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Genever

Definition

Genever (old Dutch or Flemish for “juniper”) is the closest descendent we can find today of the Gin originally made in the 1500’s and is often sweeter than traditional British Gin. Technically it is a juniper flavoured spirit (rather than an actual Gin) and is produced from varying amounts of “moutwijn” (malted wine) usually from barley but may also use other grains and malted grains such as wheat, corn, and/or rye. The fermented grains or “wine” is inefficiently distilled in traditional copper alembic pot stills (rather than efficient continuous column stills) to around 50% ABV. It is not unusual for this to then be distilled 2 to 4 times further, with varying flavoured distillations created and blended back together to create the final distillate.

The result is a traditionally amber colored, full bodied and flavoured spirit with a low alcoholic content (generally around 35-40% ABV or 70-80 proof) which, at this stage, is not too dissimilar to Whisky! However, like Gin it is also imparted with the usual secret botanicals including liquorice flavoured ones (not mandatory) and the all important juniper berries (mandatory). These botanicals do not necessarily take center stage like they do in Gin, particularly as the use of malted grain has a tendency to reduce the pungency of the juniper flavor. Some producers may over come this by adding juniper berries during the fermenting process, resulting in a highly flavored and more intense spirit, just like some versions of Brinjevec and Borovička. Surprisingly, there are no EU regulations regarding the production process of Genever, and instead it is left to standard traditions and individual producers to determine.

Geographical Designation

Genever is primarily produced in Holland (thus is also called Dutch, Hollands or even Schiedam Gin) and Belgium (where it is also known as Jenever or Genièvre). Under European law use of the name “Genever” or “Jenever” is only permitted if the spirit is made in Holland, Belgium, 2 specific provinces of France (where it is called Genièvre) plus 2 particular federal states of Germany (and often called Korngenever). These four countries make up an area historically referred to as the “Netherlands” or “Low Countries”. Within these countries there are some even greater geographical definitions to be found for Genever that may only be used when made in these locales:

  • Balegemse Jenever - from the village of Balegem, in East Flanders, Belgium.
  • Genièvre Flandres Artois - from parts of France.
  • Hasseltse Jenever - from the City of Hasselt, Belgium.
  • O'de Flander-Oost-Vlaamse Graanjenever - from the province of East Flanders, Belgium.
  • Ostfriesischer Korngenever - from parts of Germany.
  • Pékèt – from the Walloon area of Belgium where an historical language called Walloon is spoken - “Pékè” is the Walloon word for juniper. Although it is dying language Walloon is also spoken in some areas of France and even parts of Wisconsin in the USA.

Types of Genever

There are several types, or sub-categories, of Genever:

1. Jonge (Young) Genever

This first appeared around the 1900’s, with the advent of continuous column stills and the scarcity (and expensive cost) of malted grains, creating a new or young style of Genever. It is made with a maximum of 15% malted wine, includes neutral grain spirit and has no more than 10 grams (0.35 oz) of sugar added per liter (0.26 US gallons). The result is a dry, clear or lightly colored and medium bodied spirit not too dissimilar to a British style Dry Gin (something Genever traditionalists may still frown upon today). However, it is different because of the light maltiness and lower intensity of botanicals, and for some may feel like a hybrid of Vodka, London Dry Gin and White (unaged) Whisky. It has slowly but surely gained in popularity across the last two to three decades, particularly with newer generations, changes in law and the increasing popularity of Gin.

2. Oude (Old) Genever

This is the traditional or old style of Genever and is made with a minimum of 15% but up to 50% malted wine, with a maximum of 20 grams (0.7 oz) of sugar added per liter (0.26 US gallons) and must be a minimum of 35% ABV. Although not mandatory, it is often barrel aged for 1 to 3 years and is amber colored, aromatic, sweet and has an oily texture. This is the style most people think about when considering Genever and, although sweeter, is perhaps closer in style to Whisky. Many brands use the term “Zeer Oude” (meaning Very Old and is sometimes abbreviated to ZO) or “Extra Oude” to indicate it has been barrel aged.

3. Korenwijn (Corn Wine) Genever

Spelled in varying combinations of Korinwijn, Corenwijn or Corenwyn, this is the nearest to the 16th Century version of Genever. It is made with 51 – 70% malted barley wine (and no other type of grain), often distilled numerous times, may have up to 20 grams (0.7 oz) of sugar added per liter (0.26 US gallons) and must be a minimum of 38% ABV. It is aged in wooden casks no larger than 700-Liters (185 US gallons), for a minimum of 1 year (although this is not a legal requirement), with this barrel aging not uncommonly lasting for 5 to 10 years. It is darkly amber colored, very malty, full-bodied, sweet, rich and has a powerful flavor.

4. Graanjenever (Grain Genever)

Beside neutral grain spirit, Genever can also contain spirit made from sugar-based alcohol, a common ingredient used during the First World War when grain was scarce. Therefore to differentiate Genever distilled only from grain, it may be labeled as “Graanjenever” and is most commonly column distilled and made without any, or very little, malted grains. Although regarding Graanjenever as a separate category is debatable (e.g. frequently labeled as Jonge Graanjenever or Oude Graanjenever), it can be very different to other types of Genever, perhaps being closer to a full-bodied Jonge Genever than anything else (and thus may be labeled simply as Graanjenever).

5. Fruitjenever (Fruit Flavored Genever)

While fruit based versions of Genever may have been occasional additions to brands over the last 100-years, these have dramatically increased in popularity since the 1980’s, no doubt following the trend of flavored Vodka and the increasing sales in Jonge Genever (which incorporate flavors more readily). Today many producers have a growing range of flavoured Genevers, with lemon (Citroen) and Berry (Bessen) proving to be some of the most popular, and it is not unusual to see 10 to 20 different flavoured versions made for each brand including “cream” versions too.

History

The origin of Genever is thought to have come from a juniper-based tincture used as a medicine for a variety of ailments. This is generally accredited to German born scientist and Dutch resident Franciscus (Franz) de le Boë, a professor and faculty member at Leiden University from the middle 1600’s. However, by 1606 tax was already being being levied on Genever, taking it from a medicine to an alcoholic beverage (before Franz de le Boë was even born), strongly indicating the availability of Genever before this time. Interestingly there was another professor at Leiden University during the late 1500’s, called Sylvius de Bouve, and it seems he has a claim to being the originator of Genever (or Genova as he called it) selling this medicine back in 1595 – which better fits chronologically. It seems because they were both professors, at the same University (albeit 60-70 years apart) and with similar names that they have been interchangeably mixed up, with the name Franciscus Sylvius sometimes touted as the inventor of Genever!

Now, to make things a little more confusing, there appears to be several mentions of Genever back in the 1400’s and, possibly even earlier than this. A purported work from the 1200’s, entitled “Jenever in de Lage Landen” by Prof. Dr. Eric Van Schoonenberghe, suggests Genever may have originated in Flanders. However, it is possible these earlier references may be talking about Genever’s predecessor, Korenbrandewijn – a distilled barley wine without juniper or any other botanicals added - and it was perhaps juniper being added to this brought about the name Genever. It would seem feasible the development of Korenbrandewijn (with juniper), to include other botanicals, would have occurred during the 1500’s, following the influx of imported exotic spices by Dutch trading ships at this time. We may never be sure who invented Genever and humbly suggest any battles over its origins are best left between the Belgians and Dutch to resolve.

From the 1600’s through to the 1800’s Genever was heavily exported throughout Europe, the Middle East and the America’s, and is still popular in Argentina (although today it is domestically made rather than imported). By the 1800’s over 4 million gallons - 15.2 million liters or over 20 million bottles - of Genever was being exported each year. In North America, Genever was more popular than Gin from Britain, with an estimated 5 or 6 times more Genever imported into the USA than Gin. This preference for Genever was no doubt the result of the former colony declaring and gaining its independence from Britain, not to mention it being sought after by immigrants from the Netherlands coming to settlements such as New Amsterdam (New York City). It is believed many US based vintage cocktail recipe books from this era (e.g. Jerry Thomas’s “Bartenders Guide” of 1862) when referring to Gin really mean Genever (unless they specifically denote Old Tom Gin).

As the British developed their own styles of Gin - Old Tom, Plymouth and London Dry - they were exported across their empire, on a fleet now larger than the Dutch. This meant exports of Genever diminished, effectively reaching a full stop by the First World War. While prohibition stopped the export of Genever into the US, a further deathblow was dealt to Belgian Genever producers in the form of the Vandervelde Act. Lasting over 60 years, from 1919 to 1983, this Belgian period of prohibition restricted Genever purchases and banned the drinking of Genever in public places. Any Belgian Distillers who had managed to remain producing after the First World War, would now all but cease, many going “underground” to illegally continue making their Genever. Did you know? Belgian brewers during this prohibition time increased their alcohol content, apparently to console Genever drinkers, and these now “trademark” higher-level ABV Beers still remain today.

Check out this excellent 20-minute video made in Holland but spoken in English, showing how Genever is made in this historically strong country: 

Drinking Genever

Genevers have a pleasant creamy mouth feel, cereal like flavor and are classically served “straight up” (neat) and at room temperature (Oude and Korenwijn), chilled or from the freezer (Jonge and Graanjenever). Genevers are traditionally accompanied with a salt dried green herring, although today they are more likely to be sold as a chaser with beer (lager) - in Holland this is known as a “kopstoot” (or headbutt) and in Belgium it is called a “duikboot” (or submarine)! Traditionally Genever is sold in clay jugs rather than glass bottles, and this practice continues although some appear in bottles today.

Genever may be the precursor to Gin and is even referred to as a “Proto-Gin”, but it does not perform the same way as a classic London Dry Gin and is not always a great mix with tonic water or dry Vermouth. This generally precludes two of the most popular Gin cocktails, G&T’s and Martini’s, from being made with Genever. It is because of this, many people can be “wrong-footed” by this spirit, but this is easily corrected with some informed choices:

Jonge, Graanjenever and fruitjenever can generally be mixed with lighter soda’s/carbonated drinks (e.g. soda water, lemonade etc.) and fruit juices. Also try the following cocktails: Americano, Bramble, Gin Crusta, Gin Daisy, Gin Fizz, Holland House, John Collins (a Tom Collins made with Genever) or a Martinez.

Oude and Korenwijn can generally be mixed with stronger soda’s/carbonated drinks (e.g. ginger ale, ginger beer, cola etc). Also try the following cocktails: Bronx, Genever Mule (replacing the Vodka in a Moscow Mule), Hanky-Panky, Martinez, Mud and Sand or a Negroni. Another alternative, and just like Barrel Aged Gins, is to think of these types of Genevers as Whisky, and use them in traditional Whisky based cocktails like the: Boulevardier, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, Rob Roy etc.

Key Producers & Brands of Genever

With over 500 different Genvers available it is difficult to separate out a few producers of note. However, the following are some of the better-known distillers, who account for around a quarter of all Genevers on the market today.

A.Van Wees Distillery de Ooievaar – founded in 1782, they are one of the most traditional Dutch producers of Genever, having delivered their spirit to commercial clients in wooden casks right up until the 1970’s. With over 20 different versions, several use the term “Roggen” to differentiate their Genever made with malted rye grain.

Bruggeman Distilleries – Established in 1884 by Pieter Bruggeman in Belgium, although distillation wasn’t undertaken until 1924, with a grain distillery built in 1946. In 2011 they acquired Smeets (another Belgian distiller), raising their portfolio to over 30 different Genevers.

De Kuyer Royal Distilleries - Established in 1695 by Petrus De Kuyper in Holland. In 1752 they moved into the distillation and production of Genever and for many years only had one Genever. The 1900’s saw them branch out and today are best known for their multitude of flavored liqueurs, although they do have a hand full of Genevers too. In the 1990’s they acquired Rutte & Zn (Son), established by Simon Rutte in 1872 ,it has been handed down from Father to Son until the death of John Rutte (the last descendent). With over a handful of different types of Genever these are handcrafted artisanal creations from a building with a café in front and a distillery out back, making it the smallest distillery in Holland.

Filliers - Established in 1880 by Kamiel Filliers, it is now in the hands of the 5th generation of this Belgian based family distillery. Although traditionally Genever producers, with over 20 different variations (including the Wortegemsen brand), recently they have branched out and now have a range of Gin based around the Filliers Dry Gin 28 brand.

Hooghoudt Distillery – founded in 1888 by Hero Jan Hooghoudt, this Dutch based family distillery produces over a dozen different Genevers.

House of Herman Jansen - this company from Holland dates back to 1777 and is still run by the founding family. The company was previously called UTO Netherlands, and in 2011 it was changed to better represent the family name. They produce a range of Genevers under the brand Notaris and also make Bobby’s Dry Gin.

J. Boomsma’s Distillery (including Blankenheym) - has been operating in Holland for over 100 years. They have over 20 different versions and today the company is run by the 5th generation of the family. 

Lucas Bols – this Dutch company was founded by Lucas Bols in 1575, making it is the oldest distillery in Holland. They started producing Genever in 1664 and have the oldest surviving brand in the world. Today with the brands Bols, Bokma, Damrak and Henkes they have over 30 variations, giving them the largest number of Genevers made by one company.

Nolet Distillery - founded in Holland by Joannes Nolet in 1691 and today, although owned by Diageo, the company is run by Carolus Nolet the 10th generation of the family. The brand Ketel One is perhaps better known for it’s Vodka but it also includes several versions of Genever too, and is named after their original copper pot test still “Distilleerketel No.1”. Nolets also use their name for a brand of Gin they produce, including their Nolet’s Reserve which at $700 a bottle is touted as the most expensive Gin in the world. 

Onder De Boompjes – This Dutch based company is the second oldest in the country and was established in 1658. They produce a handful of Genevers and also a London dry Gin called Sylvius, referring to the believed inventor of Genever. 

Stokerij De Moor Distillery - founded in 1910 by Frans De Moor and located on the East-Flemish side of Belgium, it is the country’s smallest grain distillery. With a handful of different Genevers, the newer 4th and 5th generations of the family in 2010 produced a new Genever brand named Diep 9, and a Genever style Gin known as FG-23 in 2012 (see below). 

Wenneker Distilleries - founded in Holland by Hendrick Steeman in 1693, the company was obtained by Joannes Wenneker in 1812, and then by Johannes Cornelis Van der Tuijn in 1903. Today it is run by the fourth generation of the Van der Tuijn family and has a range of over 20 Genever versions including Olifant and their Olifant Gin (previously owned by J.J Melchers). 

Zuidam Distillery - Established in 1975 by Fred van Zuidam, this small Dutch based business is run by 2nd generation family members. They produce over half a dozen Genevers, plus a range of Gin under the Dutch Courage brand. 

A Genever By Any Other Name?

As mentioned above, in Europe the name Genever (plus those of Jenever and Genièvre) may only be applied to juniper flavoured spirit made within a designated geographical region. In the same way a sparkling wine is not Champagne or a Brandy is not Cognac unless it has been made within specific geographic designations, then it is technically incorrect to call it Genever if made outside of it’s defined location. However, beyond Europe these restrictions do not always apply and so, there are some producers who use the term Genever on their products. Regardless of whatever objections there may be legally (or even morally), it is difficult to ignore or discount them entirely, with some close to Genever in style and some (despite the name) stretching the definition:

Two brothers, Otto & Karl Peters, founded Peters Hnos Distillers in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1867. They started with the import of Genever from Holland but when Genever exports dried up they had to begin distilling their own. Their domestic brand called Llave (Spanish for “Wrench” or “Key”) is made as a Gin (Ginebra) and a Genever - to the same process and standards as Genever from Holland, and certainly exhibits all the characteristics of a Genever!

At the other end of the spectrum is a Genever made by the Bass & Flinders Distillery, in Victoria, Australia. Launched in 2013 it isn’t what the name suggests - rather than grain or malted grain the base spirit is made from grapes (Viognier); plus the taste does indicate some sweetness but it still remains very dry, while even the driest Genever (Jonge) offers a little more sweetness than this. This is not to be disparaging to these wonderful distillers and their good quality drinks, but highlights how choosing a name can create a perceived imbalance!

Genever USA

In recent times the United States has, with its burgeoning craft spirits scene, brought forth a small crowd of producers taken to using the term Genever (or implying its usage with their spelling choices):

  1. Genevieve was launched in 2008 by Anchor Distilling from California. It is made with a base of malted barley, rye and wheat, and distilled in a copper pot still, using the same botanicals as their Junipero Gin. This tastes like Genever although it does have some heat, no doubt from its 47.3% ABV which is high for a Genever.
  2. Corsair Distillery in Tennessee launched a Genever made with malted barley in 2010. It has all the attributes of a Genever but with perhaps a little more lemon and a higher amount of alcohol (44% ABV) than might be expected from a strongly traditional Genever.
  3. In 2012 Oregon Spirits Distillers (in Oregon) released their Merrylegs Genever. Made from a base of malted barley it has gone on to win numerous awards including Gold and Double Gold Medals in various competitions. It is Genever-esque and clearly a fine spirit that many enjoy but for us (and we’re being picky here), by comparison to a traditional European Genever the malted barley is somewhat subdued and the liquorice flavor a little excessive.
  4. Wigle Ginever from family run Pittsburg Distilling Co. in Pennsylvania was launched in 2012. Made from a base of rye, wheat and malted barley in a copper pot still, it is in essence a rye whisky that has been vapor infused with botanicals. They have been careful not to say it is a Genever (hence the spelling) and we find it is less like a Gin and more like a whisky Genever, while intense at 47% ABV. In 2014 they launched a barrel rested version (using White Ash) and in 2015 another version from barrels previously used to age barley wine – both of which we’d love to try.
  5. The world renowned Few Spirits from Illinois have exclusively made three versions of Genever (unaged, Jonge and oude) for the Publican Restaurant in Chicago, called Publican Genever. Made from several malts and launched at the end of 2014 we have yet to try this ourselves so can offer no tasting notes!

Sure, these examples of Genever made outside of the officially recognized area are not technically Genevers, but they often come close to the “real thing”. While, these products are overt in their acknowledgement to Genever, there are other things “a-rye” although “barley” mentioned…

Covert Genever or Hybrid?

There are Gins being made that have a remarkable resemblance to Genever although, and perhaps not without good reason, are still referred to as Gins and certainly not Genever. For some, this may be simply because using the term Genever may not be permitted (i.e. within Europe but not within the designated geographical boundaries to use the term), while for others using the term may be a hard marketing sale (i.e. consumers may not even know what it is and therefore hesitant to purchase). With this background in mind, maybe there are Genevers out there, “hiding” under the name of Gin.

With the rise in numbers of craft distilleries around the world, many have been experimenting with fermentable ingredients to create their base spirit, not to mention the methodology and distilling equipment employed. This has resulted in some Gins being produced (perhaps even unconsciously) that have partial attributes of Genever and might be better described as Genever Hybrids or Malty Gins. With such variations upon a theme it is difficult, without an intimate knowledge of the distillation process, for consumers to identify a Gin that is a Genever (or even vice versa!). Without this the best to hope for is a little knowledge coupled with taste experience, to identify Gins with a Genever like style or feel. The following examples may not use the term Genever, and may not even be made the same way as Genever, however they could be described as Genever style Gins:

  • Bullwheel Gin from Deerhammer Distilling Company, Colorado, USA.
  • Chief Gowanus Gin from New York Distilling Company, New York, USA.
  • Cotswolds 1616 Gin from Cotswolds Distillery, England, UK.    
  • FG-23 (Flemish Gin Twenty Three) from Stokerij De Moor Distillery, Belgium.
  • Gilt Gin from Strathleven Distillers, Scotland, UK.
  • Glorious Gin from Breuckelen Distilling, New York, USA.
  • Ingenium Gin from New England Distilling, Maine, USA.
  • Old No. 176 Gin & their Barrel Aged version from Qunicy Street Distillery, Illinois, USA.
  • Ransom Dry & Old Tom Gins from Ransom Wines & Spirits, Oregon, USA.
  • Seraph Gin from Central City Distillers, British Columbia, Canada.
  • True Born Gin The Belgin Wheat Act from Sons of Liberty Spirits Co., Rhode Island, USA.
  • Vir Gin from Copper Fox Distillery, Virginia, USA.
  • VL92 Gin from the Van Toor Distillery, Vlaardingen, Holland. 

Genever Style?

Once upon a time in The Netherlands, Genever was Genever. This was taken and transformed by the British into Old Tom Gin, leading to further developments including London Dry Gin. By this time, Gin was Gin and Genever was Genever, and never the twain shall meet.

For traditionalists, this state of affairs is how it should be and for many years this is how it has been. It is understandable some may frown when they hear Genever described as “Gin” or even “Gin-like” because it is far enough removed from its cousin, to be a category all to itself. So, what is to be made of these Genever style Gins found on the market today? Are they Gins, are they Genevers or are they hideous monsters causing a blasphemous blight upon the face of the earth? Rather than being caught up in what to call them, surely it is better to ask, “Do I like them?”

The Neutral Grain Spirit (NGS) used to create Vodka and Gin has been exactly as the name suggests – neutral. However, this is not exactly true and nuances within a NGS are discernable to the trained and experienced palate, and the stronger and more discernable it is the less neutral it becomes. This is what we have today, Gins being made from a base spirit, which is less than neutral giving it an air of Genever even though it isn’t made the same way as a Genever (or in the defined geographical designation). The result is we don’t know what to call them and, as we constantly discover in the world of Gin, “labels” can sometimes be tenuous and misleading to the consumer. Even if the term “Genever” or “Genever style” is used, it still leaves us questioning if is it more like Genever or more like Gin?

The Future

Genever is experiencing a revival, not just within its home countries but also around the world as many people discover or rediscover this juniper flavored spirit. To what extent this revival gains momentum is a little too early to judge, although there is clearly interest. As with many other examples it may prove to be in the hands of brand ambassadors, bartenders, the media and marketing approaches by the producers themselves to help consumers understand and appreciate Genever.

In the meantime small-scale distillers continue to experiment with some novel, interesting and often wonderful tasting Genever style Gins. Genevieve from Anchor Distilling is the longest running brand in this style and from one of the larger craft producers too. Maybe a large-scale distiller will follow suit to cement some level of acceptance within the industry, like they have with Barrel Aged Gins.

One thing is for sure: malty flavored Genever and Gins have arrived. Love them or hate them, how hard and fast they sell will ultimately determine how long they stay and how many more appear in the future. If you have yet to try a Genever a good place to start is with Lucas Bols and their Genever or Barrel Aged Genever – both are good because price, quality and availability are evenly matched. This should provide a good general balance to compare against anything else you might try…more Genever or maybe some Genever style Gin.

Music


"Genever" by Madreselva:

Music to listen to while you work out what Genever to buy and where from.



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