Evidently you can make vodka out of just about anything that can be fermented. As to its taste that basically comes down to what sort of flavour you want to achieve. We are, by the way, talking about the regular vodka, not the fruit flavoured variety. And, for Joris Putman in Holland the flavour was Tulip!
Making vodka involves four production methods – fermentation, distillation, dilution and filtration. The starch/ sugar needed for the fermentation process usually comes from cereal grains or potatoes but it can also come from other things, for instance fruit. The word vodka by the way comes from the old Slavic word – voda –meaning water.
In search of a unique and original flavour
This vodka story started with friends sitting in a Dutch bar discussing amongst other things the merits of various spirits, including how vodka is made and its various flavours. One of the friends, Joris Putman, wasn’t interested in how to make a traditional style vodka. If he was to make vodka it had to have a completely new and exciting flavour.
Water, the chief ingredient of vodka, was no problem the friends realised as the Netherlands has a plentiful supply of clear water filtering through the sandy soil behind the dunes. Sugar/starch was easy enough to come by too. They started speculating as to what sort of starch. Eventually Joris Putman had an idea – it was new, original and iconically Dutch – Tulips.
Tulips once grew wild in Central Asia
Once upon a time, tulips had been growing wild in Central Asia prior to being introduced to the Ottoman Empire where they quickly became popular. Round about the mid-16th century a cargo of tulip bulbs was shipped from Constantinople (Istanbul) to Flanders, some of them eventually finding their way to the famous Dutch botanist and gardener of the day, Carolus Clusius. Clusius was to become the director of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, now recognised as the oldest botanical garden in Europe.
These strange bulbs with their lovely coloured and beautifully shaped blooms almost overnight caused a sensation. It was the beginning of Tulip Mania. By 1636 tulips were exchanging hands for small fortunes resulting in the price of individual bulbs rocketing out of all proportion and sense.
Stunning floral still life paintings
It is said that in 1635 40 bulbs exchanged hands for 100,000 florins. A year’s wages for somebody with a moderately good income would have been about 150 florins!
Artists painted individual blooms, or included them in the stunning floral still-life paintings that we see today in museums like the Mauritshuis in the Hague. Incidentally the Mauritshis, is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2022 with an exhibition called ‘Flowers’ featuring many of those exquisite 17th century floral still life paintings. A definite must go to, and see.
The tulip mania bubble burst in 1637 when the market crashed. But it left the Dutch and indeed much of the world with a love of tulips that continues to this day. The Dutch have been growing and farming tulips for hundreds of years now and produce millions of bulbs per year. Incidentally, those marvellous markings on the petals of some tulips are actually caused by a virus.
A harsh winter
In 1944 – 45 the winter weather was viscously harsh, and food was also in short supply after World War 2. During the food shortage the Dutch resorted to eating tulip bulbs, after all they are edible and with their high content of sugar and starch are relatively nutritious. Incidentally tulip bulbs depending on variety can contain lb per lb as much starch and sugar as potatoes.
An idea for a new vodka
It is sheer speculation on our part, but did half-forgotten stories of his countrymen eating tulip bulbs to survive that winter lodge somewhere in the mind of Joris Putman giving him the idea for that unique flavouring for his vodka? Or was it just because he had grown up with tulips, part of his family had been growing and farming tulips for some 400 years?
Joris began experimenting, and the experiments looked as if his idea might have possibilities.
In 2014 Joris along with his cousin Bart Bouter founded the Clusius Craft Distillers – named in honour of the famous botanist Carolus Clusius.
Years of experimenting
It took them many experiments but with the help of a small copper kettle/still they worked out how to ferment and distil the tough tulip bulbs to produce the kind of vodka and innovative flavour they were hoping for. The bulbs are very fibrous making them difficult to process; mashing them and pumping the mash around took many experiments. Also, because of the nature of the bulbs the fermentation process took considerably longer than from grain or potatoes, resulting in a ’strong’ taste.
The men moved into larger premises with a full-size kettle/still. They use water filtered from the dunes. The bulbs can be small and misshapen but so long as they are organic bulbs, free from all chemicals, and with the central growing tip that produces the flower shoot intact, they are perfect for vodka. That central flowering core of the bulb gives the vodka its floral note, and the bulb a hint almost of minerality and earthiness.
The vodka and zero-waste
Clusius Craft Distillers uses some 4500 bulbs a day in the production process and Joris and Bart are rightly proud of their vodka and zero-waste achievements. The mulch from the bulbs is used as cattle feed by a local farmer and the distillation water is recycled. Incidentally, to ensure its purity the vodka, is distilled three times.
Great in cocktails, or neat
They produce two brands of 40% proof vodka. There is the Dutch Tulip Vodka Premium Blend which requires 40 tulip bulbs plus grain and water for each bottle; and the much more expensive Dutch Tulip Vodka PURE which is made from only from water and over 350 tulip bulbs! The latter’s €295 price tag is reflected in the quantity of bulbs used.
Unfortunately, with Covid restrictions at the moment, we are unable to visit Holland to purchase a bottle but Dutch Tulip Vodka Premium Blend is available on line from Master of Malt at £46.95. With a special birthday coming up a bottle of Dutch Tulip Vodka for a vodka-loving family member might be an interesting and unusual present.
Joris Putman says the vodka makes for great cocktails, but if you prefer your vodka neat– this could be the vodka for you. Whichever way you drink it, it sounds deliciously interesting to us.
Dutch Tulip Vodka: dutchtulipvodka.com
Mauritshuis, The Hague: Temporary closure during Corona restrictions: mauritshuis.nl/en
Master of Malt: masterofmalt.com
DutchFlowersNow: Floriade Expo – 14 April – 9 Oct 2022 (held every 10 years). Flevoland – the largest land reclamation in the world – fields of tulips and Tulip Route. Flowers – still life paintings exhibition at Mauritshuis 10 Feb – 6 June 2022.