This artisanal spirit is not what you think.


Is there anything more Dutch than bicycling over cobblestone streets alongside a canal? Yes: ending that bike trip with a glass of genever. This Wineau found herself in the Netherlands recently, and while there is a burgeoning wine region there—I had a surprisingly lovely Dutch Auxerrois my first night—it’s clear the true spirit of the Netherlands is its signature beverage, genever.

Genever (pronounced juh-NEE-ver) is an artisanal spirit with an intricate history and versatility. What’s tricky is that sometimes genever can seem like gin (it actually predates what we now call gin,) but sometimes it can seem like scotch, depending on the style of production. And there is an enormous range of flavors from whatever array of botanicals each distiller uses. What all genevers do share is the use of some percentage of malt spirit for the base, and they all must include juniper berries in the botanical blend. If there is a low amount of malt spirit and a clean, fresh feel, you’ll have a new style genever, which are gin-like and great in cocktails. If there is a higher percentage of malt and some oak aging, you’ll have an old style genever, which is on the whisky spectrum and makes for enjoyable sipping.
Genever production in a nutshell: the malt base is typically from one or a blend of grains like rye, wheat, and corn, usually triple-distilled to between 40-80% abv. The grains used add different levels of cereal notes and weight. Neutral spirit is important as well (comprising most of the base for the new style,) as it imparts no flavor and can reach very high alcohol. Then botanicals, spices, and/or fruits are processed, either by maceration or distilling. The master distiller will blend all components and they are left to “marry,” usually for a number of weeks. Then there is the option to age in casks, which can add elements from the barrels’ original use (Bourbon, Sherry, wine, etc.,) plus a warmer, woodier essence. All of the many choices the master distiller makes helps define the house style, but also, there can be multiple offerings from each house, showcasing different styles or flavors.

Not only does genever offer something for every spirit-lover, but it has a long history with the U.S. America’s first published bartender’s guides show that, until the 1880s, “gin” was Dutch-style (so it was actually genever,) and about a quarter of all cocktail recipes at that time were based on the spirit. So, America’s spirit-ual journey pretty much began with genever.

If you’re a die-hard Jameson drinker, or you rarely stray from your Tanqueray and tonic, stop reading now. But if you love exploring new beverages, and you’re fascinated by the individual stamp distillers can place on their product (often tracing back many generations,) weaving personal histories and personalities into the mix, genever may quickly become your new favorite go-to.

Genever even has its own ritual: a “kopstootje,” or, “head-butt.” (Pronounced kop-stow-che.) This is a ceremony involving a glass of genever filled completely to the brim alongside a beer. You squat down with your hands behind your back and slurp the first bit of genever. Then you can stand, and have a sip of beer as a chaser. Hands are allowed for the rest of your beverage enjoyment; the first sip is what’s important. The ritual’s name comes from the fact that you might “head-butt” the glass of beer when you’re maneuvering to attack that first mouthful of genever. One of my colleagues likened the process to “Netherlands Yoga,” but it’s pretty easy to get the hang of it, especially if you’re taught by Piet van Leijenhorst, Master Distiller of Bols genever.

There is a Bols facility in the heart of old Amsterdam, although they do most of their production outside of town (something about high quantities of incredibly flammable liquid not a great idea in the city center?) Standing beside three gorgeous copper stills, Piet offered up some glasses, which became a time travel back to the past, at the same time looking forward into the future.

Piet said the Bols 100% Malt Genever “is not genever with a lot of different taste profiles, it’s the heart of genever.” In a way, this is genever in its purest form: no mix of botanicals, just juniper berry and malt spirit, and you can taste the simplicity and power. The Bols Original Genever, with its subtle juniper and a feel of fresh, clean linen (!), has a blend of 22 distilled botanicals, with “a secret ingredient… it gives you a funny feeling on your tongue,” as Piet said with a laugh. On the other side of the spectrum was the Bols 9-Year Aged Original Genever. When they first made the Original in 2008, they put some in three bourbon barrels and just bottled them last year. It was so rich in the mouth, compact and intense, and while 57.5% alcohol, it didn’t feel “hot” at all. Delicious. Alas, that was apparently the last bottle left! (Many thank yous for sharing it, Piet.) But it definitely showcased the beauty and potential of aged genever.

Bols is quite a large distillery, and if you’re familiar with genever at all, it may very well be one of theirs. But the stories from small distilleries are just as compelling.

The scene of the bike ride over cobblestone streets alongside a canal actually happened in Dordrecht, a small town about an hour’s drive south from Amsterdam. Myriam Hendrickx, the master distiller of Rutte, led us around the charming town like a mother duck with her wobbly ducklings trailing behind (and we hadn’t even had any genever yet.) The Rutte operation is small and family-owned, and when Myriam arrived fifteen years ago, they used original handwritten recipes, and had one computer… operating on DOS. Today, the Rutte team has gotten with the times, but they have not modernized much, in order to focus on the craft element of their genevers and spirits – even still peeling fresh oranges by hand. Downstairs in the original building there are shelves upon shelves of experiments; distillates and macerations of dozens of products. Rutte will probably always remain small, but they will never stop exploring. I loved the Rutte Old Simon Genever – one of their oldest recipes, with unusual (“Say, ‘creative,’” Myriam laughed,) botanicals giving it a pleasing funkiness. And the Rutte Single Oat Genever blew me away, with its honey cereal flavor a great example of what slightly aged genever can achieve. However, “Don’t write too much about this,” said Myriam, “we don’t have enough!” Oops.

The next day, it was back in the car for a two-hour drive northeast for a visit to De Borgen. First up, the De Borgen 21-Year Aged Cask Aged Malt Spirit, distilled in 1998. Made from 100% barley, aged in ancient Oloroso Sherry casks, almost half of it vaporized over time. It filled my mouth with a warm flame, powerful yet delicate, with flavors of figs and caramel. And this is just one ingredient in their old-style genever. Interestingly, I also loved the De Borgen New Style Genever, with its gin-like profile (lots of juniper,) but very creamy. They used elderflower, bitter oranges, cardamom, and fennel, among others, and the citrus especially was a great counterpoint to its creaminess. At this distillery, I even got to blend my own genever! I went for a new-style profile on an old-style base: 50% malt spirit and 50% neutral, with botanicals of juniper (of course,) cucumber, grapefruit, orange blossom, and some umami from seaweed. If I do say so myself, it was pretty dang tasty; I think Laurens Speek, De Borgen’s Brand Activation Manager, was about to offer me a job. (I only have about 200ml left, but will consider taking orders.)

The next day, exploration of genever’s character continued at Herman Jansen, located in Schiedam, where a few windmills that used to grind grain to make genever still loom over the quaint town. We sampled some products from Bobby’s, a co-production with Sebastiaan van Bokkel, who is inspired by his part-Indonesian ancestry. They describe the Bobby’s line as, “Dutch Courage Meets Indonesian Spirit,” using only 4% malt spirit with Indonesian botanicals in their genever, making Bobby’s Genever super-floral, with cardamom, ginger ale, and lemongrass. It was tasty on its own, and shone in a simple cocktail for lunch. Herman Jansen gets involved in many projects – 600 so far, though not all make it to the end phase. Their own lines include Notaris, the Bartender’s Choice series, and vintage single cask offerings. Standouts were the Herman Jansen Notaris 15 Year, with its light caramel, herbs, and woody spice, and the Herman Jansen Bartender’s Choice Rome, with its fruity stone fruit and chamomile notes. But the full-on knockout was the Herman Jansen 1991 Single Cask. Ad van der Lee, distiller for both Bobby’s and Herman Jansen, took a sample out of the cask that morning (!) and we were the first to taste it. Light caramel, heady orange blossom, lavender, anise – my notes are full of stars and hearts. Alas, this is not on the market yet, but it’s worth waiting for.

While closely associated with the Dutch, Genever production is not restricted to the Netherlands— in fact the official Geographical Indication includes Belgium and parts of France and Germany.

Smeets is a Belgian distillery, and members of their team came to the Genever Museum in Schiedam to showcase Belgian-style genever. They bottle genevers that have spent time in Port and rum casks, which definitely impart their own flavors, but my favorite was the Smeets Whisky Cask, with its spiced caramel and bit of peat essence. Senna Meloni, traveling mixologist, led a cocktail demonstration to show how well the Smeets Extra Genever combined in a “Spicy Juniper,” an “Apple a Day,” and a “Basil Smash.” (Shout-out to all you bartenders out there: it’s definitely time to get inspired by genever in its many styles.)

I bid farewell to Amsterdam with genever flowing in my veins. How fascinating that a 500-year-old beverage has so many facets and stories; each sip is a taste of the past and an inspiration for the future. Some distillers extol the classic style, some are experimental, some focus on craft, others on technical matters. The results truly offer something for every spirit lover. So, seek out some genever for inspiration of your own, and welcome genever back to America with open arms and a thirsty palate.

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