This is Part 2 of our Behind the Scenes tour of De Kuyper Royal Distillers. If you missed it, check out Part 1 here!
After Mark and I finished our Peachtree and 7 Up drinks, we left the De Kuyper Works! workshop behind to see the rest of the facility. Marja, our guide, walked us to a closed door, and told us the next area of the building was her favourite. When she opened it and we crossed the threshold, we stepped back in time 106 years. Just look at those floor tiles and the pristine wood trim!
We walked through this area and back outside to get to the distillery proper. The ketels below are original to the 1911 building, and are still in use today!
The brick façade houses traditional copper pots inside. Ketel #2 is used exclusively for peppermint distillation. Peppermint is volatile, so the sharp menthol aroma and flavour can be very difficult to fully remove from the ketels to re-use for another, less robust botanical. Therefore Ketel #2 is simply used for the one sole purpose.
Then, there’s Ketel #1. It’s also reserved for one very special product:
Ketel #1 is used to make London Dry Gin No. 3. De Kuyper distills the gin using Berry Bros. & Rudd’s proprietary recipe. So while you may not see “De Kuyper” on the label, this is where London Dry Gin No. 3 is physically made! (London Dry Gin No. 3 can also be found in Canada!)
After the De Kuyper distillery moved to Schiedam in 1911, business took another hit. World War I (1914-1918) impacted their exports to the United Kingdom and the United States, two of their largest markets. After the war, the company decided to make some significant changes to their business model. This included expansion into the production of liqueurs in 1920. They started making apricot brandy, cherry brandy and triple sec, among other liqueurs. Today their product range covers about 40+ different liqueurs and spirits!
Originally, the entire process of liqueur production took place here; from alcohol manufacture and distillation to bottling. But now, the distillery in Schiedam focuses primarily on making the flavour additives used in their products. The bottling, packaging and labelling happens at another facility.
Liqueur flavours typically come from one of two processes; distillation or extraction. So what’s the difference? Extraction is where an ingredient is soaked in a solvent, like alcohol, to break down, or extract, the flavour compounds. De Kuyper uses two methods of extraction: maceration and percolation. Below, fresh grapefruit rinds are undergoing maceration:
Distillation is a process where heat is used to create a vapour. The vapour is then cooled to cause condensation, which creates the pure flavour in liquid form. This gorgeous piece of equipment does just that:
See the “eyes” in the columns?
Each eye has a set of plates inside. And each set of plates represents one cycle of evaporation and condensation in a distillation.
In the early days, the flavour extracts and distillates were stored in glazed ceramic pots like these. They’re no longer used today:
When the distillery was constructed in 1910, they needed a lot of storage space for their liquid products. Stainless steel wasn’t invented yet, and they needed a solution that would maintain flavour consistency while conserving space. So they went underground! These floor-height lids are the openings to underground storage tanks. The tanks are lined with watertight glass tiles. They also have the added benefit of maintaining a stable temperature:
We even got to take a peek inside a few of the tanks! There are 18 bags of coffee beans soaking in this one:
Different additives require varying lengths of time to soak in order to extract the flavours. Juicy fruits like cherries, for example, may only need to sit for a few days to a week. Woodier, drier additives, like ginger, can take three weeks or more to soak before the flavours emerge.
De Kuyper uses both fresh and dried ingredients as flavour additives. For example, these dried fruits are laraha, or curaçao oranges, used in the production of curaçao:
But what flavours work best in which liqueurs? This is where De Kuyper’s Research and Development area comes in. It’s the job of their R&D distiller to get experimental. This was certainly obvious when we looked in this pot to see spruce twigs soaking in alcohol and water!
Their R&D distiller even has his own mini-still to distill flavours with. Seriously, how fun would this job be??
Despite having initial success branching out into the flavoured liqueur market in 1920, Prohibition in the United States threw another wrench (albeit a small one) into De Kuyper’s exports. But this just forced them to become even more creative. Between 1920-1933, they shipped alcohol-free gin and orange bitters to the US to remain marketable. (There may have also been some gin smuggling involved, but you didn’t hear it from me!)
Up to this point, De Kuyper had expended most of its time and energy on foreign markets. By the end of the 1920s, the company decided to focus more on building a local presence. They hired travelling salesmen and started publishing ads in local newspapers and magazines.
Meanwhile, Canada remained a strong market for De Kuyper products. So much so, that the company made an agreement with Meager Bros & Co in 1932 to produce and sell gin in Canada. Henry De Kuyper became the head of the Canadian distillery. De Kuyper USA opened two years later, once Prohibition in the US came to an end.
As a sort of homage to those days, De Kuyper even has its very own Prohibition-style Speakeasy hidden away!
The shelves are full of De Kuyper memorabilia and antique bottles, donated by a private collector:
Since expanding its product range in 1920, De Kuyper has become the world’s largest producer of liqueurs, exporting to over 100 countries. More than 50 million bottles are produced each year! Amazingly, it’s still an independent, family-owned company to this day.
Even if you’ve never tried any of their flavoured liqueurs, chances are, you’ve had a De Kuyper product without even realizing it. Not all of their products are labelled outright with the De Kuyper name.
For example, they make about 45 different Advocaat recipes under private labels for grocery store chains such as Aldi. (They go through about one million eggs per week!)
They also make Chocovine, one of my favourite liquid indulgences! If I remember the back of the label correctly, this is distributed under the name Royal Dutch Distillers, their Miami-based subsidiary:
I have to say, after getting this behind-the-scenes tour, it really opened my eyes to the complexities of branding, labelling, distribution, etc. and the challenges these can create for a distillery. How do you get customers to recognize your brand if your company name isn’t even on the label? It’s really a fascinating process, and one that I’m more appreciative of now.
A huge thank you to the De Kuyper team for this informative and fascinating tour!