Ever Seen a Distillery on a Battlefield? Waterloo Whisky at Mont St. Jean

Published on 13 April 2023 at 22:38

Map Code: (BE-MSJ, no.104)


Leaving Belgian Owl to visit my next distillery of the day, I had to run to Voroux station - it was a close thing! Thankfully, I made it just in time and started my journey west across Belgium. Traveling via Brussels, I was heading to another part of northern Wallonia to visit the site of a famous battle and, I hoped, some new and exciting whisky.


Mont St. Jean is a farm located near the town of Braine l'Alleud, a small ways outside the Belgian capital. The farm was part of the sprawling Waterloo battlefield back in 1815, entering the military history lexicon alongside names like Quatre Bras and Hougoumont. By 2014, the farm of Mont St Jean was in a state of collapse and so went up for sale.


Thankfully, much effort was put into preserving the buildings when the new owners took over. While I find it surprising that Belgian authorities didn’t take over the property themselves, it's hard to say the new owners have done anything short of hard work to preserve and upgrade this place. 


The Martins are a 4th generation family business, and part of a long Belgian brewing tradition. The brewery was installed first, and distilling at Mont St Jean began in 2017 - just in time for some of their whisky to be ready now. The family also owns a brewery in Bruges which is expanding into whisky making - watch this space!


Besides the distillery, MSJ farm is now home to a surgical museum, commemorating an oft-overlooked side of the famous battle. Waterloo has a long legacy in medical history - in Britain, it had a direct effect on dentistry, where the country’s stock of false teeth was filled out by thousands of ‘Waterloo teeth’ looted from the battlefield’s corpses.


Anyway, back to less gruesome details!


I was shown around by Edward Martin, who was very considerate, asking if the smell of coffee would put me off my tasting and checking that I did not need to drive. The key figure behind Waterloo Whisky, he selects the barrels, the cut during distillation, how the casks are blended…


What is Waterloo whisky about? It’s intended to be fairly high-end and premium - not a supermarket shelf-filler. No disrespect for the latter, of course! I think the main point to take away is that Waterloo whisky comes in batches, not mass-produced lines. Waterloo Whisky is available at Brussels Airport though, so at least you can take some with you when you leave Belgium! 


It's very important to Edward that people understand the place the whisky comes from, and he originally only sold the whisky at the farm itself for that reason. Part of an association of 8 Belgian whisky distillers, Edward claims this group is very collaborative; with only colleagues, no enemies.


Edward cares most about local ingredients - organic labels come second. We also had a chat about our love of kitchen gardens (read: I’m jealous of his), and had a good complain about the difference between ‘organic’ labels ad actually sustainable agriculture.


Back to the whisky, it's notable that Mont St Jean’s whisky and beer production is divided roughly 90-10. The beer is quicker to sell, of course, but it's nice for us to see the whisky getting priority. Waterloo’s bottled beers are brewed elsewhere and sold more widely.


MSJ uses grain from multiple sources, but it’s all malted in Belgium. Besides barley, they also use unmalted wheat (which comprises 30% of their grain whisky), some peated barley, and batches of spelt, oats, and rye. They claim to have been the first to import UK yeast into Belgium for the fermentation process., and Edward placed significant importance on this yeast as the source of Waterloo’s pear and fruit aromas.


Also, Edward was trained at Heriot-Watt. While I’m hardly one to spend my time boasting about Scotch whisky, I will say I’m proud of Edinburgh’s universities! For those keen on the technical details, their first sparge of the grain takes 1 hour at 61C, and their 2nd takes 30 minutes at 73C.


One thing I love at Waterloo - the brewing happens in one building and the distilling in another. They run the wort from one to the other through a pipeline! For the last two years, Mont St Jean has also had a restaurant on site. Their single 500L Ulrich Kothe still stands next to the restaurant, visible bubbling away through glass walls. 


Waterloo Whisky undergoes a single distillation into a column with 4 plates, producing a spirit at 80% ABV. This setup includes some energy saving measures. A heat exchanger around the equipment helps to heat the distillery buildings, and the condenser is gravity-fed in the cellar below.


The Martin family has put a lot of money into installing a show, exploring their whisky’s history and how this relates to the farm itself. When I visited, this was just about to open - now, you can see it for yourself! Great for visiting families, the whole thing reminded me of being back in the Scotch Whisky Experience and putting people on the barrel ride. 


I won’t spoil the magic, but there are two distinct spaces in which this show takes place, and I thought the second one was the best part. A cellar with the unmistakable smell of ageing barrels, and some very impressive effects!


MSJ make at least two 500L batches per day. With a light, fruity spirit coming off their still, Waterloo Whisky is aged in a mixture of bourbon and French oak casks, quarter-casks, oloroso, rum, and cognac… so quite a few options then! 


That said, Edward thinks the future of Waterloo whisky lies in French and local Belgian oak, as soon as they can get barrels from the country’s lone cooperage. Also, he wants to show that the cask is not the prime source of a whisky’s flavour - I certainly dislike when people try to assign a percentage to it. To do so, he ages some Waterloo whisky in old, exhausted hogsheads.


Waterloo’s oldest cask was filled on 12th October 2017. The cellars where barrels age here are humid brick-lined spaces of undetermined age, a part of the historic setting. After learning all this, it was time to try some!


First, I tried the Brancardier, a single grain. It certainly had a strong pear note on the nose, but the palate was warmer than a light single malt might be. It didn’t linger long on the finish, so the overall delicacy was still there. For a wheated whisky, this had a stronger Speyside-like set of flavours than I would have expected. N.B. ‘Brancardier’ means ‘stretcher-carrier’, referring to the farm’s surgical history again. 


At 54%, Edward’s The Surgeon single malt has a fair kick to it. A little Glencadam-like, it nonetheless had a musty honey aroma after a little water was added. A step up in richness and depth from the Brancardier, but very recognisably within the same range of fruit flavours and only light additions from the cask. 


The Nurse - Edward’s favourite expression - is a single cask grain whisky, with a small amount of peated malt involved. Again, sweetness is there but it's not light as such, retaining a bite from its younger age. While noticeably smoky, it mightn’t register as full-on ‘peated’ to the blind taster. For that reason, it would make a nice entry to peated whisky for the uninitiated.

What does the future look like for Mont St Jean and Waterloo Whisky? Their setup allows them to produce approximately 19,200LPA (litres per annum). By continental whisky standards, that’s actually pretty significant, and few distilleries have the advantage of such a dramatic location, a tourist attraction in it's own right. Mont St Jean are certainly ready to use the space. The farm hosted the first Belgian Whisky Fair just last year - can’t wait to see the next one!


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