I am the only one doing it. If I make a strawberry liqueur, I make it with strawberries, not flavourings. I’m a stickler for quality.” These are the defiant words of Patrick van Zuidam, the 43-year-old managing director of distiller and liqueurs producer Zuidam Distillers.
Van Zuidam’s point is that most of the large traditional Netherlands liquor producers buy in their neutral alcohol and some drinks producers do not even make their products themselves. There is a historical precedent – it was illegal to both ferment and distil until that law was repealed in 1992.
“I wanted to do something different. I wanted to distil from scratch,” says Van Zuidam. “We start with the grain. I believe there are two selling points: Either the cheapest or the best. Anything in between is a hard sell. You can take the Aldi/Lidl route – cheap, mass market, high volume, low value. Or, you can differentiate. Make the best products you possibly can. Then the consumer decides. They decide whether what you do is worthwhile… or not.”
The youthful Van Zuidam only joined his parents’ company to help them out. He had done a degree in information management and was looking to complete his doctorate then hopefully earn a lot of money in the IT sector.
“I’ve been here 18 years now,” Van Zuidam says, slightly wistfully and possibly with the merest hint of resignation. But when you see him in the distillery, checking the sacks of rye, fingering sticks of vanilla from Madagascar, talking about the new stills that come in the autumn, you feel he is in the right place.
His parents live nearby and are pretty much retired. His brother, Gilbert, is the sales director. The more laid back of the two, which most younger brothers are, Gilbert is the ‘people person’ in the business. Not that Patrick is anything other than interesting and pleasant company. But he is the boss, the serious one. With an eye for detail, he makes the business tick. I doubt whether much if anything leaves their unassuming, light industrial unit in Baarle-Nassua (see panel) close to the Belgium border, without big brother’s say so.
His father, Fred, was a senior distiller with De Kuyper. There were management changes and the company wanted him to live closer to Rotterdam to be nearer the distillery. On balance, he decided he wanted more control of his life and that meant moving out to the country and starting up on his own. That was 1974.
“I was not planning to join the business,” says Van Zuidam. “Not much money was being made and my parents were slaving away seven days a week. My father was doing a lot of private-label work. He was even making vodka to send to Russia. His best product was a traditional orange Cognac liqueur.