The title of this post doesn’t promise anything informative: Genever is genever. Yet when I hear people explain what genever is, they usually say something like “Genever is Dutch gin.” Or a kind of gin they drink in Holland. Or a malty style of gin that was popular in the United States before London dry took over. Gin gin gin gin gin. Look, I enjoy gin too — the gin shelf in my apartment is filled to overflowing — but genever is a different thing. Genever is genever. Labels are admittedly somewhat arbitrary, but I’d like to persuade you that there are good reasons to think of genever as its own distinct category of spirits.
I should first disclose that I’m not a disinterested party on this matter. I work for the Dutch distillery Lucas Bols and my job largely consists of encouraging people to drink more genever. It’s a better pitch for me to walk into a bar and say, “You should carry at least one genever” than it is to say, “You should carry an additional gin, and it should be this unusual Dutch one.” However that’s not the only reason I’m urging this change in classification. The spirit is maltier and less botanical than gin and it doesn’t mix in the same way. Calling genever a type of gin creates confusion.
Consider a typical consumer. He walks into a liquor store, sees a bottle of genever in the gin section, and is intrigued enough to buy it. He takes it home and puts it in his favorite gin drink, a Gin and Tonic. This is a classic pairing for a London dry. But genever and tonic? Eh, not so much. The bottle gets tucked away and forgotten.
Or consider a bartender who finds genever added to the gin section of his employer’s menu. He makes a Martini with it. Is that going to make him enthusiastic about genever? Probably not.
Both of these drinks are excellent with gin. They’re not ideally suited to genever. It’s no fault of the consumer or the bartender that the cocktails didn’t turn out as they’d hoped: They were told genever was gin, so they tried mixing it in absolutely standard gin drinks. They were given the wrong expectations about the product. If they knew what genever is actually like and how to use it, that disappointment could have been avoided. The first step in that education is getting them to think of genever as genever rather than as a kind of gin.
Here’s an analogy I sometimes use to explain my work with Lucas Bols. Imagine that your job was to promote tequila before many people in the United States had any idea what tequila was. You might tell them it’s sort of like rum, produced in the southern latitudes and with an affinity for mixing with lime and other citrus. Or you might tell them it’s like whiskey or brandy, aged in barrels and very nice to sip neat. Neither of these descriptions is completely accurate, but they give consumers a starting point for enjoying the spirit.
In fact, that is pretty close to how some Americans first encountered tequila. Bottles arrived in the American market labeled “Mexican Whiskey.” You can see these in the Sauza Family Museum in Tequila or in this photo. It’s an interesting snapshot of how an unknown spirit reached many consumers in the guise of something more familiar. (The labeling regulations didn’t get worked out until the 1970s.)
When we encounter a new spirit, our impulse is to understand it by reference to spirits we already know. This is perfectly sensible. But eventually, if we really want to know a spirit, we need to understand it on its own terms. For tequila, we need to know about agave, not grain. Tequila would have never thrived the way it has in the American market if it was forever viewed through the lens of whiskey, if its essential “agave-ness” were never allowed to shine through.
Genever today is in a similar position to those early tequilas. As genever re-entered the American market a few years ago, people needed an existing spirit to compare it to. They needed a section of their menu or their liquor store to put it in. Seizing on the etymology and botanicals it shares with gin, they reasonably grouped the two together. My view is that this classification misses the essence of the spirit, that genever is to “Dutch gin” as tequila is to “Mexican whiskey.” (Above: A photo I took at a liquor store in Amsterdam. There’s a lot of genever and it gets it own shelf!)
So if genever is not gin, what is it? The spirits do have one thing in common: They are both flavored with juniper berries. Early Dutch distillers sold spirits flavored with juniper and other botanicals for their alleged medicinal qualities. The spirits were produced in pot stills, which retain much of the character of the grain, producing a product that was essentially whiskey with botanicals added. It was called genever, from jeneverbes, the Dutch word for juniper. English speakers shortened this to gin.
With the invention of the column still in the nineteenth century, Dutch genever and English gin began to diverge in style. The English went for the new, purer spirit, essentially making botanical flavored vodka. The Dutch stuck with their malty genever. To distinguish between the two, English speakers called the latter “Holland’s gin.” It was a useful distinction until the triple blow of changing tastes, Prohibition, and World War II reduced genever’s prominence in the American market.
Thus gin evolved from genever, but that doesn’t mean that we should declare genever a kind of gin any more than we should think of the blues as just a proto-form of rock and roll. Gin and genever are “about” different things. Gin is primarily about botanicals. If you line up three different gins and want to describe the differences among them, you’re going to talk mostly about their botanical profiles. This one has very assertive juniper, this one is more floral, this one has a licorice note, etc.
Genever is partly about botanicals, but it’s also about the malty base spirit. As agave is to tequila, this maltwine (moutwijn) is to genever. When tasting different genevers, the differences in maltwine and the effects of barrel ageing are at least as important as the botanicals, often even more important.
As I write this I am sipping on a glass of the Bols 10 year old Corenwyn, one of the maltier styles of genever. There is juniper in it, but its presence isn’t obvious in either taste or aroma. The flavor is of grain mellowed by a decade of barrel ageing. It’s very good neat. If I had to compare it to another popular spirit category, I’d undoubtedly choose whiskey over gin. However it’s not quite that either. The botanicals are there, and they do make a difference.
This particular bottling isn’t currently available in the states, but aged genevers are starting to appear. A few months ago Bols introduced Bols Barrel Aged Genever, which is aged for a minimum of one and a half years in oak. It’s more than 50% maltwine, as is the original Bols Genever. As these spirits arrive in the market, the classification of genever as a type of gin is going to become more and more inapt.
Take the 10 year old bottle I mentioned. Let’s say you went to Amsterdam and brought a bottle back for your bar. You could insist, if you like, that any spirit that has so much as kissed a juniper berry counts as gin. But you would have to explain that this is a very strange gin that’s made mostly from a whiskey-like grain distillate, that’s aged for years in oak barrels, that doesn’t really taste like juniper at all, and that’s good in cocktails but also very nice on its own with no chilling or dilution. You could say all that. Or you could say, “genever is genever.”
I think the latter approach is simpler and more sensible. Take a couple examples from the press this week. Today at The Atlantic Clay Risen has a good article about barrel aged gins:
My favorite so far (and the most widely available) is Lucas Bols’s Barrel-Aged Genever. Unlike most gins available in the United States, Bols and other Dutch gins, or genevers, use a maltwine base, a combination of corn, rye, and wheat. They are also less intensely distilled, and usually through pot, rather than column, stills, producing a robust whiskey-like quaff, which connoisseurs prefer to drink chilled and neat. It’s thick, like a liqueur; you wouldn’t think to mix it with tonic for a summer-day quencher.
I’m delighted that he enjoys our product, but that’s a lot of words to explain how unlike gin our gin is! The classification is straining at the seams.
Here’s another from The Oregonian, which on Tuesday published its annual list of “100 Things We Love.” Kopstootje Biere, our collaboration with Portland’s Upright Brewery to create a beer designed specifically to pair with Bols Genever, made the list. That makes me very happy. Yet here’s how they introduced it: “A traditional Dutch ceremony consisting of genever, a type of gin, with a beer back.” If you know about genever, or especially if you tried this pairing last year, you know that this is a tasty combination. But to everyone else, a glass of gin with a beer on the side probably doesn’t sound very appealing. Even if you like gin, you don’t ever drink it like that.
So let’s stop saying that genever is gin. If someone asks what genever is, say “genever is genever.” From there you can explain how the spirit is made, where it comes from, and what it tastes like. Maybe after that talk about its relation to gin. Gin is wonderful and its evolution is a neat story, but it is not the story of genever.
If you’ve read this far, the least I can do is offer you a cocktail. At the beginning of this post I mentioned that putting genever in gin cocktails doesn’t always work. Sometimes it does; I’ve had delicious twists on the French 75 and the Corpse Reviver #2, to name a couple. However at other times it makes a better stand-in for whiskey and substituting genever in your favorite whiskey cocktails is a promising way of coming up with new drinks.
This one is the latest addition to our menu at Metrovino, featuring Bols Barrel Aged Genever. It’s a fairly straightforward adaptation of one of my favorite rye cocktails, The Remember the Maine. In keeping with the sunken ship theme, it’s named the Flying Hart (Vliegenthart), after a notable Dutch shipwreck.
2 oz Bols Barrel Aged Genever
1 oz sweet vermouth (Dolin)
1/4 oz cherry Heering
2 dashes Brooklyn Hemispherical fig bitters
1 dash absinthe
Stir, serve up, and garnish with a cherry. Prost!