Laura Foster dips into the national drink of Belgium and The Netherlands with a glance at history and a look at how some of today’s brands are being used in cocktails.
What is it?
The national drink of Belgium and The Netherlands, genever is a grain-based spirit that’s distilled at least three times and includes some botanicals. Its main defining factor is the use of malt wine, or ‘moutwijn’, which is usually a flavourful distillate with a mash bill that contains rye, corn and malted barley.
The second key inclusion in genever is that of juniper, as drinks historian Anistatia Miller attests: “Genever came around commercially in the 1640s. Genever was basically a unique blend of grains with juniper added. It’s more like a relative of whisky. What do you do when you take a blend of grains and then you add botanicals to it? That’s what uisge beatha was.”
Traditionally, the malt wine would be redistilled with juniper and a small selection of botanicals to make genever. Nowadays it is usually mixed with neutral spirit – made either from beets or grain – that has been distilled with botanicals, with juniper always being present.
There are a number of different genever categories, however the EU Regulation 2019/787, which deals with spirits regulations within the EU, recognises two broad categories: oude and jonge.
Oude, which translates as ‘old’ is the more historical style traditionally used in classic cocktails, which legally requires a minimum of 15% malt wine, have no more than 20g sugar per litre, be a minimum of 35% abv and be made in Belgium or The Netherlands.
And then there’s jonge. “Jonge means ‘young’ but rather than meaning unaged it means ‘young style’, and emerged mid-20th century as a lighter style – after the Second World War malting was an expensive, laborious step that distillers elected to minimise,” explains Hannah Lanfear, Speciality Drinks’ advocacy & content manager.
“At the same time society was shifting quickly, with tastes in fashion, music, food and drink all rapidly reforming. Vodka had won over the west, and drinking patterns had moved towards sessionable, lighter-profile spirits. Genever had been very successful in the US cocktail market before the wars so jonge genever aimed to compete with the lighter spirits that were now dominating that market, and it worked in the local market to great effect.
Jonge became the most popular style within The Netherlands by a considerable distance.” Jonge should contain between 1.5% and 15% malt wine, with most iterations coming in at the lower end of this range. It can have up to 10g of sugar per litre, must be above 35% abv and also be made in Belgium or The Netherlands.
On top of these categories there is korenwijn (grain wine) genever, an oude-style spirit which must contain at least 51% malt wine, and 100% malt wine genever, which does what it says on the tin.
What’s out there?
There are plenty of quality products available, covering a wide variety of styles. Bols was the brand to bring genever back to international markets this millennium. Relaunched in 2008, it’s an oude-style genever with over 50% malt wine. Nicky Jardine, bartender at Swift Shoreditch, is a fan: “It’s tasty, works well in drinks, is reasonably priced and it’s the sort of bottle if you had it on the back bar guests ask questions about it.”
Gin and genever expert Philip Duff was involved in the Bols relaunch, but decided to launch his own brand, Old Duff genever, a decade later. Old Duff Real Dutch genever is a gorgeous korenwijn genever, containing 53% malt wine. A contradiction in taste, this is rich yet has a lightness of touch, with a bready base and a clean, clear, zippy rye spice. The citrus comes through mid-palate, accompanied by the juniper and a menthol-like coolness, before a rich chocolate note finishes proceedings.
Old Duff Genever 100% malt wine “qualifies for the rarest designation in genever; 100% malt wine with the Seal of Schiedam. That means that as well as being 100% malt wine, ie there’s no neutral alcohol, it’s made in a designated distillery – only two remain – is 100% pot still, and is bottled between 42 and 48% abv,” explains Duff. The result is an oily, malty mouthfeel, a heap of spicy black pepper, a lick of sappy juniper before sweet butterscotch and more malt come in on the end.
Zuidam Oude Genever 3 Jaar Vat Gelagerd is but one expression of Zuidam Distillers’ range of genevers. Aged for three years in virgin American oak, it wears its wood influence on its sleeve, meaning the malt wine character is pushed aside by vanilla, butterscotch and toffee, before peppery spice and cooling juniper waltz in at the end.
Finally, for something completely different, there’s Baker’s Best, a genever made from bread that would otherwise have been thrown away. Each batch tastes slightly different depending on the type of bread used, with this iteration a beguiling mix of vanilla, marmalade on sourdough and juniper, alongside rose and cardamom.
How to drink it
“Genever is great in so many different applications. The maltiness of oude genever offers a real fulsomeness to a cocktail, alongside that light seasoning of botanicals,” says Lanfear. “It’s wonderful of course in classics like your Tom Collins, Martinez, the Improved Holland Gin Cocktail. But I found it great to be inventive with, so I’d recommend subbing it in for other bases.”
“Genever works really well in stirred-down-andbrown-style cocktails, it has a malty note that is reminiscent of whisky, gives it a heft but with a lighter note that brings something a bit different,” opines Jardine.
“In The Netherlands jonge genever still dominates the market. It’s usually drunk chilled, as a frozen shot generously filled to the brim to accompany a beer, in a ritual affectionately known as a ‘kopstoot’, or headbutt. I can personally speak to their effectiveness,” says Lanfear.
However, there are limitations to genever’s adoption, as Miller attests: “It has not moved with the times. Genever is a curiosity. I think it has its place in some classic cocktails. I think it’s a great accompaniment to gin or whiskey in making a drink. But I don't see it as being the next new hip and happening trend. And I don’t think, to be quite honest, that the level of production could be dragged up enough to make that happen.”