One of Europe's Largest Distilleries - Belgian Owl

Published on 23 March 2023 at 09:49

My visit to a Belgian Owl

(BE-OWL, no.006)


On a rainy morning in March, I set foot in Wallonia for the first time (Belgium’s southern, Francophone province) and visited Belgian Owl. Founded by Etienne Bouillon, this is one of the largest whisky distilleries in continental Europe. I think it's an interesting - but understandable - choice to call the brand ‘Belgian Owl’, not Belgische Uil or Chouette Belge. It shows a clear intent to make something with an international appeal (or at least something not limited to one half of Belgium).


While the distillery was undergoing a refurb following water damage, they are absolutely open for tours most of the time. Etienne is still the master distiller there, and I was shown around by Gabriel, who was very new and not a production worker himself but nonetheless did an admirable job.


As I walk through the quiet distillery, with no stills running or pipes humming, the wooden rafters of the old building creak and shift overhead. In early March, it was warmer outside than in! This place was formerly a monastery, and then a farm. While Owl’s first barrel was filled in 2004, they weren’t always located here. Belgian Owl moved here in the 2010s, and you can see the reason for that printed at the top of every bottle’s label: ‘Distilled in Hesbaye’.


Hesbaye is the local terroir around the distillery, and a good area for barley growing in Belgium. Gabriel tells me this was a key consideration in the relocation of the distillery here. While their barley is malted at a facility in the Netherlands, Owl sources their grain from 40 farmers in the region of the distillery itself. The 350 hectares planted last year (1/7 of which are designated organic) are paid for at 30% above the market rate. This both ensures the grain will go to the distillery (rather than being sold elsewhere) and also helps local farmers as part of Bouillon’s mission for the brand.


Owl’s pot stills are perhaps its most distinctive asset. Today, having Scottish pot stills (always, it seems, from Forsyths) is not unheard of for bigger European distilleries. However, these were not made for Owl - they belonged to Caperdonich, a Speyside distillery which opened in 1898 but spent much of the 20th century mothballed and fully closed in 2002. They arrived at the Owl distillery in 2011, just after the move to this old farm.


Belgian Owl make a lot of claims about these stills, and in all fairness, I don’t think anywhere else in Europe can tell the same story. After seeing many microdistilleries with 250L stills, “full-size” 10,000 and 12,000 litre pot stills really seem enormous!


Apparently Bouillon met Jim McEwan early on in the distillery’s development and gave him a taste of Owl new make. The subsequent encouragement persuaded Bouillon to keep going, and he ended up working with McEwan at Bruichladdich for some time. The Caperdonich stills becoming available to Bouillon was unexpected, but he took the chance and here they are…


Bouillon also got the old Caperdonich spirit safe. Designed for UK excise laws, it isn’t strictly necessary here but it's still a wonderful visual feature at the heart of the distillery.


Belgian Owl is double distilled, and some of their other practices also resemble those in Scotland. For example, the wort sees a comparatively short 72 hour fermentation, without any peating of the malt beforehand. Apparently their process is intended to accentuate bready, biscuity flavours in their malt. While we’re on the subject, all Owl whisky is single malt.


This distillery produces for 11 months of the year, with 4 batches per week. I read somewhere that Belgian Owl outputs 1m LPA, but I think about half of that is more likely given that production rate. A batch of 10-12,000 litres ends up as 2-3,000 litres of new make. Let’s say 2,500L, 4 times per week, so 10,000 litres p/week, approximately 50 weeks per year = 500,000. 


Even so, 500,000LPA would still make Belgian Owl at least one of (if not the) biggest whisky producers on the continent. Similar to Zuidam, it leaves them only behind a handful like Mackmyra (Sweden) and Stauning (Denmark).

Many Belgian Owl products are three years old or close to it. They overwhelmingly favour bourbon cask ageing, and all the bourbon casks used here are first-fills sourced from Heaven Hill.


While excise rules vary across Europe, Portugal and Belgium are both notable for preventing anyone going into a warehouse of ageing casks unless accompanied by an excise person. So be aware - you won’t be seeing casks up close if you visit this distillery. That said, I did get a nice view through a window…


Gabriel invited me to a side room where I managed to quickly meet Etienne Bouillon himself before trying some Belgian Owls myself. Everything arrayed here is 46%, save for the Cask Strength expression (and we’ll get to that!).


Gabriel tells me that Owl tastings often start with their new make. I think it's a sign of confidence in distilleries to do that, and sometimes this is frankly misplaced. I’ve had new make which distilleries should never have tried to bottle!


Here, mercifully, I find that Owl new make smells of brandy. Light, warming… It has a pleasantly sweet aroma which is very welcome for unaged spirit. As is often the case, this is marketed as a cocktail base - something more suitable for nightlife. Absolutely good enough to buy and drink on it's own though - mixers are not required.


Next is the ‘Identity’, a 3YO (“aged for 36-41 months”) bourbon cask single malt. A good entry to Belgian Owl single malt, the Identity is textbook for its American oak aromas, though it has a welcome warmth and depth as a younger malt resembling a heavier Speyside style. 


The purple-labelled ‘Passion’ is a single cask bottling, and slightly older at 42 to 47 months old. Fruitier than the Identity, it's otherwise very similar. Finally, the blue ‘Evolution’ is an older version of the ‘Identity’ (48 to 59 months). Just a few more months in the cask has allowed this dram to develop more spice, but of course, it is recognisably similar to the Identity.


While there’s not much else to say about the style of the Cask Strength expression, this Belgian Owl is maybe the highest ABV I’ve ever seen on a whisky - and I work(ed) for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society! This is 73% - all I can say about tasting this is that yes - it's as intense as you would expect. Gabriel told me that this is a favourite with Belgian Owl fans, and it certainly gives you a certain bang for your buck.


The Gold Diamond is something very new, and separate from the core range releases above. Owl’s first special edition, this consists of only 1000 bottles, all signed by Bouillon himself. An 11YO bourbon cask dram, this is aged in a way I’ve never seen before.


On the striking golden label, you can see the description ‘Eau de Vie Safran cask finish’. According to what Gabriel could tell me (and the Owl’s own website), this was produced by sealing ageing casks in a closed atmosphere “filled with saffron”. Air moving in/out of casks is key to the ageing process, so Bouillon’s approach here was to use that air as a medium to convey aroma into the whisky rather than the wood itself (as is the standard way finishes are added).


I can’t tell if this is achieved using a saffron distillate - the ‘eau de vie de safran’ - or simply the raw spice itself, but the general idea is clear. In either case, the famous expense of saffron no doubt contributed to the high cost of these bottles. It's an approach I’ve never heard of anywhere else!


After all that, what is the result? The dram has a nose of powdered sugar and vanilla, a floral edge with only a light spice… and a delicate floral aroma which I’ve never experienced before and can’t quite place. I take it this is the saffron edge. Owl are very proud of this whisky, and it's certainly unique. If you want to try it, be aware that it is very subtle. Saffron, after all, is hardly a punchy flavour in any form.

Sadly, I had to rush off from this tasting to make my next appointment in a different part of Wallonia - but I was very grateful to Gabriel and Etienne for their time and generosity!


Overall, the Belgian Owl range isn’t here to provide a radical or niche approach. You won’t find anything smoky, dark, or with richer cask finishes if that’s what you’re after. What you will find is a very clearly defined range, alongside the rare and unquestionably unique saffron cask finish. This is a younger single malt that avoids being bland or underdeveloped. Light malt, bourbon casks, and some classically Scottish equipment and practices, combined with a local Belgian terroir. 

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