Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jenever Juniper

Thank you Donovan for the title (sort of). Darn it, now I'm hearing that song in my head.

What with the Chicago launch of Bols Genever this week and my attendance at the Low Country Libations seminar at Tales of the Cocktail last month, I've had a lot of genever lately. It's high time I wrote something about this most interesting spirit.

First, a brief background and introduction:
  • Pronunciation and Spelling: They tell me it's pronounced "Jen-eee-vur" in English, "Yeh-nay-vur" in Dutch.You can spell it genever, jenever, jeniever, or even Hollands Gin if you like.
  • General History: Genever is the precursor to traditional dry gin (which was the English's attempt at copying genever). It has been made in the Benelux region (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as parts of France and Germany) for centuries - the first recorded mention of the word is from 1623 in The Duke of Milan by Philip Massinger. Like so many spirits, it started as a medicinal tonic, but gradually became more popular for it's flavor.
  • US History - in the 1860's, genever was very popular in the US - it was 5 to 6 times more prevalent than English dry gin, and made several appearances in cocktail books from that time. Hence why we're seeing it now again - it's an essential part of exploring this country's cocktail history.
  • Production: Genever is traditionally made with a malt wine base. Typical grains used include corn, rye, barley and wheat. The grain is fermented, and then distilled, into something that resembles unaged (white) whiskey. It is then infused with herbs and/or flavored with herb distillates/flavorings to give it some herb notes, and might be distilled again. The only required herb is juniper, and it does not have to be discernible in the spirit.
  • In short, genever is all about the grain distillate, with hints of herbs (maybe), whereas dry gin is all about the herbs alone.
Oude vs. Jonge
These are the two main categories of genevers. The words mean "old" and "young" but the terms don't relate to the age of the spirit. Instead, they relate to the production process and makeup of the spirit.
  • Oude - the base spirit must be at least 15% malt wine, it must be at least 70° proof (35% alcohol), and can have no more than 20 grams per liter of sugar (the best have none). Aging is optional, but if you do it you must age it for at least one year. Most genevers are aged in used American whiskey barrels.
  • Jonge - base must be no more than 15% malt wine, it must be at least 70° proof (35% alcohol), and can have no more than 10 grams per liter of sugar (the best have none). Jonge is often very light in flavor, some have described is as essentially vodka (highly refined distilled grain) with a tiny bit of malt flavor.
Genever in Chicago
There are a few products labeled "genever" available in Chicago now, and one that is coming very, very soon.
  • Bols Genever - I attended a launch party for this one this week here in Chicago, and came home with a bottle autographed by their distiller. It should start showing up very soon in these parts - it's been in SF and NYC for almost a year now. They say it's lighter in flavor than the original genevers (and former versions of itself - they say this current recipe dates to 1820). It still has lots of character, with rich malty/yeasty flavors.
  • Boomsma Oude and Jonge Genevers - I've only had the Oude, and not since I've tried so many others. I need to revisit this one.
  • Anchor Genevieve - this one has rich, strong malty notes with hints of herbs. It is higher in proof than the others I've tried, and definitely makes itself known in cocktails.
  • Zuidam Genever - more herbal than some of the others, this one has hints of malt with a variety of herb notes. I haven't had this one in awhile either, so I'll have to revisit.
Genevers Not Available in the US
This is a much, much longer list. Here are a few of the great ones I got to try that you can't get here:
  • Oude Schiedam - (pronounced Skee-dam). 100% malt wine base - made with 2/3 barley, 1/3 rye, distilled twice and infused with only one herb - juniper. Bottled at 80 proof. This was the most authentic genever we tried, true to the old tradition of genever production made with 100% malt wine, not blended. It was incredibly malty and rich.
  • Rutte & Zn Oude Simon - 70 proof, and a blend of malt wine and neutral grain spirit. It was softer and lighter, and more herbal than the Oude Schiedam.
  • Rutte Paradyswijn - this is reportedly the most expensive genever in Holland, it is aged in Bordeaux casks for 8 years. Eminently sippable, it has soft malt, floral and fruit notes. Delicious.
Other Lowlands Beverages
  • Old Schiedam Liqueur - Mandarijnen Moutwijn Likeur - At the Tales seminar, we also tasted this fantastic liqueur. Made with a malt wine base blended with neutral spirit, it has rich fruit flavors (from hand-grated mandarin oranges) blended with hints of malt. Apparently this has been discontinued and is quite rare now - I was delighted to get a taste.
  • Els La Vera - a malt wine liqueur infused with herbs. The dominant flavor is grand worwmood (Els = alsem = artemisia absinthium), so it reminded me a great deal of Jeppson's Malort. Apparently, "Els" is a style of spirit and this "La Vera" was but one version of it.


W.J. said...

Great story.
Additional ther is Korenwijn the is jenever what is kaayed on bbarrels for at least one year. And there is pure Malt wine jenever.
Visit Ther is a list of jenever sites.
You can drink more 400 different brands of jenever. I tasted a lot of them... There is an onld saying. Drinking is to forget, Tasing is to remember. Willem-Jan Schiedam the Netherlands

~Sonja~ said...

That's a great saying, and I hope to try more jenevers in the future. I really enjoyed all of the ones I tried, and am looking forward to making more cocktails with them too!

Tristan Stephenson said...

Good write up. I love the Bols Museum in Amsterdam, great tour.

Also the Genever museum in Schiedam is brilliant, loads of bottles and flavours to try and of course the home of 'Old Schiedam', my favourite.

~Sonja~ said...

Thank you for the visit and the tips, more places on my list to visit now!

L. Ron Drunkard said...

Since I returned from Amsterdam a year ago I've asked every liquor store and upscale bar in the Kansas City area about jenever and haven't found any that can get it (or even know what it is). Where is it available in Chicago? I'll be there next month, mostly in bucktown and downtown and without a car. I'd love to find a bottle, or four. thanks.

~Sonja~ said...

Hi Ron, unfortunately genever is still somewhat hard to find here, although you should be able to find the Bols and maybe the Boomsma, and another if you're lucky. I'd recommend touching base with Kyle at Drinks Over Dearborn (, it's a great little boutique shop and he knows what's available in Chicago. Or, you can go to the biggest liquor store around, Binny's Beverage Depot - the South Loop store is huge, and the Lincoln Park store is pretty close behind. They carry most of what's available in Chicago.

You'll find the Bols behind many of our great cocktail bars, so you can order it while out too.

Cheers and let me know what you find!