Your Ultimate Guide to Genever (First Lesson: It’s Not Gin)

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DeBorgen Distillery

Perhaps you’ve seen a silvery bottle of Bols Genever sitting on a back bar or liquor store and wondered what it was. Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s “like gin, but different.” Yes and no. Long popular in The Netherlands and Belgium, genever — also known as geneva, genievre, jenever, Holland gin, or Dutch gin — is essentially a distilled malted spirit (something like an unaged Scotch) often blended with grain neutral spirit, then infused or further distilled with various herbs and spices, including a healthy amount of juniper, like gin. It can be clear, lightly aged, or aged in oak for several years.

It was genever that British soldiers “discovered” when fighting alongside the Dutch in the late 1500s (it served both medicinal and recreational functions, and provide the term “Dutch courage,” as it was swigged right before battle). This soon led to the creation of juniper-driven gin.

Genever, though, is a different beast. It’s a malty, full-bodied spirit with a nutty, earthy quality. Fans of mezcals or smokey Islay Scotch whiskies might readily embrace the uniqueness of genever. For others, it can be an acquired taste — one totally worth acquiring.

The best way to try something new is to just dive in, and it’s what the Dutch do traditionally: head down random alleys in Amsterdam, ask where the “kopstoot” (“headbutt”) bars are, and eventually someone will direct you to where you want to be. Here you’ll find thirsty young Dutch folks standing at the bar with their hands behind their backs. In front of them: small, flower-shaped glasses filled to the brim with genever and a bottle of beer. Join in the fun: bend over and sip the genever, hands free, until you need to pick it up. Chase with beer.

In America, you’ll also find genever blended into cocktails, often as a rinse or float. Increasingly, bartenders are playing with the spirit as a replacement for gin or whisky in cocktails. There is a claim by the genever brands that the Martinez (see below), a 19th century precursor of sorts to the martini, originally incorporated the Dutch malt wine spirit instead of English gin. Others, like drinks historian David Wondrich, question the assertion. Either way, the stuff tastes great in mixed drinks — a valid replacement for gin, earthy light rums, or even whisky.

As with most spirits, there are a handful of styles. Jong (young) is a generally milder blend of malt wine and infused grain neutral spirits, and a good introduction to the category. Oud (old) is the more traditional, funkier style, with a higher malt wine content, often made in a pot still. It has a little more kick to it. Korenwijn (corn/grain wine) is not officially a genever, though many Dutch genever producers make a korenwijn. It has a high malt wine content, but isn’t required to contain botanicals. Any of these styles can be barrel aged.

You may also see “100-percent Malt Wine,” an increasingly popular by unofficial category which revives an OG style of production, a gloriously funky drink minus any grain neutral spirit. In the U.S., there are two brands promoting these new expressions: Bols (the most well-known genever brand in America and one of the largest in Europe) and Old Duff, a new label from bartender/brand ambassador Philip Duff.

“One-hundred-percent malt wine outsold English gin in the U.S. 450-to-one during the 19th century,” claims Duff. He says Old Duff 100-percent Malt Wine bears the Seal of Schiedam, a legal guarantee that it is made in Holland, according to exacting 1902 ordinances (requiring distillation in pot stills, no grain neutral spirit, no coloring, or no added sugars). Of the three Dutch brands that currently bear that seal, Old Duff is the only one available in the U.S., according to its owner.

Ready to dive into genever? There are currently only a handful of brands on the U.S. market, but they provide a wide range of options:

Bols

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Introduced into the U.S. in 2008, what’s now called the 1820 Recipe is mostly likely what you’ve seen or had if you’ve seen or had genever. It’s a 60-percent malt spirit recipe with a mash bill of corn, rye, wheat, and a touch of barley. It’s then blended with juniper and herbs distillates. There’s also a barrel-aged version.

This year, the company released its 100-percent Malt Spirit, which it says is the original Bols recipe dating back to 1664, and is a bigger, funkier drink. The mash is the same as are the initial fermentation and distillation processes, but about 30 percent of the malt spirit is distilled a fourth time. Part of that is then distilled over juniper berries in a pot still to be added back into the final product. There is no neutral grain spirit or herb spirit.

De Borgen

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New to the U.S. (expected to start appearing on shelves in June 2018), the craft label from Hooghoudt has three expressions landing on our shores, reflecting different historic styles of genever. New Style is closest to a gin, with a mild, malty note and a noticeable juniper influence (along with hints of orange-apple, which is, of course … an apple). Old Style, a malt spirit aged in oak for 17 years, reflects the genevers of the 1700s with a juniper-forward approach. You’re getting closer to whisky territory here. De Borgen Malt Genever, while not 100-percent malt, still aims to capture the full-bodied, high-malt content, juniper-influenced interpretation popular 500 years ago. It is finished in sherry casks for a fresh, herbaceous softness. Though the logo is slightly cubic, it turns out that Dutch “borgs” were not an alien collective intent on assimilation, but rather a solid stone house from the 13th century.

Rutte

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Bottled at a tiny, tiny distillery on the island of Dordrecht by master blender Myriam Hendrickx, the brand offers both a mild, malty genever and a refreshing celery gin. In addition to the juniper and other traditional botanicals, Rutte includes distilled walnut and hazelnut components in its Old Simon genever, which round and soften the spirit, adding a distinctive nuttiness.  

Old Duff

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Created by former bartender, longtime Holland resident, and passionate genever fan Philip Duff (who also helped launch Bols Genever in the U.S.), this new, tiny brand brings three interesting plays to the game. First, its 100-percent malt wine expression hit the states before Bols. Second, $1 from each bottle sold (a big chunk for a small brand) goes to a charity that helps bartenders in need, as well as regions of the U.S. damaged by floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Third, every drop of the malt wine component for the Genever and Genever Single Malt expressions is fermented, distilled, and bottled in Holland. According to Duff, almost all the larger brands (including those cited above), source their malt wine from a facility in Belgium, then complete the process in-house. “Every genever you’ve tasted that says some variation of ‘Made in Holland’ isn’t,” he says. “Instead, they source the distilled malt wine, then blend them with neutral spirits and, where relevant, flavorings. It may be legal, but it’s the farthest thing from transparent you can imagine.”

Barrel-Finished Genevieve Gin

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A gin made in a genever style from Hotaling & Co (formerly Anchor Distilling) gets a makeover this year. Double-distilled in a small copper pot still — and featuring a malted mash of wheat, barley, and rye — the goal was to recreate an ould genever style (can’t call it genever, though, outside of Holland and a few other European locations). The twist? The funky, earthy spirit is aged 33 months in ex-Old Potrero straight rye whiskey barrels. The barrel aging adds a little color, and softens and rounds the spirit into something crossing over between the world of gin and that of whiskey. Barrel-Finished Genevieve Gin is excellent as a sipping spirit neat or over ice.

Scapegrace Gin

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This is not a genever, and it’s not trying to be, but these intriguing gin expressions out of New Zealand are packaged in black-tinted bottles inspired by 19th century genevers. According to a release from Rogue Society Distilling Co, the company that markets the gin, the black packaging “protects the liquid inside and is a nod to gin’s somewhat murky history over the years.” Featuring all the usual botanicals (juniper, lemon and orange peel, coriander seeds, angelica root, etc.), this is a tasty gin for martinis and French 75s. Scapegrace Gold is a higher-proof navy strength gin, and counts dried tangerine among its botanicals.

Now, to put that new genever knowledge to use. Here are two cocktails you can make that feature the spirit:

Genever Cocktails

Martinez

Whether or not the original Martini-style drink featured genever or not, this one (more like a Manhattan in character) is delicious.

  • 1.5 oz oud/old style genever or 100-percent malt wine genever
  • 1.5 oz sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange curaçao
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters

Method: Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice, stir till well-chilled, and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

The Phil Collins

(By Philip Duff, Old Duff Genever)

  • 1.5 oz Old Duff Genever
  • 1 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 1 oz simple syrup
  • Club soda to top
  • Lemon wedge to garnish

Method: Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake well. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice. Top with club soda and garnish with a lime wedge.