The third Wigman line is now being bottled. You say you choose the barrels largely according to your taste. Can you tell us a bit about the idea behind this line and how it all started?
About five years ago, after a varied career, it wasn’t as easy to get a job as I had thought. After two frustrating years of applying for jobs, I decided to stop doing that and to turn my hobby into my job. Old bottles I still had from the collection went to the Dutch Whisky Connection company. It gave me a nice start, and I still like to do that, but that alone is not enough. With my experience in taste, and with my contacts, I should be able to find and bottle my own barrels that meet my requirements, right? The problem, of course, was funding. A small barrel can easily cost a small fortune. Eureka! I wrote to almost 100 people from all over the world and asked them if they wanted to join a participation plan. It gives them the right to a bottle from each barrel of a series (often per year), but also the obligation to buy it (unless it costs more than € 250, in which case they only have the right). To my surprise, within a few weeks, enough people had signed up for me to shift the first 80 bottles; giving me a solid foundation to get started. In the second year it was 90 bottles, and now it is 110 bottles that are reserved. For me, this is the maximum amount I want to commit to in advance. Many of the people who participate have made it a condition that I continue to personally taste before buying the barrels. In other words, they are going by my taste. I think that's a great compliment, but sometimes I get scared to make the wrong choice... That's why it sometimes takes months and many dozens of rejected samples before I think a barrel is good enough.
The whisky market is changing a lot. Today, many whisky labels and barrels - mainly from Japanese and Scottish distilleries - are bought for investment rather than consumption. What do you think of this change and does it affect your work in any way?
Well, it happens and now it is just part of life, whatever I may think of it. Ultimately, I think whisky is made for drinking, but I understand that a bottle you bought for €300 and increased to 5x its value, won't just be opened. That certainly affects everything that goes on in the whisky world.
Ordinary bottles are also becoming more and more expensive. The old ones are too expensive and so they are not suitable to open at festivals. That is why we now regularly offer more expensive bottles per 1cl, to maintain accessibility to some extent. But, for example, paying €100,- for 2 cl is too crazy. Fortunately, nowadays there are also great whiskies that are much more affordable than the "old stuff", so to speak.
For me, it just means it takes longer to find something. In general - even without investors - prices go up fast enough. Most barrels are not even tasted anymore before they get bought and sold to the liquor store. They will sell anyway, is the motto. And while that may be true, I myself refuse to participate in it. I must have tasted it myself first, but unfortunately in many places you don’t get to taste anymore. In short: keep tasting a lot at festivals (because we’re allowed again) and at tastings. And also, buy what you like, based on your taste.
On the Dutch Whisky Connection website, you say that apart from whisky, drinks like Grappa, Brandy and Armagnac are also worth their while. Is there a world as big as the whisky world for these drinks, or will there be in years to come?
I believe that the world of whisky is very big compared to those of other drinks, but I might be biased, of course. The world of cocktails, beer and wine might well be much bigger… But certainly not nicer!
But it’s a good question. For me, it’s all about the taste and that can also come from something other than whisky. That's why I started a separate series called 'precious moments'. The first was a fantastic cognac, the second a very nice Caroni rum and the third is a phenomenal cask strength jenever from Rutte. I’d love an Armagnac next, and more rum! Or maybe a grappa or a calvados... All wonderful drinks, as long as you find the right one. I learned that from the whisky world. Every distillery has excellent barrels, but there is also dredge. So, you can never say that a distillery is all “tasty” or “not tasty”. It depends on the barrel. This also applies to these other types of drinks. I didn't like grappa at all, and only knew it as that bland drink you got for free after a meal at mediocre Italian restaurants. It was Hans Dillesse who once gave me a glass that blew me away. Ever since then, I know which old grappa to look for. The same goes for rum. There was a time when I only knew white and yellow rum, which makes you reek of alcohol for days and so, is not good to drink. Nowadays, there are very nice rums available, and the Netherlands is slowly catching up on the rum market. While neighbouring countries have long been into rum, the Netherlands made a slow start, but that is changing now. Take for example The Duchess' really great series; very drinkable, many are actually tasty! Just like good cask strength Armagnac. Rum and Armagnac will never replace whisky, but they do offer an alternative at a much more favourable price…
With so many years of experience, I assume you have seen a lot in this whisky world. What is the most remarkable thing you have ever experienced during your career?
Hmm... That's actually a whole series of events that can be summarised in one word: encounters. Whether that is with a very elderly man who, to his surprise, gets a glass from his birth year of the late thirties and who is trembling with delight. Or a young couple with nothing to spend, making an hours-long journey with me through the wonderful world of whisky flavours. But also, an autistic boy who - even literally – perked up after a glass of 1954 Macallan. They are all great encounters. Like a distillery manager you have to pick up from the floor after too many glasses of Guinness. Or a distillery employee with whom you happily drink half a bottle of Springbank 12 Years 57.1% and get to hear the best stories. Entering a festival in Hong Kong and hearing all sorts of strangers say 'there's Mr. Springbank'. That's bizarre and I never thought of myself that way, but cool, right? And also, the many dinners at the festivals and the large group of international friends you make there. One big family who loves to hug. I won’t mention or expound on some unpleasant experiences, such as forgeries, as they are nothing compared to the enormous joy of all of those other things I just said.