Through a slight quirk of COVID-19, my UK-based technical conference was rescheduled by 18 months and the location changed from a dull industry city in Scotland to The Hague in the Netherlands.
The Hague is not the European city on the tip of my tongue when I think whisky, but perhaps it should be, as the home of Whiskybase and Passion for Whisky stores. As I waited for my flight over to the Netherlands, I spend some time Googling whisky bars in at my destination. The top result was called Huppel the Pub. Reviews rated it highly as a good whisky bar, usually an absolute disaster for a trendy place’s reputation. One evening working late I was making a call to an engineer who, it turned out, had lived in The Hauge for a year. He was quick to recommend Huppel the Pub. As always, a personal recommendation is much stronger than any online review, and my mind was made up.
Huppel the Pub can be found in in the centre of The Hague on a trendy street. It stood out as the busiest venue around at 6 PM. It had a mixed clientele: the younger, hipper crowd were outside, whilst the less cool folk huddled in dark corners inside. I secured my spot at the bar, a critical position for the solo drinker. It was a particularly good spot to enjoy a dram, in good view of the high whisky shelves and comings and goings of the bar as the place slowly filled up.
There were a couple of dusty whisky menus with extensive ballpoint amendments, reductions, and additions. There were all the standard core range bottlings augmented with an appropriate interjection of independent bottlers. Of note was a significant number of “The Ultimate” bottles. This is a bottling range created by Han van Wees from Amsterdam in 1994, not too far from where I was sat. The Ultimate range contains both 46% ABV bottles and full-on cask strength bottles, all naturally presented without colour or chill-filtration.
The van Wees whisky family are of significance in their home country, with Master of the Quaich Han van Wees regarded as “having taught the Netherlands how to drink whisky.” Han originally imported whisky through the 1960s to 1980s, focusing on single malt before it was popular elsewhere.
It was not until 1994 – when Andrew Symington of Signatory Vintage offered to assist with bottling casks – that The Ultimate range was born. Today, their range of whisky is overseen by Han’s son Maurice van Wees, who buys casks direct from distilleries or continues to select from Signatory’s extensive stocks.
An important aspect of The Ultimate range is that the there must be a balance between cask influence and the distillery spirit. The distillery character must shine through. The labels are classic, clear, and consistent. I’m pleased to see that the family has resisted the trend to “premiumise” the glass bottles or labels in the range, although there is now a “Rare Reserve” range for the finest casks.
I kicked off with the oldest bottles at modest prices, with the low ABV a welcome introduction to the evening. 46% ABV is not soft, and cask-strength-or-die folks need to really evaluate if their palate really is as sophisticated as they think it is. These older bottles were released around five or six years ago; as such, the per-dram prices were very reasonable, and the well-aged spirit was not at all diminished by the ABV.
As an aside: I am generally disappointed when a whisky tasting builds slowly from one rough young spirit through older rough spirit to end up with a decent well aged dram followed by something peaty. It’s a standard formula which does not deliver for me. For example: consider how often a 21 Year Old OB at 43% ABV ends up with lower scores during a core-range vertical. Consider, on the other hand, that these whisky tastings should start with the elder statesman and gradually reduce in age statement. The drinkers, buoyed by alcohol, enjoy each step down with measured enthusiasm.
I applied this plan for my journey through the whisky menu, starting with a refill sherry Tormore 1988 (reviewed later) then a remarkably good bourbon cask Strathmill 1990, a bourbon Glen Keith 1991, followed by a refill sherry hogshead Benrinnes 1996, a younger Tomatin bottled by G&M for van Wees, before getting peaty with a cask strength Ballechin 2005 in bourbon, and finally a 6 year old Ledaig.
As each whisky is poured my water is refreshed and a glass with a pipette arrives un-requested. Great service here at Huppel. As I am singularly enjoying my own bespoke whisky experience, the bar staff are preparing whisky flight after whisky flight. I am happy to report these go out to tables of young enthusiasts.
The clientele here is mixed, affluent, and cool. The bar manages to be both a trendy bar filled with uncool people and an uncool bar filled with cool people. That is a glorious place to exist in the licence trade. By the time I am saying my polite goodbyes to the bar staff, the bar is packed shoulder to shoulder with a young crowd of locals and European-ex-pats speaking a wide spectrum of languages. The bar staff are sweating, keeping up with cocktails and whisky flights; tobacco wafting in from the doorway sits heavy in the air. It’s a perfect whisky bar because it’s so much more than just the whisky.
As I step outside the into the street the herringbone cobbles are wet and the thunder rumbles through the air, yet the outdoor clientele resolutely defend their outdoor seating despite then onslaught. I duck into a small Middle Eastern food vendor and sate my hunger whilst listening to the thunderstorm and pounding rain on the streets, unprepared people charging by using jackets as umbrellas. Protected inside, surrounded by the smell of charred meat, oud, rosewater, and the conversations of the other customers, this entire evening has been a sensory delight.
Upon returning to the UK, I was tipped off about a bottle of the Tormore 1988 at The Whisky Exchange Shop at Tower Bridge. I was fortunately already heading there to collect some other bottles and found the release at the rather marked-up price of £199. I suspect the original price was half that or less at release. There was a fair chance a bottle would have cropped up at auction for much less had I had the resolve to wait, but given the enjoyment I had experienced discovering it the previous evening, it felt like fate.
The Ultimate (van Wees) Tormore 1988 26 Years Old – Review
Bottled in 2016 from a refill sherry butt. 46% ABV. £199 retail in 2022.
Colour: Rich amber
On the nose: Lovely old style sherry, fruity with toffee apple, baked figs in honey, sultanas, orange marmalade, sticky ginger loaf, more thick chewy toffee, a pinch of cinnamon, worn leather books, and rich fruity notes again, Medjool dates.
In the mouth: Thick texture despite the reduced ABV, rich baked fruit with a thick layer of sticky toffee sauce poured over, muscovado sugar, oxidised overripe fruit in the back of the mouth, oiled leather. The Tormore character breaks through giving a slight vegetal funk and some hazelnut skins, a flash of dunnage. Slightly sour on the finish, which lingers for a long time balancing the sweetness.
It’s over-priced but, at the same time, a fair price for me, given the experience I will attach to the bottle each time a dram is poured. The whisky is a few points away from brilliance; some effervescence or rancio would have elevated it. Perhaps more notes of dusty drawing rooms, leather chesterfields, or cigar would be required to get the top score. But I am delighted to have a full bottle to enjoy and it’s certainly worthy of…