By Martin MacDonald
As any Scot living abroad will attest, there are few things with the capacity to induce nostalgia about your homeland that can rival a mouthful of single malt whiskey. A dram can immediately transport you to the island of Islay, where the lingering smell of burning peat meets the sea spray that batters the ragged Atlantic coastline, or place you on the earthen banks of the river Spey as it meanders through the rugged highland countryside.
Scotland’s most revered product somehow possesses the ability to bottle the country’s brutal, yet tranquil, landscape and export its essence to every corner of the globe.
That includes the Dutch city of Groningen, which will this week host the thirteenth annual edition of the Whiskey Festival Noord-Nederland (WFNN). 5,000 enthusiasts are expected to descend upon the city, between Thursday and Saturday, to celebrate all that is good about whiskey.
More than 45 stands within Der Aa-kerk will ensure that every palate is catered to, whilst on Thursday night a ‘whiskey dinner’ is being held, showcasing a specially-created menu paired with fine malts.
The festival has grown from humble beginnings in 2006 to become the second largest whiskey festival in the Netherlands, despite being a non-profit event relying on the hard work of 40 volunteers.
As the festival’s founders sat planning their first event in 2005, fueled by their experience at another whiskey festival and several glasses of the good stuff, they could never have envisaged the extent to which the festival would blossom.
“This is really a hobby that has got totally out of control,” said WFNN secretary Henk Seine. All of the WFNN’s board members and volunteers hold regular jobs, though Henk seems to revel in their status as enthusiastic amateurs.
“None of us have links to the whiskey industry and being volunteers means we get to enjoy ourselves. This never feels like hard work.”
The first whiskey festival drew only 350 visitors and, by Henk’s own admission, “everything that could go wrong, went wrong.” The organizers were undeterred and one of the biggest compliments they now receive is from visitors who mistake the festival for a professional venture.
Henk’s passion for whiskey started when a scuba diving trip to Scotland resulted in an impromptu visit to a local distillery.
“I realized that there was a world of whiskey and flavors to discover,” said Henk.
His passion for the subject is clear and sitting over a drink (a mint tea, alas, it is only 10am) he talks at length about the complexity of flavor profiles with a knowledge that would shame most Scots. Did you know that a glass of Laphroaig held below the chin has the distinctive aroma of banana?
Despite being involved with the festival for 13 years, Henk remains as enthusiastic as ever about whiskey. The preparation involved is enormous, with our interview sandwiched between last-minute meetings and fine-tuning ahead of tomorrow night’s whisky dinner. So what keeps him coming back for more?
“One of the greatest things is introducing people to something new, and watching their reaction as they try it. Even after all this time I’m still learning constantly,” he said.
This desire to educate and enlighten visitors about the complexities of whiskey seems to be at the heart of Henk’s continued dedication to the festival, and his passion is again evident when he discusses the whiskey school that will be running this weekend. 12 participants will receive expert tuition in the manufacture and appreciation of whiskey, before getting the opportunity to craft their own blended whiskey using the knowledge they have gained.
The Netherlands may not be a country with a reputation for whiskey culture, but Henk believes this is something that is changing. He notices the increasing presence of whiskey tasting groups and blogs dedicated to the subject. The country also produces whiskey, with the Zuidam distillery in the South of the Netherlands receiving particularly high praise.
If one hour spent in Henk’s presence is any indication, the Dutch whiskey community is in safe hands and visitors to this weekend’s festival are sure to be taken on a fascinating journey through the world of whiskey.
The Whiskey festival can be found at Der Aa-ker, Groningen, between March 23 and March 25. A small number of tickets remain available. For more information visit: http://wfnn.nl/over-ons.html/