I feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity to taste such an old whisky

What better way to celebrate two years of the Empty Whisky Glass, (I missed mentioning the first posting’s anniversary on the 23rd) than with what I started off doing here: “notes from an empty whisky glass.” Though I’ve veered a bit recently, let’s celebrate with a very special whisky I feel lucky to have tasted last night in Oostende.

This is a bottle of Dewar’s White Label 8y from around the 1920’s. My friend Geert thought I should taste it since it has actually become tainted from its old lead cap closure. This unfortunate mishap has given the whisky a slightly murky green color. No not completely colored as said, but rather the edges, like an older red wine displays brownish hues when fanned in the glass, or as an aged white wine yellows. I instantly nosed this, or so I thought. What’s that smell I wondered? It was familiar for sure. Oh! It’s that stuff cat owners use when they have to “bomb” their house for fleas! Yes, remembered from my childhood, the powerful scent of flea foggers. Wow gosh how interesting indeed is this old, lead-tainted blend Geert informed me was probably all malt whisky. So exciting to taste such an old whisky, tainted, spoiled, ruined, whatever! But was it really? I proceeded to smell the hard rubber bar mat the whisky glass stood on and understood that the flea poison I was smelling wasn’t the whisky at all, but the rubber mat. I moved away, the poison dissipated as I kept my nose in the glass, trying to find off notes, something offensive or off, anything. I couldn’t really, nothing recognizable anyway. Obviously this is a well made whisky, high or all malt content as Geert suggests. Even with the lead interaction, this whisky has kept its ground. Great, let’s continue!

As I sip my mind works backwards and forwards, like randomly thumbing a history book while wondering what this whisky has lived through, now finding its way in my lucky, soon to be empty glass. Crazy indeed to taste a whisky like this! I continued to work towards my empty whisky glass tasting notes rather than becoming distracted by all of the history swirling in and around this bottle attempting to overwhelm me.

The glass was eventually, cautiously, painstakingly emptied, so I proceeded to roll it around allowing the remaining bit to distribute itself evenly around the glass. Old whiskies tend to have a bit of dustiness to them, which this whisky didn’t seem to contain at all. Had I not known what was poured into the glass I probably wouldn’t have known it was something so old. But then again, whisky doesn’t age once bottled! So this in fact was just an 8 year old, high or all malt blended whisky; I consider this as I attempt to go back in time to its first release. And of  good quality for sure! This is exactly what it was I realized as I nosed the now empty whisky glass, still somewhat young and fresh. Raisins! Fresh raisins, not completely dried ones from a small box. After the raisins came fresh pastry, sweet, doughy, stretchy pastry dough, but not yeasty at all. And still no dust, cardboard, or old notes, aged, yes, but not old. I continued to dig, dive, hunt for something else in the empty whisky glass, anything, but these notes continued, eventually fading, understandably. A whisky so special, distilled and bottled so many years back, and who knows the rest of its story?

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Geuzing it up on a Sunday morning

Sunday morning thirst quenchers, before, during, and after church

It sounds crazy to most to get up early on a Sunday, especially to get on a bus heading out of town to go drink beer. It sure is, but when the place is where we were headed this past Sunday, it’s well worth it. And since “In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst” is only open Sunday mornings from 10 until just after church lets out at 13.30, you don’t have much choice. Unless you’re having a funeral or another special event and book in advance, or it’s one of the few special events during the year that sees them also open, you’ll need to visit on a Sunday morning. It’s the same hours the “Insurance Against the Great Thirst,” as its name translates to, had been running for 51 years when two brothers took it over. Maybe you’re still wondering why it’s so special?

Eizeringen locals, brothers Yves and Kurt Paneels restored the pub to its old glory after taking it over from Marguerite, whom ran it for 51 years. When she decided to finally retire at 85 years old, on Christmas Eve 1999 she’d serve her last beer. The brothers decided they needed to continue the pub’s tradition in this small village and remain open.

Get me to the geuze on time!

The history of the pub is not only what makes it so special, it’s also the beer they serve, as local as the two brothers, lambic, and lambic-based beers such as geuze and kriek. It’s native to the areas of the Senne Valley (Brussels), and Pajottenland, the beautiful, fertile, and somewhat hilly area encompassing Brussels from the South to the West, the region you’ll find the pub. This special beer has earned an international reputation, as has this thirst-quenching gueze pub that breathes history, a sense of place, and tradtion. In his book Good Beer Guide Belgium, (2006 edition, p. 46) Tim Webb states “The bar stocks perhaps the best range of lambic beers on the planet.”  It’s not only the brothers that are doing their part to keep their historical, museum-like pub and this oh so special beer alive, it’s their parents, whom also help them out. This is the sort of place that makes you feel right at home, wishing you had this sort of place close to your home.

And if you don’t live close by and can’t visit, at least you can always have them send you some geuze, from The House of Geuze.

As for this incredible beer, empty tasting notes are a must! Typical notes nosed are of wheat, barley, fruit (if it’s a kriek or other fruit infused), cinnamon, summer flowers, and dried summer hay. From the Drie Fonteinen 2007 Geuze pictured below, I surprisingly found warm, baked chocolate fondant! Incredible stuff this spontaneously fermented sour beer.

Out of the ordinary from this empty geuze glass

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Whisky whiskey everywhere, out in the middle of nowhere, part 2; or Glenrothes, “come out come out wherever you are”

A beautiful presentation of what can be found in The Glenrothes

The train to Kortemark was an hour and a half slightly North, very East, ride from the central train station here in Brussels. Stops were mostly in small towns besides Gent, and we saw fields and fields of grazing cows and growing vegetables. A downpour also ensued, something that hasn’t been so commonplace this Spring in Belgium. Again I found myself, as I did just the previous weekend, wondering where the hell I was going. I questioned myself, checked the train schedule over and over the days before, and maps many times to be sure I wouldn’t get off the train in the middle of nowhere, where I wouldn’t find what I came looking for, whisky, and have to maybe wait til the next day to find another train ride back home. I was once again hunting for whisky out in the middle of nowhere, Belgium.

What did I find? I found Marc Vandenberghe, The Glenrothes Official Belgian Ambassador! Marc and his warm, hospitable wife Christine’s café and Wijnhuis St.Antonius, “The Famous Whiskyshop in Werken,” offers a selection of whisky mostly devoted to distillery bottlings, (as opposed to independent bottlers), which doesn’t seem the norm here in Belgium. As just mentioned, I also found a plethora of original bottlings from that almost mysterious distillery in Speyside, The Glenrothes. Those bottles are specially and oddly shaped, not conforming to the norm, or changing with the season of marketing agencies deeming it’s time for a new look. And what’s inside those bottles, well, is not just whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels as I was unfortunately misled last year. The Glenrothes offers so much more.

The Glenrothes ages in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, both American and European oak, and mainly bottling vintages when deemed mature and ready for us to enjoy. Age statements, the distillery feels, don’t tell you about what’s in their unique bottles, thus the whisky is bottled when ready. Vintages can be purposefully released out of sequence, and give the taster the opportunity to taste a variety of intended, understood and appreciated characteristics and charms from this distillery. Honey, vanilla, coconut, citrus fruits, ripe fruits, dried fruits, milk chcolate, are but a few. Again, depending on which casks held the ageing spirit, will you find those noted aromas and flavors.

I’m enjoying these trips out of Brussels! I’m finding what I’m looking for, and meeting some really nice people too. The amazement as to what I’m finding is starting to not surprise me any longer. It’s just that I expect to get certain things from a city: a vast whisky selection, headed by afficionados with a real passion for what they do, but I’m finding it’s not always the case. These special people are found all over, especially out in the middle of nowhere, Belgium.

I hope you're enjoying your retirement John Ramsay, 'cause I'm surely enjoying your whisky!


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A small break between “Whisky Whiskey everywhere…” (parts 1 and 2): Gueuze it is!

I’m still wondering what site or link I luckily found that led me to this place on Saturday afternoon, but I’ll be visiting in the morning, not really too long from now actually.

In the Insurance against Great Thirst as its name translates to, recognized as possibly having the best offering of lambic, gueuze, and kriek, etc, in the world, a visit is a must, and seems quite out of the ordinary since they’re only open on Sundays from 10am-1.30pm. I’ll again leave Brussels and head East, this time on the bus, after the metro gets me to the bus station. It’s only 15km away, a small bike ride if I had one. Since I don’t I’ll get up at an abnormal hour, especially for a Sunday, and plan to arrive about 10am when they open. Wish me luck, and sweet gueuze dreams!

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Whisky whiskey everywhere, out in the middle of nowhere, part 1

Finding cows, horses, sheep, and a huge assortment of whisky out in the middle of nowhere, Zottegem

As you have been reading since I settled here in Brussels, I’ve been hunting for whisky bars, shops, and whisky whatever I can find. It’s been a tug of war with myself since the unusually beautiful Belgian Spring, summery, isn’t my usual mood for enjoying whisky. Plus, since leaving my bottles packed away, my selection is also very limited to just a handful, previously, now down to a dwindling three.  And beer, especially the sour ones, lambic and geuze, have jumped into the front seat, perhaps cause they match this weather so perfectly, and they’re native to the area.

But a few recent hunts have rewarded my whisky passion greatly! Not only have I gotten to meet some social network whisky friends, I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore and taste lots of new whiskies. It hasn’t been easy,  I’ve had to travel, by foot, metro, train, and car out of Brussels to find these unbelievable whisky outposts hosted by these fellow passionate water of life ambassadors.

American, Japanese, Indian, Irish, Swedish, and Scottish crowd Jurgen's Whiskyhuis

First up was that first June weekend where those leftover days of Easter holiday’ed the country, and a trip to meet Jurgen in Zottegem and his “Open Days” was a must. Over those 4 days, Thursday the 2nd of June through Sunday the 5th, Jurgen offered free samplings from over 150 open bottles, and a small fee for the pricier, special bottlings. Jurgen’s Whiskyhuis stocks over a 1,000 different whiskies, a few other spirits too, and on those “Open Days” he discounted them all. This is, literally, Jurgen’s “huis,” almost a 4km walk from the Zottegem train station, (about a 40 minute train ride from the Central Station in Brussels). From there I decided to walk rather than hassle waiting for a bus maybe taking me further away from my goal. I finally wandered down a somewhat country road, fields surrounding it, people working on their cars, where peace and quiet met expanses of said fields and an impressive stock of whiskies from mostly independent bottlers awaited me. Introducing myself, Jurgen happily poured me maybe 15 samples on my visit, from bottlers I had never tasted before. I had a difficult time deciding upon which bottles to purchase, which bottles to share in the private whisky tasting I was hosting the following night.

I guess it’s appropriate to travel out of the cities to find whisky, since most whiskies are produced out of the cities. It’s just a surprise to me to find such collections and available bottles in these small spots of Belgium, rather than in its capital city.

Next time I’ll tell you about my visit to Kortemark, an even smaller destination, even further from Brussels.


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A beer so special it even has its own festival

This past weekend also saw the opening of the brand new Gueuzerie Tilquin; this is their Faro.

I’ve never been to a beer festival, but what I expected and what I found certainly differed greatly. My experience of a beer festival comes in the form of The Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival, one of the world’s largest, cruising coolly into it’s 20th year, last year its biggest yet welcoming 34,000 people over two long weekends. I’ve attended three years, as a judge for the whisky competition portion of the festival, and besides guided and suggested sips of beer from Malt Jerry it’s really the whisky I attend for. Now with a great interest in Lambic and Geuze, especially from Cantillon Brewery, I’ll be hunting and exploring those more when I plan to attend again later this year.
So the 20th Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation beer festival I attended this past weekend was quite different to say the least! First, no line to get in, and no charge either. It wasn’t downtown or in a busy area, but rather a small town about a 30 minute train ride from Brussels, Buggenhout, where locals recognize strangers. There’s no bustling crowd of oddly dancing men in the bathroom waiting their turn to compete with, and no line at the bar were a few of the pluses from this special beer festival. Spontaneously fermented beer, aka sour beer is what was served, with table service.

The beer fanatics enjoying good table service are Amund, (waiter), Bernt, Kari-Anne and Arne (clockwise from foreground left)

No individual booths to wait at and nudge through over other thirsty and curious participants was a real treat. This was civil, as I’m finding Brussels and Belgium to be. The US trend of the “pop-up” restaurant, bar, food cart or whatever you can come up with is what this festival was worthy of being called. Call it a fancy garage sale that already has a good reputation and everyone wants to buy stuff from. Anyway, the organizers visit the lambic breweries and blenders just days prior to the festival in order to choose and pick up the 60-70 different sorts, so it’s very much a “pop-up” pub I guess.

The gem of the festival, a 1988 Eylenbosch Faro

One of those beers they picked up, 60 bottles to be precise, was from the Eylenbosch Brewery that closed some years back, 1989/1990 (?) All 60 bottles of the 1988 vintage Faro they were lucky to find sold out obviously the first day, and at just 15€ for this 750ml it’s understandable. Two of the friends I attended with Sunday were lucky to have reserved the last two bottles to take back to Norway when they were there Saturday. Amund’s description of it: “…nuts, raisins and dates on a backdrop of wild yeast funkiness…” made me want to get to the festival prior to opening. But when we did arrive it was sold out, and even those two bottles they reserved were thought to be gone, until they luckily recuperated them.

Empty tables meant less chaos for us to enjoy our tasting.

The festival is held in a hall, what seems to be the town’s recreation center perhaps, with lots of tables and chairs, surprisingly empty ones too, so not to worry, you’ll find a place to sit if you’re attending next year.

Still my favorite brewery, Cantillon!

Overall, none of the beers we tasted blew me away, and since this style is a new found passion I’m still not sure when the beer is funky as it should be, or if it’s maybe gone off. This being alive, ever-evolving beer, it can have bottle variation or not be ready for drinking when you deem so. Too bad I couldn’t be there Saturday to enjoy that ’88 Faro and the others they said were also fantastic. At least I picked up a few bottles of their special 2009 Girardin Fond Gueuze Bierpallieters 20 Year Jubileumbier bottling, which is unbelievable!

Waiting for the train back to Brussels at the end of a great planned, spontaneous weekend.

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Now enjoying some (gueuze) bubbles…

20th Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation special bottling of a Girardin Gueuze 2009

While writing up the next posting regarding this past weekend’s 20th annual Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation hosted by The Opstalse Bierpallieters I’ve decided to post a foto to show you the special bottling of the 2009 Girardin. I’m sure you’re not surprised to read it’s excellent.

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A planned, spontaneous weekend

Europe's center and heart for good reason

So here comes another exciting weekend in Brussels! This city just continues to amaze and entertain, and I realize in order to keep up with everything going on around here I’ll need a full time job to do so. (Yes I’m still looking)! The big city shadows cast from Paris and London are what perhaps keep us out of the spotlight, and that’s just fine with me. We have plenty to keep us busy and entertained here without their big big city hassles, no disrespect intended. But it’s the Belgian beers that earn its spotlight, brightening those overcast shadows, amongst other things. This weekend will prove it.

This weekend my friend, beer and whisky nut Amund from Oslo is visiting with a few friends to attend the 20th annual Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation hosted by The Opstalse Bierpallieters. To top this off, hard to do I’m sure, we have the new Gueuzerie Tilquin opening up! I’m sure a visit to the Cantillon Brewery will be on Amund’s list, as it’s always on mine, as is the mandatory visit to Moeder Lambic.
Planned spontaneity, spontaneously planned, or whatever you want to call it, I’ll surely be enjoying spontaneously fermented beers this weekend. Enjoy yours too!

Last weekend was also a good one in Brussels.

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A typical scene: an empty whisky glass, and what comes from it…
A typical scene

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From the empty whisky glass

So last night I knew I was going to enjoy more than a few whiskies, so I decided to just use the same Glencairn glass for all of them, knowing full well my empty tasting notes would be quite interesting today. I only have two Glencairn glasses here, and I didn’t feel like washing them after each different whisky so I didn’t, also explaining why I chose to use just one glass.
First up was the always fantastic Highland park 18y! Followed by another Highland Park, the Hjärta, a 12y limited bottling of just under 4,000 bottles specifically for the Highland Park visitor’s center commemorating the Orkney Island’s Viking connection with Scandinavia. The Hjärta sold out immediately in Sweden, and lingered a bit in Norway prior to finally selling out. I’m not sure about Denmark, how many bottles were sent there and how quickly it sold out. On top of those two Highland Parks went three Ardbegs, poured from one small sample bottle, (a blend of my own prior to moving here from Norway). The Lagavulin 16y 1994 Double Matured topped it all off.
Today I’m getting quite an interesting combination of all of them! Lots of savory umami is most prominent on first whiff, which is on top of sweet dried summer hay. And vanilla of course from those nice Ardbegs. Okay there we go, now asparagus too! ‘Tis the season isn’t it? That’s green asparagus I find, not the white ones so popular in the early Spring season. That green asparagus characteristic has overtaken everything now!

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