Unearthing the past

19 February, 2018

Genever has been out of the mainstream loop for so long that gin has stepped in on the classic cocktails. But Hamish Smith finds grounds for optimism


IMAGINE YOU PRODUCE a spirit that has been in long-term decline. Your loyalists are mostly domestic and at the latter stages of life. When they’re not around anymore, your company won’t be far behind. This is where genever producers found themselves 10 years ago.

Genever, with around half a millennium of rich history, seemed like it was entering its final chapter. During the 20th century the Dutch spirit had become neutral – in flavour profile and ambition. Most brands’ malt wine content – the thing that sets it aside from gin – had dwindled and so had their marketing budgets. Some got out, diversifying into other areas such as gin and liqueurs. All that was left for those that remained was a dying domestic market and a few similarly shrinking export destinations with historical connection to the category (Argentina, West Africa and the Caribbean). In the big spirits markets in the most prosperous parts of the world, genever had almost ceased to exist. To make matters worse its closest relative, gin, was redefining itself as a key player in the cocktail renaissance, flaunting new botanicals and riding the wave of craft.


Yet today things look much more positive. Genever has been rediscovered in pockets and there’s cautious talk that the Dutch spirit could be making a comeback. So how did genever rouse itself from slumber?

It didn’t. A cocktail historian named David Wondrich sounded the alarm. In his now seminal book on classic cocktail culture, Imbibe! (2007), he proposed that many of the classic gin cocktails becoming popular among a new wave of bartenders were likely to have been made with genever. It has since been suggested that genever out-sold gin in the US by as much as 450-1 during the mid-1800s.

“Until Imbibe! came out nobody realised that genever was important to cocktail history, which around 2007 was beginning to get a lot of attention,” says Wondrich. “It was something I discovered in my research and it took a fair amount of digging and even more arguing and waving evidence around to convince people of it (many still don’t believe it, or don’t care). Before that, people – myself included – looked at that word ‘gin’ in books by Jerry Thomas and his contemporaries and assumed it meant London Dry or Old Tom. If genever had been better established, it might have picked up a little more quickly but, as it was, the effect of Imbibe! and the other deeper recovery efforts regarding cocktail history took a couple of years to really sink in. The launch of Bols genever in 2008 helped get that word out, at least in the top bars. But that, too, took a while.”

As Wondrich says, Bols was the first to react. “Genever was completely forgotten as an international product,” says Sandie van Doorne, Bols Genever director & PR. “It’s thanks to David Wondrich and his book. He and bartenders of the time told us they’d forgotten all about our history in classic cocktails. So we started to look and found that our history was ingrained in cocktails. But it took bartenders to remind us.”

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