Genever: Beyond Convention

06 August, 2013
Genever barrels

Lucy Britner looks into the growing phenomenon of the spirit that’s definitely not gin

FOR MANY OUTSIDE of Belgium and The Netherlands, genever (or jenever – either is correct) is an enigma. Yes, it’s the forerunner to gin but it’s unpleasant with tonic. It takes its name from juniper but it doesn’t really work in gin cocktails. Those who make it are not blessed with the budgets of the multinationals and the message of genever feels a little lost. But there is plenty to talk about and those who have begun to worship at the altar of genever are fanatics. 

Perhaps drinks network Taste & Flavour’s founder Mark Ridgewell hits the nail on the head when he describes it as “bridging the gap between light and dark spirits”. 

In fact, the animated Patrick van Zuidam, master distiller of The Netherlands’ Zuidam Distillery, is so adamant that it doesn’t work with tonic that he jokingly (we hope) challenges people to avoid it on pain of death. 

He says: “Imposing a death penalty on everybody who tries to make a Gin & Tonic or a Martini with genever would be helpful. Genever does NOT mix well with tonic and it is NOT a gin. Don’t use it as a gin or you’ll be disappointed. Don’t mix it with tonic – you can mix young genever with coke or fruit juice or virtually any soft drink but tonic.

“Furthermore, aged genevers shine when drunk neat like a whisky or you can use them to make extraordinary Manhattans or Old-Fashioneds.”

So is gin’s comparison to genever unfair? Well not really. It’s a bit like telling a child it looks like one of their parents – they might not like it but there’s no getting away from it. There’s also no getting away from the differences between the two. 

Ben Belmans from Ben’s Bar in Antwerp, Belgium, is one of the world’s leading experts on genever – definitely a fanatic. He regularly speaks on the subject and he has written a comprehensive history of the category. He says the difference came with the invention of the column still in the 19th century. 

“Before the invention of the column still, genever and gin were basically pretty much the same – the sweetness of Old Tom was probably due to the moutwijn. Genever has it, gin has not.” Moutwijn translates as malt wine and it’s the spirit obtained from the distillation of malted barley and other cereals in a pot still. “It is the heart of most genevers and is the fundamental difference with gin, although it is not required by law – some genevers have very little moutwijn,” adds Belmans. 

New products

The excitement around genever does not rest solely in its production and history. At Amsterdam-based Bols, genever is very much on the agenda in the meeting room – and in the distillery. New strategies are being discussed and new products have been developed. 

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