Turning Violet at Belgium’s Oldest Distillery: Radermacher and Lambertus Whisky

Published on 7 March 2024 at 15:29

In October last year, I took a combo of trains and buses to reach Distillerie Radermacher in Belgium's oft-overlooked eastern corner. You see, Belgium isn't only split north/south along Flemish/Walloon lines. Besides Brussels, Flanders, and Wallonia, Belgium has a tiny fourth region : German-speaking Wallonia , centered on the town of Eupen. 


Quite an international journey for me - Dutch train to Maastricht, cross-border train to Aachen, bus to the Belgian border and another into Raeren, the village near Eupen where Radermacher lies.


The countryside around Raeren is on the edge of the Ardennes , full of rolling hills. Wonderful in the October sun! Just in mid-October 2023, it was still 23C and sunny (although a few days later the weather would suddenly snap to 6C and cloudy).


The distillery is clean as a whistle - a glass construction adjoining an old building, the sign proclaiming Radermacher's founding in 1836. Fresh off a €4,500,000 investment , this is both the oldest and the most modern distillery in Belgium . They haven't been making whiskey that whole time, of course, but they're still no new upstarts in that respect. This new unit here opened up earlier in 2023.


I was shown around by Bernard Zacharias , a 5th generation family distiller. His daughter has also worked at Radermacher for about five years now, and his wife is a chef who prepares dishes for paired tastings at Radermacher. Bernard hails from Corsica - a corner of Francophone Europe pretty far from German Wallonia! The name 'Lambertus' (used for Radermacher's whiskey range) comes from Bernard's grandfather. 


Lambertus whiskey is therefore a product of family history, and Bernard's story is one of both experience and resilience . He experienced profound anosmia as a result of COVID-19 infection, and really needed help and support from long-time staff at Radermacher to coach him back to nosing health. 


Radermacher produces both single malts and single grains as part of the Lambertus range. The single grain includes wheat, barley, and rye. It might start including spelled in future, as Bernard ran some tests and really loved the richness it provided.


The Details

  • 6000L steel fermentation tanks
  • Carl stills, 3500L (charged with 3000L wash)
  • Automated distillation 
  • Hybrid still, pot and column
  • 5 of 15 column plates (mostly) used for whiskey production
  • Short ferment of 2 to 3 days, mash is filtered


Production used the same methods before this latest expansion, ie, 1 pot with a column. While Radermacher tries to use local grain where possible , high prices at present mean that cannot provide the total amount needed. Malt has been harder to source since the war in Ukraine started - 2002-3 saw a 400% increase in these costs for Radermacher! 


Radermacher doesn't use any special kind of yeast beyond generic brewing yeast, though Bernard stresses the importance of local water from the Hautes Fagnes . Cards on the table - I think water source has little to no impact on whisky. Pressing Bernard on the details, I hear that the local water around Eupen has a distinct calcium content. “ Ardennes water is surely a part of our success ”, he says. I agree about the success (see below for tasting notes), but I think Bernard and his team should take the credit, not the water!


Bernard describes how citrus aromas come out of the still first, before heavier notes emerge all the way down to heavier coffee . The distinct violet note that is now a hallmark of Lambertus whiskey (see below) wasn't specifically sought - it just emerged organically. Some claim this note also exists in Radermacher's wheat-based gins.


That's my favorite thing about whiskey , when some alchemy takes place which could be explained by chemistry, sure, but it wasn't planned !


Radermacher loses 18-20% in angels' share over three years or 32% over 10 years, so when you average that out, 6% or 3% respectively . A good reminder that the rate of angels' share changes over time , in line with the changing composition of a cask's contents. And also that like many continental distilleries, Radermacher sees their whiskey generally age faster than its Scottish equivalents.

Radermacher is still comparatively small for such a big distilling operation. They have 4 people packing 1.4 million bottles over a year ! Radermacher does a lot of contract distilling, and their marketing has expanded in the last year. They also make a massive amount of gin (480,000 bottles PA), and their whiskey and rum production will expand in the coming decade. 10% of their total production is sugar-based, growing in line with the expanding rum market.


For Bernard, developing a new whiskey direction is a real passion. Lambertus is not about imitating others. He claims to be the first to ever do a tequila-cask aged whiskey ! Certainly Lambertus beat every Scottish distillery to it, as far as I can tell. Bernard works in conjunction with Porfidio agave , bottling their products for European and Asian markets. That's his 'in' for these tequila casks.

Funny enough, the tequila cask Lambertus is the first whiskey of theirs I ever tried , and the only one before this visit. I thought it was a sherry cask, and really enjoyed it, but only realized later that I had picked up the wrong bottle in the shop!


Bernard shows me to a vault full of 1200 casks used for finishing : 'These are all my babies', he says. The rest of Radermacher's stock lives in a separate warehouse in nearby Eupen: all their whiskey spends at least 3 years there before returning for an on-site finish. As is standard for Belgian distilleries, we can't go into the vault due to excise restrictions. Most of their casks use lower toast levels , and Radermacher is testing some Sauternes and Belgian oak casks, cognac, calvados…

Unlike Filliers, Radermacher doesn't have their own live-in exciseman ( see our last blog post for more on that ). Radermacher have also got a shipping container out back as a new storage space for their aging whisky. There are even some barrels from the Speyside Cooperage waiting to go in there…


Perspective / Futures of Whiskey

I had a really good discussion with Bernard about whiskey and where Radermacher fits into the world of European whisky. He noticed that a lot of whiskeys are very expensive in Europe (especially compared to Scotch whiskies), so Radermacher is trying to steer clear of that. They charge reasonable prices for their whiskies, with other products subsidizing any shortfall or slimmer margins which result. 


Bernard doesn't feel the need for whiskey to be too old or expensive: 3 to 12 yrs is an ideal range . This makes even more sense considering how that effectively translates to the same rate of aging you would see over 5 to 18 years in Scotland .


One point of reference that comes up in our discussion of Belgian spirits is Belgian Owl . Bernard has connections to their founder and distiller, Etienne Bouillon. Belgian Owl is pretty self-consciously Scotch-inspired, embodied by their use of the old Caperdonich stills - see our old blog post on that for more . Belgian Owl is pretty expensive, perhaps too expensive. 


There's a different approach at work, here at Radermacher. Instead of the Scotch-esque Belgian Owl, Bernard started with the beer-making heritage of Belgium and with different grains. The single grain side of Radermacher is very unique compared to many (so often Scotch-focused) European distilleries. 


Bernard sees single grain whiskeys as a key part of the next whiskey generation . He has worked on them for 28 years now, so he speaks with some serious experience! Not to mention he's also the current chairman of the Belgian spirits federation .


Bernard is the source of ideas for Lambertus whiskey - he wants to ' define our taste concept [and give it to] the next generation '. Most of all, Bernard wants Lambertus to be something you could pick out clearly in a blind lineup


Violets are a distinct note of Lambertus whiskey ( the distinct note, I'd say), but Bernard admits that he doesn't always find it so easily. He claims it stems from the grains selected for this whisky, but anything more advanced is beyond me!

If you're not tasting with a blindfold, you'll appreciate the beautiful Lambertus bottles. I respect distilleries which recognize the importance of a good-looking bottle ! The Lambertus style with high rounded shoulders resembles an old gin bottle.


Above: Lambertus bottles in Weinhaus Lesmeister, Aachen. You can see the older, simpler style on the left and the new style in the centre, with black-tinted shoulders and an offset wooden cap.

However, that wasn't the inspiration - it came from an Italian designer, and the shoulders of these bottles represents the flat pot stills used at Radermacher. 



The new Radermacher distillery building has a large tasting/event space and bar just in front of the stills. Here, Bernard took me through the current Lambertus range…


First, their 3 year old bourbon cask single malt . It isn't the biggest seller, but the hope is that it provides easy-drinking and affordable whiskey at 46%. It really does taste like Parma Violets ! Radermacher also has an organic three year old aged in medium toasted new Spanish oak . It has to be new oak for an organic certified whisky, as you'd otherwise be exposing the spirit to other spirits in the cask which aren't organic. Those rules are strict! 


At 47%, it's a much darker dram than the others. Bernard reels off tobacco and citrus as tasting notes, and I find it smoother and sweeter than the regular 3 year old. You could almost mistake it for new American oak whiskey or bourbon - only a trace of violet still lingers in this.

Lambertus also has 5 and 10 year olds, single malts and grain whiskies. Radermacher also started producing some 45ppm peated spirit this year - much stronger smoked than what they've used so far!


Tasting their 44% 5 year old sherry cask (which ages in multiple types of sherry), it's instantly unique! The floral violet note is still strong , but one heck of a herbal note comes in alongside it. Together, they render the sweetness almost pineapple-like . There's quite a spice to this dram, but it fades into a lovely warm finish.


The peated expression is aged in a combination of bourbon and new American oak casks. It's a light style - makes sense when a peated spirit goes through a distilling column. The floral sweetness is still there, and the finish is sweet too. Bernard reckons more aging will strip the character from this, but 5 years is ideal .


I personally think it might be better at a higher ABV, and just a little older. The peated Lambertus is lovely already, but I don't know if it will stand up to sitting on a shelf. Like Connemara, it might start out nice but go bitter over time.


Lucky for me, Bernard brings out a special dram to finish off: a limited edition lightly peated whiskey aged in port . Still light-coloured at 5 years old, this 46% ABV whiskey absolutely wowed me! 

The rounded sweetness melds with more subtle floral notes and almost evanescent red fruit aromas (you can tell I was proud of writing that one). You wouldn't necessarily pull obvious peat or port flavors out of it, but everything comes together to form a nice coherent whole . Coming back to it after a minute away, this dram had stronger violet notes and some cream on the nose .


To sum it up, there's only one word: violet ! The sherry casks surprised me the most, but honestly, Radermacher is a fantastic breath of fresh air. I can't really compare it to anything else. These whiskeys are a great example of how lighter, smoother single malts don't have to be bland or boring. This is how to do it!


I highly recommend a visit , especially if you could easily combine it with a holiday in the Ardennes. Aachen and Maastricht are so close by for cities to stay in / visit, and Radermacher whiskey is just a delight to drink (responsibly). One of my favorites from 2023!

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