Beyond the regular flavour, a personal interview with Michael Bruynse of Cafe Zilt
Crazy about whisky since that first sip of Macallan 12 years old back in 1987, Cafe Zilt owner Michael Bruynse knows that his love of whisky runs deep.
After a 15-years long career within the Amsterdam hotelscene, Michael reached a point with partner Diana where they had the time, the money and a location to build something wonderful. This became Café ZILT on the Zeedijk in Amsterdam.
From questionable night business to whisky walhalla
'At this location there was first a "questionable" night business', Michael laughs as we stand alongside the bar, 'a very questionable night business. You will find that there is a big difference between visiting a bar and managing one. But once everything was completed, that's when you start searching for those lovely flavours. And I can be somewhat stubborn. I want to set my own course and serving only Scottish and Irish whiskies was not going to be enough.' This thought is reflected in Café ZILT's collection. 'We try to expand the love for the grain distillate, aged on wood and bottled at 40%, and be an ambassador.'
It's with this attitude that Michael and Diana try to offer a more extensive experience to people who are curious about this product from behind the bar. 'Sometimes people can be intimidated by the sobism that can be found, on occasion, in the industry. It's why we don't want to offer the standard products.' Which is how more Single Cask bottles or independent bottler releases have found their way into the collection. This doesn't mean you won't find the big brands at Café ZILT. 'Just it's crazy brother.' States Michael. 'As opposed to a Laphroaig 10, I'll serve the Quarter Cask. Rather than the Ardbeg 10, you'll see the Ardbeg Uigeadail. And if I'm going to serve a Jack Daniel's, I'll make sure to offer a Single Barrel, Barrel Proof.'
Unknown but not unloved
For years Michael has been a big fan of Gordon MacPhail. 'I've never tasted a bottling I didn't like,' says Michael, 'from any distillery.'
He's also following all the developments in Ireland with great interest. 'Lots of fun things are happening in Ireland.' You will also find bottles of Teeling whiskey and Glendalough on the shelves. 'I've tried to build a skeleton framework of whiskies, which allows me to add new bottles anytime I like. A 12 years old Ledaig by Gordon McPhail, The Ultimate Bunnahabhain Staoisha, a Belgian Filliers whisky, the Tamdhu Batch Strength, a True Blue by Balcones, made with 100% corn. These are usually whiskies that remain under the radar.' Yet you will find them here. 'Anything by Benromach is loved.'
Canada & America
With flair Michael pulls a bottle of Lot 40 off the shelf. 'It's difficult to find a good Canadian whisky in the Netherlands. So many beautiful things are made but there is a lot more interest for Canadian whisky in France than here. It's low on the list.' A terrible shame Michael believes. 'There's not enough attention, even in Canada! We can ofcourse source the standard bottles like Crown Royal or Seagram but these are not as exciting.' Change is imminent though, perhaps inspired by craft beer brewers and a growing demand for whisky. 'And thanks to that growing demand, there's room for experimentation.'
American whiskies do seem to suffer from the "power" of the Scottish Single Malts and together with Diana, Michael has been promoting American whiskey for the past 20 years. 'Finally we're seeing some interest', he explains, 'people are starting to pay attention.' This growing popularity is not to be traced back to what's on offer but rather the culture that has developed around these whiskies in the past few years. 'Cocktail culture, movies and television shows put American whiskey, Bourbons and Rye whiskey back on the map.' But are people flocking into the bar, demanding a Bourbon? No, not so much. 'No but people are more open to it due to shows like Mad Men. A lot of people who walk into the bar are not just looking for a drink. They are often looking to discover a new path. By listening you can help them on their way and perhaps suggest a Bourbon or a Rye whiskey that they might also enjoy. It can be lots of fun.'
It's all about listening
As many years as Michael has been in the business, an equal amount of time he's spent listening to people and what they like. 'Listen carefully to your guests, know exactly what you can offer and only then can you match someone's preference to what you have on the shelves. If they're unsure of what they're in the mood for, you can always surprise them. By asking them for a preference of a flavour profile, you can find a match a lot quicker. Something light, something smoky. Something heavy or something spicy.' Michael explains. The whiskies on the shelves are therefore sorted by flavour profile, each with their own label at the bottom of the shelf to make the guest's choice a little easier. 'People can give you some direction. This allows you to go into more detail on what barrels the whisky was aged for example.' There's no real "go-to" whisky for the guests at Cafe Zilt, they don't hover to one specific brand. 'It's very diverse.'
Taste then buy or buy then taste?
It is completely determined by the situation, Michael feels. 'As a consumer I would advise you to try out a few whiskies at a bar like ours before commiting to a bottle. This is exactly why we also serve half measures. As a bar owner I try to taste before I buy but sometimes I get a tip from colleagues in the industry that I definitely need to buy a specific bottle. I can blindly rely on that advice.' It takes Michael a few moments to think on whether there's ever been a whisky he really didn't like. 'I think it was a Thai "whisky".' Which was quickly put aside respectfully. 'It can be hard to tell whether a whisky is good or bad within an instant because of the high alcohol perecentage. It numbs the senses a lot quicker than say beer or why. We get a lot of beer samples and it takes a lot less effort to determine what's what.'
Beyond corona Unfortunately corona has not left Café ZILT untouched. Lockdowns and curfews are demanding creative solutions from business owners. A change in governmental legislation has left Café ZILT to deal with limited opening hours (or shutting the doors completely) but they make the best of it. Whisky Waanzin Woensdag is an example. 'It's usually a fairly quiet evening and now we're offering people the opportunity to try out a few unique whiskies at a lower price. Prices can be a barrier for people. We also get a lot of whisky tasting on location requests', Michael continues, 'which are combined with great culinary creations. We're currently working on an event with Michelin Star chef Rogier van Dam of restaurant Lastage on the Geldersekade.' Additionally Café ZILT has been requested to assist several other businesses with creating their own whisky collection. 'It's somethine we hope to do more often in the future,' Michael insists. 'We get to train staff as well to bring to the forefront those whiskies that are normally collecting dust on the back of the shelves.'
The Café ZILT (whisky & beer) is a hit and they can count on regular visitors from Amsterdam and beyond, all year round. 'There are quite a few people who enjoy whisky as a "moment". Before dinner or after, at the end of the night.' The offering enables Michael and the team to serve more people, regardless of the season. Yet having drunk so many different incredible whiskies and having so many more ahead of him, there is one major whisky regret that Michael still has. 'That super old Pappy van Winkle Family Reserve which I didn't drink all those years ago on a cruise. Yes, I still regret it.' He adds with a smile.
Café ZILT, whisky bar and beer café, can be found on the Zeedijk 49 in the heart of Amsterdam.