When Asked For The Man In Charge, This Dutch Master Distiller Points To Herself

When Asked For The Man In Charge,

This Dutch Master Distiller Points To Herself

You may have heard of the term “master distiller,” undoubtedly an impressive title to the ear, but what really constitutes such a position? Well, it’s as it sounds; a master distiller is a person who has ultimate control over every aspect of a distillery. They oversee creation and quality control, promote product, manage operations and staff, develop new spirits, and they do just about everything else you can think of. In short, they are the queens and kings of the spirits industry.

15 years ago, Master Distiller, Myriam Hendrickx was thrust into running Rutte Distillery, the previous owner having died a month after Myriam joined Rutte. 100 years of delicious history was dropped into Hendrickx’s lap. “I started at zero,” she says. “For example, we had barrels, but I didn’t know what was in them, so I just had to taste samples of everything and make groups, like ‘this is probably younger and this is probably older.’” She found recipes from the very beginning when Rutte Distillery was founded, handwritten in books from 1872. It was up to her to digitize them, brushing off the dust of antiquity to breathe modern life into the recipes that started it all. This shift didn’t mean completely rewriting Rutte’s history, it was simply preservation intertwined with progression.

“We take the existing product and twist it, but we make sure something of the basics stay there.”

"We had barrels, but I didn’t know what was in them, so I just had to taste samples of everything and make groups"

Prior to taking over Rutte, Hendrickx had dwelled in the dairy world for a while to gain commercial experience, but her taste for spirits could not be satiated. This prompted her to specialize in spirits, so much so that she became a teacher and a writer for the industry. Thus while Hendrickx had to educate herself on the financial side of running a business, the creation side came naturally. Uniquely and exquisitely crafted, spirits stray from the homogeneity found in the dairy industry. “The cream we sold was exactly the same as the competitor’s cream, so it was just about making deals,” she says, her passion lying in diverse products and the creative freedom to innovate.

“In the spirits industry, everyone is doing their own thing, which I love.”

Located in the oldest city in Holland, Dordrecht, Rutte is surrounded by a wealth of history, culture, and rivers. Nearby is a nature reserve that is flooded by the sea coming in, so different botanicals were available to the Rutte family and now to Hendrickx, whose fondness for botanicals is ever-growing. She notes, “The family was really nerdy and passionate about their craft, so they looked up any botanical they could either buy—so exotic botanicals from all over the world—or pick themselves, locally.” Unexpected botanicals enrich the Rutte’s spirits, classic genever given a new twist with hazelnuts and walnuts, or even citrus.

The primary spirits enlivening Rutte Distillery are genever and gin. So what exactly are they? The Master Distiller explains that English gin began as Dutch genever, the difference being that dry gin is made of neutral alcohol plus distilled botanicals, while genever is the same thing but can be made with malt spirits. Gin is herbaceous and flowery with a bite, whereas genever is quite refreshing and tastes like gin mixed with whiskey.

Hendrickx gives us a history lesson of genever, bringing us back to the 16th and 17th century in the Netherlands, during which the Dutch started distilling wine. Once the expense was realized to be too much, they moved on to distilling grain for beer. “The next step was to think botanicals, and juniper was a logical one because of all the medical benefits. The English got to know the product, and as history goes in the Thirty Years’ War, where we battled side by side against the French, the Dutch were apparently fierce and without fear, due to the drink…that’s why they call genever Dutch courage.”  

"As history goes in the Thirty Years’ War, where we battled side by side against the French, the Dutch were apparently fierce and without fear, due to the drink...that’s why they call genever Dutch courage"

You would think Hendrickx would have needed some of her own Dutch courage as a woman stepping into the spirits industry. Such a move is not easy; women have long since faced difficulties while forging their paths in the food and beverage industries. Upon speaking with a member of the Rutte family for her 80th birthday, Hendrickx confirmed these challenges. Her predecessor revealed she was not granted access to the back and had no place in the creative, hands-on portion of running the business; women were stuck in the storefront.

Men stroll past Hendrickx when they enter the distillery for an appointment or to purchase spirits, expecting a man, wrongly assuming Hendrickx to be an office girl. Despite these unfavorable interactions with men underestimating the impressive abilities and knowledge of Hendrickx, she took it in her stride, quickly learning to brush off gender bias with a laugh. “I think it’s hilarious, so I don’t mind. [Men] come in and say, ‘Who’s the man in charge?’ and then I go like, ‘Me,’” she says. “I think it’s important as a woman to not get offended if they treat you differently.”

“I think it’s hilarious, so I don’t mind. [Men] come in and say, ‘Who’s the man in charge?’ and then I go like, ‘Me'"

Now Hendrickx is thriving, her inventive spirits intriguing customers old and new. One of Rutte’s signature flavors is their Celery Gin. Bring to your mind’s eye a clean, harmonious blend of botanicals including cardamom, sweet orange peel, coriander, and celery leaf, only the freshest ingredients used. The Rutte family’s former living room acts as a tasting room in which these bold flavors can be experienced on site, once more marrying past and present, honoring the Rutte legacy while simultaneously building upon it.

For the smallest distillery in Holland, Rutte has one of the largest hearts. Genuine passion is poured into every product, Hendrickx overseeing it all as their very first female head after seven generations of men. So if you ever get the chance to visit the distillery, be sure to ask for the woman in charge.

Ashley Myers

SWAAY's Editorial Associate, Ashley, enjoys writing fantasy, spending time outside, and finding adventures in every corner of the world. This summer she is calling NYC her home.

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