This Zero-Waste Distillery Is Turning Holland's Iconic Tulips into Vodka

Each bottle of the €295 "Pure" blend contains 350 flower bulbs.

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Sep 24 2018, 4:00pm

In 2014, Dutch child-actor-turned-filmmaker Joris Putman left a budding career to pursue his long-standing entrepreneurial dream: inventing a product. At 30 years old, the Netherlands native had no idea what he’d create, let alone where to begin. But he did know one thing: This elusive product would somehow incorporate Holland’s iconic tulip.

Four years, 4 million tulip bulbs and shelf space at multiple Michelin-star restaurants later, Putman’s Dutch Tulip Vodka—a 40-proof vodka made of only two ingredients, tulips and water—is growing like crazy.

Even crazier? Once the idea took hold, it took Putman less than five minutes to map out the process.

“My friends originally suggested moonshining from grain, but I didn’t find that appealing at all—I’d be making the same thing and following someone else’s recipe,” he says. “But it did connect the dots. I immediately pictured tulips, liquor, and vodka, and then it was just a matter of minutes before I figured it out and worked on plans for testing.”

While “tulip vodka” may sound like a tourist-targeted gimmick, Putman’s connection to the flower dates back to Holland’s historic Tulip Mania bonanza of 1637. The price for tulip bulbs first skyrocketed, then drastically plummeted, during the Dutch Golden Age, leading to a period of chaotic seed purchases known as Tulip Mania. Putman’s ancestors joined the tulip frenzy, buying bulbs to grow their own tulip fields.

His family’s tulip-farming tradition continued for hundreds of years, and after trial and error (and trial and error), Putman’s confident his new twist on the family tulip tradition will continue well into the future.

“The tulip has a strong texture which makes the distilling process tricky, but the first moment it actually worked was just awesome,” Putman says. “It wasn’t the best taste initially, but it was an interesting and complex burst of flavor. Once it worked, we started long-term distilling tests to get the right flavors in and the wrong flavors out.”

From here, Putman spent more than two years refining the distillation and fermentation processes under his overarching Clusius Craft Distillers company (named after the famous Dutch botanist who introduced tulips to the Netherlands). Putman kept his invention private to family and close friends until he perfected the recipe—and introduced Dutch Tulip Vodka to the world—in December 2017.

According to Putman, the vodka is distilled three times—but it’s a much different process than you’d find at most distilleries. He has a custom, modern still from a Dutch builder that provides him major control over the flavors.

Putman, left, with business partner and cousin Brad Bouter, right.

“Our column distillation system gives us extreme precision,” he says. “During the distilling process, I capture and store flavors separately, so at the end of the process, when I have my purest form of the vodka, I can use original flavors to create the final taste that delivers the whole nuanced and enjoyable experience of how a tulip actually smells and tastes.”

While Putman’s perfected the tulip fermentation and vodka distillation processes, an entire batch could be undrinkable if the bulbs are contaminated—a problem he’s hyper-aware of, given one batch takes up to three months to finish. That’s why he sources tulips from an organic farmer in northern Holland. The tulips are washed with rainwater and stored in large cooling halls until it’s time for distillation to begin. During production, his team goes through about 4,800 pounds of tulips per day.

From sourcing bulbs to finding use for byproduct, Putman’s process produces zero waste—a feat he’s particularly proud of.

“We buy organic tulip bulbs from a local farmer, then once our distillation process is finished, we bring the leftover mashed tulip bulbs to a nearby dairy farm for the cattle,” he says. “The cows really love the tulip bulbs—they’re a special treat!”

Another point of pride for Putman is the fact that Dutch Tulip Vodka—and his overarching Clusius Craft Distillers company—is a family-run business. His business partner, Bart Bouter, 36, is his cousin. And, come bottling day, the Clusius distillery turns into one big family reunion.

“When it comes time to bottle, we have an assembly line of sorts. My father’s in charge of flushing and sealing the bottles, my uncle hammers on the lids and my aunt and mother label every single bottle by hand,” he says. “My father even painted the bottle artwork.”

This family touch and attention to detail separate Dutch Tulip Vodka from the gimmicky tulip paraphernalia in, say, an Amsterdam tourist gift shop. Putman’s tulip vodka is higher-end, and it’s actually not targeted to tourists at all.

He spent his early days impressing Michelin-star chefs with this one-of-a-kind liquor. Despite the lack of polish of his initial presentation—at the time, he had just a water bottle and a sticker—chef after chef gave the vodka high praises. Today, it’s available at esteemed restaurants from Poland to Spain, and the top two and three Michelin-star restaurants in Holland.

Prices for Putman’s Dutch Tulip Vodka match its caliber. The “Pure” blend—which consists of solely tulips and water—retails for €295 per bottle. Each bottle contains an estimated 350 tulip bulbs.

The more affordable “Premium” blend, which includes tulips, water and alcohol from organic grain, retails for €48, making it more attainable for cocktail bars. Each bottle contains roughly 40 tulip bulbs.

Looking forward, Putman is navigating the challenging world of distribution. While he’s satisfied with the distillery’s initial success (and the fact they’ve now used over 4 million tulip bulbs), he’s hungry for more. Putman and Bouter want to see their numbers grow on an international scale from this year’s 40,000 bottles up to 100,000 and beyond.

That said, his family does have one lingering question: Who’s going to hand-label all those bottles?