The Van Kleef Museum and distillery is situated at de Lange Beestenstraat 109 in The Hague, Netherlands. The distillery has a fascinating history dating back to 1842 when it was founded by Theodorus van Kleef.
Although the distillery closed in 1986 it was reopened quite some years later in 1995 after extensive renovations and is the only surviving distillery of jenever and liqueur in the city. Today the distillery is one of the country’s oldest, and it is said that Vincent Van Gogh once frequented it, having lived a couple of houses down the street at number 32 from 1869 to 1873.
The museum is a lively, albeit tiny place packed with shelves and shelves of all sorts of things relating to liqueur and the distillery’s history. One such finding is this telephone book from 1883. The Van Kleef Museum is the only museum that has this very first telephone book of The Hague. What makes this telephone book so special is that the Van Kleef Distillery actually takes the number one spot in the book! Not even the police or government fill the number one position! This evidently demonstrates the importance and prestige of the distillery in the city during the 1800s.
The museum also has 16 metres of archived liqueur and jenever recipes dating from before 1900 and the current owner has attempted to use these old recipes as much as possible in all products to keep with tradition. And just as it was done years ago, no artificial ingredients are used in the process. This makes Van Kleef a real artisan distillery. And believe you me, this is really some very good stuff – unlike anything you’ve ever tasted! (I myself happened to have a little tasting while there).
Today Van Kleef works with five different distillers in the country and they have distribution across the Netherlands with the prospect of exporting to other countries in the future. However, there is a strong emphasis on authenticity and exclusivity – this is a product with a very important story and no doubt steeped in history.
Fleur Kruyt, manager of the museum and distillery was my guide for the morning and rattled off various intriguing stories about the place. Firstly, she showed me some ‘real’ straws that people would drink from many years ago and still in their original packaging. She told me that people often wonder where the word ‘straw’ comes from. Straws were actually once made of real, natural straw and not from plastic like they are today.
Fleur also discussed the ‘drankorgel’ with passion. This is an ‘alcohol organ’ (see below), when directly translated. The ‘organ’ comprises some barrels set up against a wall. In order to find out whether each barrel was empty or not, a person would tap loudly on the front of the barrel. The empty ones made a big sound of course and Fleur importantly points out, “You know that saying, empty vessels make the most noise? Well when you see the drankorgel in action you understand where that saying comes from.”
Another really authentic thing about Van Kleef is that each of the labels on the bottles is handwritten. Fleur told me about how they really wanted to replicate the old labels used so many years ago and the difficulties thereof since printing techniques have changed drastically over the years. “We managed to find a printer who could mimic the colours and design as much as possible,” says Fleur. And now the labels really do look like the ones used in the old days. In fact, Fleur went on to tell me that in the past the labels were handwritten and they wanted to keep it that way. “One day a woman came into the store. She does a kind of calligraphy and told me, ‘I can do this for you. I can write the contents on these labels,’ so that was a great help.” All the labels are now written in that woman’s handwriting, making the concept of Van Kleef even more personal and original.
The Van Kleef Museum also has some funny knick knacks from bygone times. You just need to look around the two rooms which comprise the tasting area and the museum to see them all.
And there is also an overgrown garden (which definitely adds to the authenticity of the place), ideal for the summer whereby customers can sit and have a tasting. One can almost imagine Van Gogh in the Van Kleef setting, garnering inspiration for his work.
Lastly, the Van Kleef Museum is a small gem with a strong story and a steeped history. What I thought would be a half an hour visit (due to the small size of the place), ended up to be two and I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to the staff who were very welcoming, warm and down-to-earth. I highly recommend a visit and a combined tasting too.
Many thanks to Fleur Kruyt from Van Kleef Museum for taking the time to educate me on all things Van Kleef. I’ll be back for another visit (and tasting of course!) very soon.