What’s old is new again.
Often, whilst browsing whisky shops online or in-person, I find myself with a bit of a conundrum: on one hand, I have the well-known, respected brands with their signature releases. I know that if I go for a bottle from one of these distilleries, I’ll have a satisfactory but familiar experience; they are like the roadmap of current whisky distillation, with signposts that explain the road for everyone else who’s just setting of on it. The other, less travelled road, often finds me looking at the curios – smaller releases, independent bottlings, and offbeat distilleries – and wondering whether among all these there are a few epoch defining gems: whiskies so good, it reinvigorates the familiar with the fire of discovery and excitement.
The same choice also occurs whenever I see distillers experimenting with unique cask finishes. I’m fully aware that the phrase ‘xxxx finish’ has now become another marketing tool for a lot of corner-cutting used to get away with selling inferior whisky. Sometimes there’ll be one that just will really get the pulses going, for example a Carn Mor Straihmill or the Penderyn Champenois finish. Stepping off the well-lit path has also led me to fail spectacularly; I’ve had my fair share of dud purchases and each time I swear off venturing into the unknown.
I felt this kind of dangerous curiosity when a bottle of Gouden Carolus Single Malt caught my eye. It was gathering dust on a shelf in a beer shop in the tiny Belgian town of Aalst. I wouldn’t pick up that bottle then; no, it would be another six months before I’d be asking a friend to pick it up and bring it to the U.K. as a favour when all my resolve had disappeared.
But, from that first moment, I was… intrigued. After all, Belgian beer is one of my favourite ways to while an evening away and their dedication to the craft has produced some of the most fascinating examples of various styles. I often say that if I had to choose just one beer for the rest of my days, it’d have to be ‘Orval’ – a beer so complex that after many, many bottles I still feel like I haven’t managed to succeed in experiencing all its nuances.
Gouden Carolus is one of the most respected beer brands to come out of Het Anker Brewery. This is a classic Flemish brewery founded all the way back in 1471, behind not only the ‘Gouden Carolus’ line of beers (which includes the beautiful and only-once-a-year Cuvee de Keizer and Gouden Carolus Christmas) but also Maneblusser beers. Unusually for such a well-established brewery, 2010 saw the family turn their 17th century farm into a distillery which produces not only the aforementioned single malt but also a line of sakes, some distillery exclusive spirits, and a Belgian Cream to rival a well-known big brand! It’s very gratifying to see established brands explore new territory and – despite hiccups – these experimentations can often lead to interesting new ranges of products, if done correctly.
Gouden Carolus Single Malt was the first liquid to emerge from the distillery using the same mash as the Gouden Carolus Tripel beer. According to the distillery, the use of hand-hammered copper pot stills are a first for Belgium. Following the distillation, the whisky is first aged in first-fill bourbon casks followed by a finishing period in unique Het Anker casks: oak casks reworked according to distillery specifications. The whisky is NAS and is bottled at a stonking 46%. It’s also won a fair number of awards and is luckily widely available for purchase for around £42.95 at the specialist retailers, meaning it remains accessible.
But how exactly does it drink?
Gouden Carolus Single Malt – Review
Color: Genuine gold, so much so that I find myself often calling the whisky Golden Carolus – an easy mistake to make.
On the nose: Initial burst of nail varnish and youthful exuberances slowly leaves its place to candied pears, boiled sweets and hints of vanilla; a sense of come hither-invitation, with promises to be kept. It has elements of light, floral perfume; light summer evening and beautiful dusks.
In the mouth: The vanilla intermingles with fruit compote, a little youthful perhaps but not uninteresting. Travelling through is that famous ‘Het Anker’ cask: it is not overpowering, but certainly lets you know that this whisky met some casks on its way to you. Its mellow nature causes you to want another sip; at the same time, it’s a bit too easy-going, a bit too ephemeral to make a huge impact. There’s a slight note of bitterness towards the end – no doubt a product of the Belgian Yeast used in the brewing – that really rounds off a pleasant package. Interestingly, the whisky does make a great companion to the Tripel from which it is derived; there are complimentary flavors that really pop, like the fruit element. Those who love pairing beers and whiskies as much as me will find it very rewarding to try.
Gouden Carolus Single Malt is an enjoyable whisky that is best suited to a warm evening. It is light but could easily stand a drop of water at its current ABV, though I do worry that some of those very distinct and gentle notes may be lost under those circumstances. Considering the reasonable price, it’s the kind of dram I’d have on my shelf regularly, as a relaxing companionship when the evening demands it.