At a time with an extremely large number of independent bottlers (and this is still increasing), it is sometimes difficult to sustain and distinguish yourself. But the relatively new Belgian bottler The Whisky Jury, who started in 2019, has actually had no problem with that at all.
Perhaps his choice for his first three bottlings (a Ben Nevis 1995, Caol Ila 1983 and another Ben Nevis but from 1996) helped. Obviously very nice names and ages, but with all three bottles scoring around 90 points in Whiskybase for instance, you will of course immediately stand out.
However, betting so high right away is also a risk, because what are you going to bottle after those beautiful first releases, can you maintain that level? One year ahead and eight releases later, I think we can conclude that Joeri, the owner of The Whisk Jury, knows very well what he’s doing. Except for a Ben Nevis, all other releases in 2020 may have become slightly younger, but the quality has certainly not decreased. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about: good quality whisky.
After reviewing a few of his releases I was eager to learn more about The Whisky Jury and Joeri was kind enough to answer all my questions. Time to get to know this bottler a little bit better.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself first and how you got involved in whisky.
My name is Joeri, I live in Mechelen, Belgium, and I think my whisky is more important than myself. 🙂
How did you come up with the idea to become a bottler.
I felt I wanted to do something with whisky. I’m passionate about it for over 10 years now. But I hesitated because Belgian bottlers like Luc Timmermans (Thosop) or Dominique (The Whisky Man) simply stopped bottling a few years ago because they couldn’t find good casks anymore. So why would I even bother starting the whole thing?? Then I said to myself that people will always be making and drinking whisky, so I accepted the challenge with myself to try to find great casks.
You only started in 2019 with The Whisky Jury, but you already made name for yourself with your great bottlings. You seem to set the standard high. What are your criteria when selecting casks?
I always keep in mind the following question: Would I buy a bottle of it myself? It the answer is no, I’ll pass.
There are plenty of casks available, but mostly younger ones. Was it hard for you, as a new bottler, to get hold of the older ones.
Every cask is a battle. It is very hard indeed to get your hands on a good cask. And it’s the same battle over and over again. Being a client somewhere doesn’t really help. It’s the same fight over and over again. Without passion, you would easily give up. And getting samples is a nightmare. It takes an extreme amount of energy and patience to get a piece of the cake. But I always go on. I never ever give up. I often work until midnight. And during the whole first year, my aim was to have the feeling I had made a step forward each and every day. If there was a day I didn’t have the feeling I took a step forward, I sent another 20 mails or so trying to get things moving. Again, without passion, you‘d have a burnout in no time. It’s sometimes frustrating that it’s an hour earlier in the UK. This means I can only start calling people in Scotland as from 10 am our time. I don’t have a lot of patience. And whisky is slow. Casks mature slowly, getting your samples is slow. You simply have to go with the slow. 😉 I’m lucky to have a good relationship with my bottler (Craigton Ltd). They’re offering a personal service and are always standby.
What distinguishes you from other independent bottlers.
I think every bottler tries to bottle what he or she can be proud of. I don’t know if I’m that different from other bottlers. I always try to keep price/quality in mind. Whisky is expensive (because casks are expensive) and I think there will always be a market for your product when the price is correct. When the whisky bubble bursts (It will at some point) my belief is that good price/quality will still continue to be successful.
I think I have an idea… But how did you come up with the name The Whisky Jury.
It is indeed a kind of phonetic pronunciation of my own name: ‘Joeri’. It sounds a bit like ‘Jury’. Having said that, everyone is his own jury of course.
And the idea behind the label?
I was looking for something that conveys that feeling you have when you have a beautiful dram in your glass. That moment when you hold your glass up to the light … it acquires something sacred. So I made a rough sketch of the idea and a Russian draftsman made a nice drawing of it.
What are your main markets currently. And have you plans to expand?
Mainly Belgium, Holland and Asia. And the UK started as well. I don’t have plans to expand. Although many companies ask if they can sell my products, I have to tell them that I don’t have enough product yet. I will always prefer quality over quantity. We, whisky lovers, are very very picky and I would immediately be punished if I would start to prefer quantity over quality. There’s a lot of whisky out there, so every bottling needs to be good. About expanding: I have to have a good feeling with my retailers. When someone asks me if they can offer my products, I always check what other brands they have. And if they represent independent bottlers with the same vision, I’m happy to join. But again, I don’t want to grow too fast, because I don’t have enough product and because every cask is already split between different sellers. Everyone needs a good number of bottles to offer to their clients. Otherwise, it’s frustrating. All of my retailers are passionate people and I love to have a chat with them about the whisky market and new bottlings and so on. Some also sell samples, which I think is great. (Thank you all, dear retailers, if you happen to read this) Our retailers work very hard too. Whiskay for example (from Holland) usually replies within 3 seconds when I send him a message.
What are your own personal favourites from your label. And can you tell me why.
Honestly, I like them all. Why? Because I like variation. My first one will always be special. Not that it’s better than the other ones, but it’s the bottle that started it all. Fortunately, I immediately gained confidence from the whisky retailers I contacted. I will never forget that. Thanks to these people I was able to start off fast.
Which brand would you ever want to bottle and why.
Brands are not important to me. I prefer discovering a jewel of a cask from something you hardly ever heard of. It’s easier said than done, unfortunately.
You have just bottled your first rum. Any plans to bottle more of these or other spirits.
The Whisky Jury will mostly focus on whisky, but now and then we will certainly bottle something else if we like it very much. Always with the same question: would I buy a bottle of this for myself? And also because I like variation. In my home bar too.
What are your plans for the near future? Can we expect new bottlings soon?
Nothing has been planned yet, but I hope to release something new around March/April of 2021. When cask samples are on the way to me, I feel like a kid that is waiting for ‘Sinterklaas’. I check the status of the package 10 times a day and when the bell rings, I start to tear the box apart because I don’t have the patience to wait before I have a pair of scissors in my hand 🙂
Many thanks to Joeri for his cooperation and time for helping me out with this interview.