Unearthing the past

19 February, 2018

By 2008 the cocktail renaissance was well underway and gin – a much bigger category – had come to dominate the classic cocktail space too. It seems inexplicable that in the modern age a country of distillers could have such collective amnesia, but perhaps two world wars and changes in ownership and direction offer some mitigation.

Rutte, which has been owned by De Kuyper since 2011 and now benefits from its global distribution, launched on the international market two years ago and is another brand catching up on its past. “I’ve since spent weeks in the attics searching,” says Myriam Hendrickx, master distiller at Rutte, which produces Old Simon for export markets. Hendrickx didn’t have the benefit of a proper handover from the previous Rutte distiller, who died shortly before she took the reins in 2003. “We now know a lot about our history but we don’t know it all. For instance, I don’t know if Rutte was ever distributed to the US.”

Now there are half a dozen genever brands closing in on the cocktail opportunity. But for a long while there, for most bartenders, Bols Genever was the only show in town. Its decision to produce an oude genever – high in malt-wine and truer to the original style – turned out to be the right one. It is the speciality styles, though still niche, which are providing the growth to what is, by numbers at least, an ailing category.


Bols Genever is now exported in three recipes – Bols Genever, Bols Barrel Aged and 100% Malt Spirit – and is the number one export brand. “We make sure we are in all the cocktail cities in the world – New York, London, Hong Kong, Paris, and cities in Germany,” says Van Doorne. In truth, the genever market has been an easy market to dominate and, if anything, Bols wants more competition, not less. “It’s encouraging that others are starting to export,” says van Doorne.

De Kuyper and Bols, two giants of Dutch distilling, are not known for seeing eye to eye, but when it comes to genever, they share the same vision: build a category. “It’s great for us that Bols started 10 years ago and has done such a good job – I applaud their work,” says Hendrickx. “For years bartenders have almost only known Bols, but now they can discover other styles. This is important for the category. When there are 10 brands on the market it becomes a proper category.”

So, has this small but burgeoning export opportunity made a difference to overall genever sales? According to IWSR data, the overall market shrunk 35% from 2006-2015, leaving it at 1.9m 9-litre cases. The Netherlands, where two-thirds of genever is consumed, is in historical decline (-37% from 2006-2015). The rest of the Benelux is the category’s second largest market with a share of 21% and has also been steadily shrinking – 25% over the 10-year period. In what seems a quirk of history, Argentina is the third-largest market, as genever has long been a feature of Gaucho culture. Here, genever is 39% down over the 10-year period.

So what’s all this optimism about? There are small pockets of growth, but they are in the right areas – the trendsetting cocktail markets. In 2015, the UK imported around 750 cases, a 50% increase over the 10 years The US imported 5,500 cases in 2015, according to IWSR, an increase of 450% from 2006-2015. According to Philip Duff of new brand Old Duff Genever, sales in the US are now rapidly growing. “Old Duff is on course to sell 1,000 9-litre cases in its first 12 months, so it’s exciting times in the US. If we use craft spirits sales increases (+27% in both value and volume) as a proxy for cocktail bar sales and the increase in the number of cocktail bars, we are in a rising market.”

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