see if Belgium can reproduce this fresh and delicious drink in other areas around the nation.
As other countries enter the whisky market, we are seeing new ranges of flavors and entirely unexpected profiles. This is a great time in history to be a whisky connoisseur, especially if you enjoy variety as much as I do.