Maurice van Wees is the owner and director of The Ultimate Whisky Company, founded in 1994. He started working in the whisky business in 1987, following in his father's footsteps, Han van Wees. Han is a legendary whisky figure in the Netherlands as the first to import single malt Scotch whisky in the sixties. Before this time, the Van Wees company was trading tobacco since its founding in 1921.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Maurice to find out a little more about life as an independent bottler in the Netherlands..
Your father is said to have ‘taught the Netherlands how to drink whisky’ and was appointed with the Master of the Quaich in 2018. Can you tell us more about the history of the Van Wees family business and the pivotal MS Hornland opportunity?
Back in the sixties only Scotch Blended Whisky was imported in The Netherlands and when the MS Hornland was damaged on her way to Rotterdam, friends bought the whole contents of the ship and my father bought the consignment of whisky and champagne in the ship. It appeared this whisky was of much better quality than the normal imported product in NL and when he started selling he was contacted by many Scottish companies to buy back their stocks. The clientele for this whisky also started asking for Single Malts, so Han contacted the Scottish companies again and asked for Single Malt Whisky. By this time one of the few companies selling Single Malts were G&M and Cadenhead. The last made special bottlings of young Ardbeg and Laphroaig for Van Wees which were purely unique at that point and people were amazed by the peaty taste. Han even got Ardbeg Distillery to bottle 5 years old Ardbeg especially for The Netherlands.
How has the whisky scene in the Netherlands evolved since you started?
When I started in the business the consumption of Blended Scotch was already going down in favour of the Single Malts. Of course the knowledge and palate of the consumer was not up to the level of today but the first whisky clubs were coming together. I remember we promoted Islay Malt and people thought the whisky had gone bad! Festivals were still quite small and Single Malt had a dedicated following which grew by the day. Nowadays the number of clubs is uncountable and items of which we had hundreds of bottles in the past are sold on auction for unbelievable prices. The Dutch Single Malt consumer is very knowledgable, so our efforts of educating them have succeeded !
What led to you first taking the bold decision to select and independently bottle Scotch whisky in 1994?
By this time we had some very nice bottlings made for us by companies like Bowmore ( Single Islay Malt 5y. ) and Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky. The latter was owned by our good friend Andrew Symington who offered to bottle casks for us. Andrew had a small bottling line in Leith and was building up his company by working hard and selecting wonderful casks to bottle Single Cask. As you know he is now the very succesful owner of Edradour Distillery, creating his own great whisky. Like Andrew we were only interested in great quality for a reasonable price, which is still the key to our mutual succes in the business!
With so many independent bottlers in Scotland and across Europe at the moment, how do you make an impression?
Through the years we have only been bottling whisky we like ourselves. The quality must be outstanding and the consumer must be 100% satisfied at a very reasonable price. We never spent money on advertising and The Ultimate became popular by word of mouth.
How do you source casks that you select for bottling? Do you usually work with brokers, distilleries or private owners?
We select casks from our own stock bought straight from the distillers and the huge cask inventory of Signatory.
What characteristics do you look for when reviewing casks to be bottled under ‘The Ultimate’? How would you describe your philosophy as an independent bottler?
We look for the specific nose & taste of the distillery and for some bottlings the cask influence must not be overpowering. For example, we have bottled many casks of Rosebank from straight bourbon barrels, the vanilla only complemented the Rosebank character. Others like our Longmorn bottlings from oloroso sherry butt stood out for their complexity and dark sherry influences.
Between yourself and your father, is there much difference in terms of personal preferences?
We nearly always agree on what cask to bottle at a certain time and these days the 4th generation decides too, since my daughter Julie and son Joël have joined the business.
Why is it important to you that your whiskies are non chill-filtered?
Chill-filtration takes away a lot of taste. This is something that defines a whisky and you can never put it back, so our whiskies are bottled at room temperature and slightly filtered.
Do you have any favourites from The Ultimate releases, either current or past?
We have bottled over a thousand casks now and all of them are my babies. Bottled for enjoying life and bringing pleasure to people all over the globe.
Can you tell us about your ‘Rare Reserve’ series, what sets these apart and makes them so special?
The Rares are bottlings which are often hard to find at a higher price level. Distilleries close and leave a heritage behind which we try to bottle under this Rare label. You could call them drinkable collectables…
How do you ensure that the whiskies you feature in the shop and select for independent bottlings stay relevant and appeal to whisky consumers' changing palates?
The consumer is very knowledgeable these days and easily bored. Since we are consumers too we know how to appeal to the palate of the connoisseur. Moreover we always listen to our Ultimate drinkers and try to bring whiskies to the market to their needs and interests.
Which are your favourite Scotch distilleries? And do you have a favourite distillery you believe is under-rated but produce great spirit?
I believe every distillery can make great whisky as long as it is matured in a good cask. Too many bottlers rely on a distillery name to raise interest but we believe only a good cask can bring you good single malt which in it’s turn will make people notice it. Lately I was personally amazed again by the taste of one of our Glen Spey bottlings. Around the same time I was offered a cask of Ardbeg which I declined because the spirit was not good enough. So it differs every time but bottom line is that an independent bottling should bring you that bit extra.
What would you say are the benefits to choosing a whisky from an independent bottler such as yourself?
We started The Ultimate to make the difference in the market. It should bring you a great single malt for a great price, with all the particulars of the cask in which it has been matured, nothing less! every time different, every time exciting.