Whisky People #6 – Johannes van den Heuvel

by Oliver Klimek on October 1, 2010

Fact Sheet

Name: Johannes van den Heuvel

Year of Birth: 1966

Place of Residence: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Profession: Internet Consultancy

Whisky Involvement: Malt Mad Malt Maniac

Portrait

Whisky blogs have been popping up by the dozen in the past years, and this very place is no exception. But did you know that the history of whisky blogging dates back until 1995? I am extremely happy that today I can introduce you to the person who started it all.

Johannes van den Heuvel from the Dutch capital Amsterdam started his own whisky website in 1995 after a self diagnosis of severe Malt Madness. It was his idea to document his quest for the perfect malt on the internet. Beginning with a Beginner’s Guide and the (S)hit lists of the mAlmanach it evolved into the Liquid Log in 1997 which in all fairness can be called the first ever whisky blog. Make sure to read his Amazing Discovery or “How a Dram of Lagavulin 16 Can Change Your Life”.

Inspired by Micheal Jackson, Johannes began to score all whiskies he enjoyed (or not), so over the time his tasting notes are counted in thousands. Inevitably, Johannes came into contact with whisky enthusiats from all over the world, and so the idea was born to form a virtual collective called Malt Maniacs. The maniacs contribute e-Pistles that are published on the website and compile their whisky scores in the massive Malt Monitor that currently boasts over 35000 scores for over 12000 whisky expressions.

Another big step forward was the introduction of the Malt Manaics Awards in 2003. Being fed up with the more or less paid-for medals in traditional whisky competitions that distilleries often brag with, the Maniacs wanted to give an independent and noncommercial alternative requiring no entry fees and with rigorous blind testing. The awards have been a success not only with whisly lovers but also with the industry, so the 2010 awards can boast a staggering 250+ entries.

Johannes’ influence on the Whisky Web cannot be overestimated. Back in the days when you could count the number of decent whisky websites on the fingers of one hand, Malt Madness was the lighthouse that showed you the way across the Whisky Ocean. I got terminally hooked on whisky myself by digging through the immense accumulation of whisky information on his sites, starting onto a journey that eventually led me to writing this blog. And I am certainly not the only one who was severely inspired by Johannes and the other Malt Maniacs. And even after fifteen years, these sites continue to be prime locations for whisky information on the internet.

Interview

When did you notice that you hit a nerve with whisky lovers with your Liquid Log?

I guess that was when I started receiving dozens of e-mails about whisky each day, from people that were struggling with the same questions that I was. Of course that motivated me to publish more pages, because not many of my real life friends were really into malt whisky at the time. But keep in mind that hitting nerves was relatively easy in 1995 when I published the first few pages of Malt Madness. Before 2000 there simply were not that many websites around – and certainly no websites about a highly specialised topic like single malt whisky. I was still a relative novice myself at the time, but I guess people were happy if they could find ANY information about single malts – any information at all. So, the proverb “a cyclops is king in the land of the blind” applied in this case. (Incidentally, the first pages on Malt Madness were the Beginner’s Guide and the mAlmanac; the Liquid Log wasn’t added until 1997.) As far as the nerve-hitting is concerned: that’s all very relative. During the early years I was happy if Malt Madness attracted 25 visitors a day. These days both Malt Madness and Malt Maniacs attract well over 2,500 visitors per day. So, these days we’re hitting many more nerves than we used to…

Where you ever tempted to turn your whisky hobby into a profession?

Not really. As soon as you depend on certain activities to pay the bills, it’s hard to approach it as a 100% fun activity. I’ve always cherished my independence and it’s very difficult to remain truly independent if you rely on big producers like Diageo or Pernod Ricard for your livelyhood. Or small producers or outlets for that matter; the bottom line is that it’s difficult to judge a whisky or a price of a whisky neutrally and dispassionately if the maker or seller is paying you to write about it. So, I haven’t turned my WHISKY hobby into a profession – but I guess you could say that I did indeed turn the thinking and writing part that comes with developing web sites into a profession. I used to be a marketeer before I started Malt Madness, but these days I develop internet strategies and websites for a living. And I’ve also found some nice writing assignments that I probably wouldn’t have without Malt Madness. So, Malt Madness and a few other sites I’ve built in the early years have certainly shaped part of my professional development.

As a pioneer of whisky blogging, how do you see the development of whisky sites on the internet?

I must admit that I’ve completely lost track of the on-line whisky world in recent years because there are now hundreds and hundreds of whisky websites – and many of them much better than the average whisky site from a decade ago. I imagine that if all those sites had been around in the second half of the 1990′s, Malt Madness and Malt Maniacs would have never reached the audience that they did. However, while the number of whisky sites has exploded during the last few years, the number of malt whisky drinkers hasn’t grown nearly as hard. So, that means that it becomes much harder for each individual web site to attract a significant audience. After all, even the most fanatical whisky lover couldn’t normally spend more than one or two hours a day surfing whisky websites. So, the average whisky lover only gets to follow a handful of whisky websites. That’s too bad, because I know how much work and creativity is involved in maintaining a web site. To cut a long story short: I intend to thoroughly revise and expand the “Liquid Links” page on Malt Madness soon and will spend a few weekends on “research”. Oh, and I’m also very curious what the effect of iPad-like devices will be on society in general and the on-line whisky world in particular – so the next three years are going to be extra interesting.

The Malt Monitor must be the biggest accumulation of whisky scores on this planet. But how useful ist it without tasting notes?

Well, that really depends on the user. Are you mostly interested in how much one or more maniacs liked a certain whisky, or do you want to know what aroma’s and what flavours they experienced? At the moment we can only satisfy the lovers of numbers, but we’re very busy with an interactive version of the monitor on www.whisky-monitor.com. That will have room for tasting notes, pictures of the bottle and/or label, etc. It will also be completely sortable and searchable for the number crunchers. Best of all: the information is also available via a mobile phone interface, so if you’re standing in a liquor store and you want to know how much malt maniac X liked a certain bottle, you can just look it up. There’s already room for tasting notes in the database, we just haven’t started inputting them. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we manage to add pictures of a large enough resolution it could also allow people to check a suspect bottle before they actually buy it. That could work for eBay, but owners of a smartphone could even check bottles while they’re in the liquor store or at the auction.

How often do you meet other Malt Maniacs in person? Is there something like an annual Maniac Meeting where all come together?

I think that one of the most important differences between Malt Maniacs and regular clubs and societies is that we started out as a fully virtual collective – and 98% of our communication still happens via the world wide web. We didn’t really have a choice, because the first three members (Louis, Craig and myself) were located in New York, Adelaide and Amsterdam. Now that the team has grown to 33 members (and now that there are MANY whisky festivals around the world), the decreased distances between certain maniacs has made ‘live’ meetings easier. Some festivals like “Limburg” and Feis Ile are regular events for some maniacs and Serge usually organises a ‘D-day’ somewhere around the end of November which sometimes coincides with the final Malt Maniacs Awards calculations.

The Malt Manicas have grown to a cirle of 33 members. Will the growth continue or is there a limit, especially regarding tastings for the MM awards?

Well, there are very simple “physical” limits with regard to the Malt Maniacs Awards, that’s for sure. We usually can get 12 samples of 6cl out of every 70cl bottle, so if every juror needed 6cl samples we could have a jury of a maximum of 12 members. However, this year a few jurors feel confident they will be able to give a solid score based on just 3cl, so we’ll have the biggest jury so far with 15 or 16 members. The MM Awards jury probably won’t grow much beyond that because we don’t want the participants having to supply more than one bottle. If we did, we’d probably not receive quite as many “ultra premium” bottles…. As far as the entire Malt Maniacs collective goes – yes, we’ll probably grow a little further in the future – but every once in a while some inactive maniacs may gently be retired as well.

What was the oldest (meaning the year of distillation) dram you have tasted so far?

If memory serves, that would have to be a Highland Park 1902 (Berry’s All Malt, bottled 1952 or 1953) that I tasted with fellow maniacs Serge Valentin and Olivier Humbrecht during a trip in Italy. It was at Giuseppe Begnoni’s ‘Whisky Paradise’ in Bologna – and it was very special.

Common Questions

1. Please share a memorable whisky moment with us. This might be a fantastic dram, someone you met or any other situation that left a deep impression in your memory.

Euh…. Well, one very long summer evening on the terrace of an hotel in Inverness, right along the river Ness with Krishna, Davin and Serge comes to mind. That was during my first trip to Scotland in 2003, after I had been mad about malts for more than 10 years already. We tried a fantastic bottling of Garnheath from the cellars of Olivier’s father and a wonderful UDRM Rosebank as well.

2. What percentage of your life do you dedicate to whisky (sleep ignored)? Do you think it should be more or less, or is it just about right?

Well, that has decreased significantly (overall) since last year when my doctor strongly advised me to start living a little healthier. And these days it’s mostly writing about whisky and not so much actually drinking whisky – although that will change in the two months to come when I have to taste more than 200 whiskies for the MM Awards 2010. But, let’s say I spend about 10% of my waking life on whisky these days – which probably should be a little less ;-)

3. Your three tips for whisky novices

A) Spend some time finding the perfect nosing glass for you.
B) Taste your whiskies head-to-head whenever possible
C) Do NOT try to approach whisky as an investment object.
C) Ask questions and a lot of them! Reach out to bloggers, distilleries, local distributors, etc… People who talk about, make and sell whisky tend to be passionate and would be happy to help you.

4. Your three tips for experienced whisky lovers

A) Don’t throw away any corks of empty bottles, but save them up in a tin or jar. As you consume more whiskies, chances are a cork will break every now and then.
B) Always be on the lookout for fakes if you’re interested in “antique” whiskies. You can do a LOT of research on-line these days.
C) Do NOT try to approach whisky as an investment object.

5. What was the last dram you had and how did you like it?

Oh… Nothing terribly exotic or luxurious I’m afraid – a Macallan 10yo ’100 Proof’ (57%, OB) that was bottled around 1997. Those bottles were extremely affordable at the time, so I stocked up on them. I’m very happy that I did, because good sherried whiskies are becoming rarer these days. So, yes – I liked it a lot.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

sku October 1, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Another great interview. Thanks Oliver and Johannes. That tip about corks is a great practical tip that I think gets overlooked. I learned the hard way to always keep the corks, and have a variety of corks from different bottle shapes on hand because some will always break or separate from the cap.

Reply

Oliver Klimek October 1, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Fortunately I never had that experience so far, but I think I might consider doing so just in case.

Reply

Joshua October 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Firstly, great interview! Oli, thanks to you and Johannes. It’s so funny that this cork issue comes up – I ran into for the first time last night with one of my new bottles. Now I know to keep corks and not throw them out :)

A really good read all in all. Thanks!

Reply

Oliver Klimek October 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm

So you better hurry up and empty a bottle before it all evaporates ;)

Reply

Gal October 2, 2010 at 11:56 am

Wow. a true maniac.

as Einstein said, we’ve stood on the shoulders of giants….

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