It was long overdue, but recently I finally visited Cley Distillery in Rotterdam. They’ve only been featured once on these pages. But now it feels only natural to write some more about this exciting young producer, who soon might be the second-biggest in the Netherlands. Below I’ll review the Cley Dutch Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky, as well as two bonus whiskies. But first a few words on the distillery’s future ambitions.
My colleague Wieger Favier wrote about Cley Distillery extensively in the latest issue of Whisky Passion. In his article, owners Paul den Dulk and Maria de Sena Neves share their expansion plans. You should check it out (if you can read Dutch). What follows here is based on my own visit and supplemented with facts from Wieger’s article.
Founder Paul den Dulk is a food scientist by trade who specialises in product development. He studied distilling in Hasselt, Belgium, but also at the Dutch Jenever Museum. This, of course, influenced his approach. Most importantly, he distils his whiskies on-the-grain, a technique common in traditional genever distillation. In a nutshell, this means the unfiltered wash is charged into the still. (Kalkwijck, another Dutch distillery, has been known to do this as well.)
From there, the spirit is distilled three times. No, Cley isn’t inspired by the Irish. Triple distillation is simply the usual method of producing malt wine, a 100% grain distillate that forms the base for any genever. Paul distils low and slow; from 15% to 30% to roughly 65% after the third distillation. This is reduced to 60% before maturation.
At Cley Distillery, the first 3 years of maturation commonly takes place in standard American ex-bourbon casks, often from either Heaven Hill or Woodford. The whisky, either 100% single malt or a mash bill of rye and barley, is then finished in smaller 60 to 70 litre casks.
As of now, the distillery is located in a small building in the couple’s backyard. It’s small. Only 6,000 litres are produced annually. But it’s certainly professional. And about to become much more so.
Paul and Maria are planning to buy surplus distillery equipment from Herman Jansen, a distillery in Schiedam. It includes two copper pot stills from McMillan in Prestonpans near Edinburgh. The wash still holds 7,000 litres, while the spirit still is sized at 5,000 litres. These stills were sitting barely used on the Herman Jansen site, where they were installed in the early 1990s. They are basically as good as new.
For Cley Distillery it is an opportunity too good to pass up. They have already secured a new location elsewhere in Rotterdam, and if all goes well, the new distillery should be up and running in early 2025. The capacity? North of 160,000 litres. That would make them a serious player. Not just in the Netherlands, but on the European mainland as well. If that’s not exciting…
For now, let’s focus on the Cley Dutch Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky, which is one of the distillery’s core offerings. My thoughts are below. And if you can muster yourself to read on, you’ll also find reviews of two special editions, one by The Barrel Baron and the other for Whiskylab. Fun fact: they were both finished using the exact same Oloroso ex-sherry cask.
Cley Dutch Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky (52%, OB, C#156)
Initial 3-year maturation in an ex-bourbon cask, followed by a finish (minimum of 6 months) in toasted virgin American oak
Nose: It smell thick and syrupy. I know, adjectives sooner associated with mouthfeel, but there you go. Must be the virgin oak. Soft jammy fruits – mostly apricots and a tinge of tinned pineapples. Also vanilla custard, butterscotch and plums, with finally a whiff of lemon zest and breakfast cereals. Taste: The mouthfeel is rather syrupy too, so there you go. More oak spices. Cloves, nutmeg, ginger and the like. Also caramel, apple crumble, barley husks and cinnamon, with a touch of burnt toast and fennel. Finish: Medium in length and somewhat dry. A touch of raisins, honey and lingering spices.
Heavy on the oak, but good stuff nonetheless. There was a time when this style would’ve put me off, but I’ve come to appreciate virgin oak influences more over the years.
Cley Dutch Single Malt Whisky (55%, OB for ‘The Barrel Baron’, 114 bts.)
Initial 3-year maturation in an ex-bourbon cask, followed by an 18 month finish in a first-fill Oloroso cask
Bottled by The Barrel Baron for Whisky Event Eindhoven 2021
Nose: There’s hints of rye bread and cumin (which I love) along with bung cloth, raisins, some pralines and coffee grounds. Touches of crème caramel too, as well as almond paste, soy sauce and candied cherries. Seriously pleasant. Taste: Velvety mouthfeel, albeit it somewhat dry. Some oak spices – mainly nutmeg – along with licorice root, burnt toast, a touch of ginger, tobacco and dark chocolate. Also some red berries, husks and a touch of eucalyptus. Finish: Medium length. Sultanas, musty spices and sweet cigar tobacco.
Quite the whisky. Yes, the Oloroso cask is dominant, but Cley’s barley-forward style hasn’t been lost. And while I just mentioned I’ve grown to appreciate virgin oak influences, I also find this release better for its lack thereof.
Cley Dutch Single Malt Whisky (53%, OB for Whiskylab, C#126)
Initial 3-year maturation in an ex-bourbon cask, followed by an 18 month finish in a refill Oloroso cask, the same that was used for The Barrel Baron release above
Nose: Rye bread with butter, a touch of raisins, milk chocolate, and strawberries. Seemingly a little more gentle and refined than The Barrel Baron release. There’s a whiff of candlewax and almond oil, as well as porridge and butterscotch. Taste: Similar velvety mouthfeel. Really enjoyable. A whisper of bitter oak, candied banana, and meringues. Some resin too, along with black pepper and ginger. Then there’s touches of bung cloth, walnut skins and cigar boxes. Finish: Medium length with oak-y touches and some very subtle stone fruits, as well as lingering spices.
I was 100% ready to prefer this over The Barrel Baron release, but I don't. Cley's spirit certainly seems to be able to handle active casks. This being a refill Oloroso cask, the edge was taken off. And I expected that to be an improvement, but I suppose my palate didn't entirely agree. Still a perfectly nice whisky, just not on the same level.