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The Signature Dutch Spirit: A Comprehensive Guide to Genever

Feb 27, 2023 | BlogEN

Does the term “genever” ring a bell? Over the past few decades, numerous brands have strived to revive this spirit’s popularity by promoting it as a cocktail ingredient. So, what exactly is genever? Also known as jenever, this traditional Dutch spirit boasts a rich history and a unique flavour profile. Long associated with Dutch culture, this intriguing liquor has left its mark on the global gin industry. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the origins, production process, and various types of genever. We’ll also discuss how to best enjoy this signature Dutch spirit and where to find a bottle in Amsterdam.

Understanding Genever: Is it the same as gin?

Genever, or jenever, is a traditional Dutch spirit with a malted grain base consisting of barley, corn, and rye. Often considered the predecessor of gin, genever shares a key flavouring component with gin – juniper berries. However, differences in production methods and ingredients result in distinct flavour profiles.

Genever is made by distilling malt wine, which is created from mashing and fermenting malted grains, resulting in a richer and malty character. On the other hand, gin typically starts with a neutral spirit, which can be made from various sources, including grains, potatoes or sugar beet molasses. It is then redistilled with juniper berries and other botanicals, emphasizing the botanical flavours, especially juniper.

old malt wine genever in clay bottles

The Journey of Genever: Origins and History

The roots of genever can be traced back to the Low Lands, encompassing present-day Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and parts of France and Germany, during the late Middle Ages. During this period, distilling was in its infancy, with early distillers primarily focusing on creating medicinal concoctions using alcohol as a solvent for herbs and other botanicals, known as aqua vitae or “water of life”.

The Dutch East India Company (also known as the VOC) played a significant role in the evolution of genever. In the late 16th century, distillers in the Low Lands began refining their techniques and experimenting with new ingredients brought in by trading companies expedited to Asia (before the VOC was officially formed). This led to the creation of malt wine, a distilled beverage made from fermented grains. Distillers soon discovered that combining malt wine with juniper and other botanicals resulted in a pleasantly flavoured spirit that would become the precursor to modern genever.

The VOC later exported genever to various locations around the world during their expeditions, leading to the rapid popularity of Dutch genever both domestically and abroad. The peak of genever production occurred in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, a period of economic prosperity and global influence for the Dutch Republic. Amsterdam became a bustling trade hub, housing over 400 distilleries at the time.

Genever production soon spread to other cities in the country. Schiedam emerged as a key genever distillation hub in the 18th century, thanks to its strategic location along the Schie River, which provided easy access to water for distillation and transportation of raw materials and finished products. The city’s windmills were crucial for milling the grains needed for malt wine production, further solidifying Schiedam’s reputation as a genever powerhouse.

Often referred to as “Dutch gin” due to its juniper flavouring and similarities with gin, genever heavily influenced the creation of modern gin. It is believed that English soldiers stationed in the Dutch Republic during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) brought their newfound appreciation for genever back to their homeland after the war. Over time, the spirit’s popularity grew in England, and local distillers became interested in creating a similar spirit. English distillers began experimenting with juniper berries as a key flavouring ingredient, like in genever, and started to develop their own juniper-flavoured spirits. Over time, these experiments led to the creation of a new spirit, which came to be known as gin and has since become a staple of British culture.

By the 19th century, the genever industry began to face challenges. The rise of the British gin industry, coupled with changing tastes and economic pressures, led to a decline in genever’s popularity. Distilleries in the Netherlands struggled to adapt, with many closing their doors during this tumultuous period.

However, genever managed to endure, and the 20th century saw a resurgence in its popularity. The establishment of the European Union and the easing of trade restrictions allowed for genever to regain a foothold in the global spirits market.

The creation of the “Genever Protected Geographical Indication” by the European Union in 2008 has helped to protect and promote the authentic production methods and standards for genever, ensuring that the spirit’s unique characteristics and heritage are preserved for future generations.

The Art of Making Genever

The production of genever involves a series of processes that include mashing, fermenting, distilling, and sometimes aging. If you delve into the step-by-step process below, you will find elements of both whisky and gin production. In that sense, it’s fair to say that genever is a blend of whisky and gin.

Step 1: Malted grains: Genever starts with a malted grain base, typically consisting of barley, wheat, and rye. The grains are first soaked in water to promote germination, which activates enzymes that break down the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars. Once the germination process is complete, the grains are dried to halt further growth, creating malted grains. This step is similar to the initial phase in whisky production.

Step 2: Mashing: The malted grains are then mixed with hot water in a process called mashing. This step releases enzymes that convert the remaining starches into fermentable sugars, resulting in a sweet, grainy liquid called wort. This step is also common in whisky production.

Step 3: Fermentation: The wort is cooled and transferred to fermentation vessels, where yeast is added. The yeast consumes the fermentable sugars in the wort, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process typically takes several days, resulting in a low-alcohol beer-like liquid called malt wine, which contains 5-10% ABV. This step is similar in both whisky and genever production.

Step 4: Distillation: The malt wine is then distilled to increase its alcohol content and concentrate its flavours. Genever is typically distilled in copper pot stills using a two or three-step distillation process. The first distillation, called the “rough distillation,” produces a low-alcohol spirit known as “low wine.” The low wine is then distilled again in the “fine distillation” step to create a higher-alcohol spirit, usually around 50% ABV. This distillation process is also used in whisky production.

Step 5: Flavouring with botanicals: After distillation, juniper berries and other botanicals, such as coriander, angelica root, and citrus peels, are added to the distilled spirit. These botanicals can be added directly to the still, infused in the spirit, or redistilled with the spirit to impart their flavours. This step is similar to gin production, where the neutral spirit is redistilled with botanicals. The choice of botanicals and the method of incorporating them vary among distillers, contributing to the unique flavour profiles of different genevers.

Step 6: Blending: Depending on the style of genever being produced, the distilled spirit with botanicals may be blended with additional malt wine or a neutral spirit. This blending step is unique to genever production.

Step 7: Aging (optional): Some genevers, particularly oude and korenwijn styles, are aged in oak barrels for varying periods. This aging process can impart additional flavours, such as vanilla, caramel, or woody notes, and contribute to the overall complexity of the final product.

Step 8: Bottling: Once the desired flavour profile has been achieved, the genever is filtered, diluted to the desired alcohol content, usually between 35%-45% ABV, and bottled for sale and consumption.

Each step in the genever-making process contributes to the spirit’s unique characteristics, highlighting the craftsmanship and attention to details involved.

Genever Varieties and Their Taste Profiles

You might come across terms like moutwijn, graan genever, korenwijn, oude jenever, jonge genever, or gerijpt genever on a genever bottle. These refer to different types of genever, each with unique characteristics and flavour profiles. These variations result from differences in production methods, ingredients, and aging processes. Understanding these differences will help you appreciate the nuances of this spirit. Let’s delve into the details of each type:

Moutwijn (Malt wine): Moutwijn, or malt wine, is not necessarily a type or style of genever, it’s actually the base ingredient used in the production of genever. The malted grains, typically made from a combination of barley, rye, and corn, are mashed, fermented, and distilled to create malt wine, which imparts a rich malty flavour as the foundation for other genever types. Moutwijn genever has a high malt wine content, typically around 51-70%.

Korenwijn (Grain wine): A type of genever that is more refined with a higher percentage of malt wine (at least 51%) in its composition. It is distilled multiple times and usually aged in oak barrels for a period of time, resulting in a more complex and full-bodied spirit with a deeper flavour profile.

Graan genever (Grain genever): This style of genever emphasizes the use of grains in its production. To be labelled as graan genever, the alcohol used must be 100% from grain or a combination of malt wine and grain-based spirit. Therefore, this style of genever has a higher proportion of grain-based alcohol compared to other genever styles, giving it a prominent grain flavour and features a more robust character.

Oude genever (Old genever): Despite its name, “oude” does not refer to the age of the spirit but rather the traditional production method, also known as “old-style” genever. This traditional style of genever has a higher percentage of malt wine (usually around 15-50%) and is often aged in oak barrels, giving it a rich malty flavour profile, with noticeable botanical notes.

Jonge genever (Young genever): It is a more modern style of genever, containing a lower percentage of malt wine (less than 15%) and has a lighter, more neutral flavour profile, with a focus on the flavour of the botanicals used in the distillation process.

Gerijpt genever (Aged genever): This refers to genever that has been aged in wooden barrels, usually oak, for an extended period ranging from one to several years. The aging process imparts additional flavours, such as vanilla, caramel and wood, adding depth and complexity to the flavour profile.

Type Base Ingredients Flavour Profile Aging Process Characteristics
Moutwijn (Malt Wine) Barley, rye & corn Malty, grain-forward Not aged A high percentage of malt wine (min. 51%)
Korenwijn (Grain Wine) Barley, rye & corn Rich, complex, more botanicals Aged (optional) At least 51% malt wine, more refined taste
Graan (Grain) Genever Barley, rye & corn Clean, more grain-forward Not typically aged Produced primarily from grain-based alcohol
Oude (Old) Genever Barley, rye & corn Malty, smooth, slightly sweet Aged (optional) Min. 15% malt wine, more sugar, more botanicals
Jonge (Young) Genever Grains and/or molasses Light, clean, more neutral Not typically aged Max. 15% malt wine, less sugar, fewer botanicals
Geript (Aged) Genever Barley, rye & corn Rich, complex, oaky and smooth Aged in wooden barrels Matured for years, deeper flavours

Enjoying Genever: How to Drink It

To properly taste and evaluate genever, it’s recommended to serve it at room temperature or slightly chilled. Start by pouring a small amount of genever into a tasting glass, preferably a tulip-shaped glass which helps to concentrate the aroma.

  1. Examine the colour, clarity and viscosity: These can provide insights into the aging process and ingredients used.
  2. Smell the aroma: Gently swirl the glass to release the aroma compounds, which helps you assess the genever’s nose. Hold the glass to your nose and inhale gently to take in the aromas, identifying any dominant notes and the overall complexity of the scent.
  3. Take a sip: When sipping the genever, allow it to coat your entire mouth, noting the flavours and texture, along with any changes as the spirit moves across your palate.
  4. Evaluate the finish: The lingering aftertaste and sensations the genever leaves behind after swallowing.

Traditionally, genever is served neat in a tulip-shaped glass filled to the brim. This method requires the drinker to bend down and take the first sip without using hands to avoid spilling any of the precious spirit, known as a ‘kopstootje’, or ‘headbutt’.  A classic Dutch pairing involves taking a sip of genever followed by a sip of beer.

For a contemporary twist on the classic gin and tonic, try mixing genever with tonic water and garnishing with a lemon or orange twist. This works particularly well with jonge genever due to its lighter flavour profile. Additionally, genever is experiencing a renaissance in the world of bartending, with mixologists incorporating it into both classic and innovative cocktails. You might experiment with genever in well-known gin cocktails like the Negroni, Martini, or Tom Collins, or explore new, creative concoctions developed specifically for genever.

Another way to enjoy genever is by pairing it with Dutch snacks, cheese, or charcuterie, which can enhance the tasting experience. Bold, aged genevers can also stand up to more robust, flavourful dishes. Overall, the versatility of genever allows for a wide range of possibilities in terms of tasting and enjoyment, so feel free to experiment and discover your personal preferences.

Where to find genever in Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, is home to a variety of distilleries, bars, and liquor stores where you can explore an array of artisanal genevers. Here are 5 places worth visiting:

  1. Wynand Fockink: Established in 1679, this historic genever distillery and tasting room offers a variety of their own genevers, as well as other traditional Dutch spirits. Prices range from €20 to €45 per bottle.

Address: Pijlsteeg 31, 1012 HH Amsterdam

  1. A. van Wees – De Ooievaar Distillery (Proeflokaal A. van Wees): This historic distillery has been producing genever since the 19th century and is the last remaining active distillery in Amsterdam. They produce genever under several brands and offer tastings as well as bottles for sale. Prices range from €20 to €75 per bottle. You can book a tasting session on their website.

Address: Herengracht 319, 1016 AV Amsterdam

  1. Slijterij De Vreng: A family-owned liquor store with a rich legacy spanning over 300 years. They sell various aged genevers and liqueurs under their own brand, Oud Amsterdam. Prices range from €19 to €55 per bottle.

Address: Nieuwendijk 75, 1012MC Amsterdam

  1. De Drie Fleschjes: Known as “The Three Little Bottles”, this is one of the oldest tasting rooms in Amsterdam, dating back to 1650. Here you can sample a variety of genevers, including their house brand, in a traditional Dutch setting. Prices range from €20 to €50 per bottle.

Address: Gravenstraat 18, 1012 NM Amsterdam

  1. Huis van Bols: The world’s oldest distilled spirit brand and genever distillery, offers a guided tour of their distillery, followed by a tasting session where you can sample a genever cocktail and purchase genever from €25 to 75 per bottle. Be sure to book your ticket ahead to avoid queue.

Address: Paulus Potterstraat 12, 14, 16, 1071 CZ Amsterdam

In conclusion, genever is a fascinating spirit with a rich history and unique flavor profile. As you explore the world of genever, we hope this guide will help you appreciate its origins, production methods, and various styles. Whether you prefer to sip it neat or enjoy it in a creative cocktail, there’s no better way to experience the essence of Dutch culture than through a glass of genever.