Genever, the original gin, is a true old worldly spirit.
Genever was the original gin. Genever’s old fashioned credentials are highlighted by the way its producers play fast and loose with spelling. You can buy genever, geneva, genievre, jenever, jeniever, junever, and probably more; in English you might also find it called ‘Holland gin’ or ‘square gin’. Mark Twain once said he felt nothing but contempt for a man who could only spell a word one way. We can only imagine the esteem in which Mark Twain would have held genever producers. Genever was the popular gin style in the United States throughout most of the 19th Century, so Mark Twain surely found frequent occasion to reflect upon the orthographical creativity of its distillers.
Genever has plenty of claims to fame besides creative spelling, boasting a rich and colorful history, as well as an early place at the cocktail bar. While the urbane and clean-shaven London Dry is the dominant gin style today, Genever is its extravagantly whiskered, baccy chewin’, gold prospecting grandpa. Genever may have fallen on hard times and be living under a bridge, but we should consider making its acquaintance. Cocktail bars have done themselves a disservice by showing Genever the door, since Genever was where gin cocktails started. Yes, to enjoy such old worldly delights such as the Fancy Gin Cocktail, the Improved Gin Cocktail, the Gin Fix and the Gin Daisy, you are going to require the company of Genever. The Martinez cocktail, from which the Martini is said to have evolved, is another excuse to give Genever an outing. While the Martinez was originally made with the hard to find Old Tom (a sort of hybrid gin falling somewhere between Genever and London Dry), in its absence Genever is the most flavorsome substitute. London Dry might wow the crowds today, but Genever has been around long enough to have learned a few tricks.
So what is the story behind Genever?
Not the Gin Doctor. . . The 17th Century Dr. Sylvius pictured here did not prescribe his patients gin, making him less fun than his 16th Century predecessor.
Genever and Gin History
Genever was invented in Holland in the late 16th Century. The confusion surrounding the individual responsible for this advance in human civilization could provide ample material for a boozy remake of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. The source of the confusion is the mixing up of two physicians, who shared key characteristics yet lived decades apart*. Both men were called Doctor Sylvius, were physicians and chemists, and were renowned professors at the University of Leyden. The similarities end there though. The first Dr. Sylvius, Sylvius de Bouve, lived in the 16th Century. By inventing Genever, this Dr. Sylvius showed the world that medicine could be tremendously fun. Meanwhile, the second Dr. Sylvius, Franciscus Sylvius, lived in the 17th Century. This Dr. Sylvius contributed to our anatomical knowledge of the brain, a worthy but dull achievement. The second Dr. Sylvius got the last laugh though. The invention of gin was widely misattributed to him, letting him go down in history as the brain researcher with a wild side.
To redress the above injustice we should now raise a glass and toast the original Dr. Sylvius, Sylvius de Bouve, for kindly inventing gin. Exactly what ailment Dr. Sylvius was trying to cure is murky, with applications of the new medicine ranging from back pain to cold feet, insomnia and more. Anyway, while Dr. Sylvius fretted about matters medical, his friends and patients swiftly realized that the new medicine had quite a few non-medicinal applications. History took a new and exciting direction.
In fact, Genever was simply a variation on the korenbrandewijn (literally ‘barley wine’ that had been ‘burnt’ – or distilled), which had been well known in Holland before Dr. Sylvius set up his still. Dr. Sylvius’ innovation was improving the palatability of this firewater by spiking it with a mixture of juniper berries and other aromatics. Juniper berries were a popular flavoring in Europe at the time, even being used in beer; in fact the Sahti beers of Finland are still flavored with juniper. Holland’s recently acquired colonies made exotic spices more available than ever before. Dr. Sylvius produced a superior variant of korenbrandewijn by combining careful distilling, juniper, and spices from around the globe. By 1595 he was selling his product as ‘Genova’.
The original Genever was distilled using pot stills from a malted barley ‘beer’. This produced a rich distillate, not unlike unaged Scotch whiskey. The distillate was then further flavored with juniper and spices. This traditional style of Genever is now known as korenwijn (literally “corn wine”), and remains the most flavorsome style.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw new styles of Genever emerge, driven by the greater efficiencies offered by column stills as opposed to pot stills, as well as by wartime austerity measures that limited the availability of barley. A distinction developed between Oude (or “old”) and Jonge (or “young”) styles of Genever, corresponding to traditional and modern production methods, respectively. Both these styles are blends of different types of spirits. The Oude style is malty and sweet, and contains a high proportion of korenwijn, cut with neutral grain or other alcohol. The Jonge style is lighter and drier, with a higher proportion of neutral alcohol and a lower proportion of korenwijn. Korenwijn also continues to be sold, but accounts for only a small share of the market.
Dr. Sylvius’ medicine became awfully popular
Through the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries Holland exported large quantities of Genever to thirsty markets throughout Europe and the Americas. Genever became especially popular in England, helped along by the arrival on the throne of a Dutch king, William of Orange. The English were soon producing their own version of the spirit, which they dubbed ‘gin’. The English gin industry rapidly grew, encouraged by a government that saw gin production as a way of soaking up Britain’s large grain surplus. The first style of English gin to become popular was Old Tom, a sweetened, grain-based, juniper flavored pot still spirit lying somewhere between Genever and London Dry. This was followed by Plymouth Gin, a drier gin with a soft citrus character. Finally London Dry emerged as the dominant style, being based on neutral alcohol produced in column stills, extremely dry and aromatic, and heavily flavored with juniper. Unlike Genever and Old Tom, London Dry was formulated with mixing in mind.
These days it is the English who export their gin around the world, and most Genever remains in producing countries like Holland and Belgium (also a producer). The Dutch and Belgians generally drink it neat, and have entire bars devoted to the stuff. In keeping with the move towards lighter Genever styles, the modern tradition is to drink Genever chilled, preferably from shot glasses stored in the fridge. Genever is often served this way as a chaser to beer. Despite its exceptional cocktail pedigree, Genever is no longer widely used as a cocktail ingredient.
Demystifying Genever classifications and terminology
Modern genever is classified into the following varieties:
Korenwijn: This is the closest thing you will find to the original 16th Century Genever. Perhaps you can think of it as the ‘single malt’ version of Genever, though the analogy is an imperfect one. This variety comprises 50-70% pure korenwijn (i.e. distillate of malted barley), diluted with between 30-50% neutral distillate (produced from other grains such as corn, molasses, potatoes, or whatever else is deemed suitable). Though not mandatory, Korenwijn is sometimes aged for several years in oak barrels. The result is an extremely malty, rich, and flavorsome spirit, with both the base spirit and the botanicals contributing strongly to the flavor.
Oude (‘Old’) Genever: The ‘old’ refers to traditional production methods rather than aging. This variety contains from 15-50% korenwijn, and can be sweetened with up to 20 gms sugar/liter. The result is a sweet, malty, rich spirit, typically with an oily texture.
Jonge (‘Young’) Genever: The ‘young’ indicates Genever made in the ‘new’ 20th Century style “i.e. heavily cut with neutral alcohol. This variety contains no more than 15% korenwijn, and no more than 10 gm sugar per liter, making it lighter and drier than the Oude style. This style is closest to the familiar London Dry gin, though the maltiness and light use of aromatics set it apart.
Graanjenever (‘grain Genever’): This is Genever made from 100% grain alcohol. That is, the korenwijn is cut only with grain alcohol, meaning it contains no alcohol made from molasses, potato, or other non-grain ingredients. The grains used to produce the non-korenwijn distillate do not have to malted barley though, so graanjenever is distinct from korenwijn. In practice graanjever is likely to be made from corn or wheat, both of which are cheaper than malted barley. It may also include some malted barley. This type of Genever is generally column distilled. It resembles a more full bodied version of a Jonge Genever.
You may also come across the following terms:
Friesche Genever: So far as I can tell this is not a meaningful designation. It seems to just be an attractive sounding word that some producers slap on their products, not a true indicator of style.
Roggen: There also seem to be rye-based genevers known as ‘roggen’. These spirits may be more rye-based vodkas than Genever though. That is, they may not be flavored with botanicals. If anyone has more information on this please let me know.
There are probably some terms and classifications that I have missed. However, the above should at least provide a start in understanding Genever.
Thus endeth the lesson. . .
Genever Product Comparison
So, having learned about Genever, I guess it is finally time to drink some. I managed to collect four different varieties of Genever, including an oude (Bols), two jonge (Bokma and De Kuyper), and a graanjenever (Bokma). Sadly I could not get hold of a korenwijn. I had also been hoping to include the limited release Genevieve from Anchor Distilling. Unfortunately that was not possible because the product was never made available in New Zealand shops and the New Zealand agent did not want to provide a sample for this tasting. Never mind, collecting four brands for comparison was a pretty good effort given that Genever is not common in New Zealand.
The tasting involved 20 ml samples of each spirit, served at room temperature and in wine glasses. It was not a blind tasting. First the spirits were nosed and impressions recorded. Then they were tasted and impressions recorded. Finally they were cut with a teaspoon of water, tasted again, and impressions recorded. I did not try mixing the spirits into cocktails since I thought they were so obviously different that there was little point comparing them this way.
Bokma Jonge Graanjenever (35%)
Nose: Not too much on the nose besides alcohol. Smells similar to vodka, but differs in having a distinct hint of malt in the background. I cannot detect juniper or other aromatics.
Taste: Taste-wise this is fairly flat. It goes down almost like vodka, but there is a subtle bitterness and aromatic juniper flavor. It has some sweetness and a rich mouth feel. There was no aftertaste to speak of. Adding a teaspoon of water smoothed the flavor and highlighted the juniper. It became very smooth after that.
Overall impression: Not something to sip on, more something to down as a shot. In cocktail terms it could make a more interesting mixer than vodka, but it does not contribute enough flavor to be the backbone of a drink. Think of it more as a way of adding alcohol while contributing a little richness and complexity that would not be there if vodka was used. It is far milder in character than most gins. Still, it has a full bodied sweetness that London dry gins do not offer. I have used this in the past as a base for infusing Oolong tea; it works very well in this role.
Bokma Friesche Genever (38% alc/vol)
Nose: This has a delicate perfumed nose that you can keep on coming back to. At first I could not place the smell. It just reminded me of perfume that had been worn a little too long and begun to fade. Then I realized it was a subtle blend of citrus and a spice I cannot place. It almost seems like musk or something. I guess before doing a gin tasting I should have educated myself some more about spices. Juniper is there as well, but I keep coming back to this other botanical that is reminding me of perfume. Anyway, nosing this stuff is very pleasant and interesting.
Taste: A full bodied mouth-feel together with a dry flavor profile. There is a nice balance of malt, juniper, citrus, and other aromatics. You could not exactly sip this by the fireside like you might a glass of whiskey, but there is more than enough taste to make you want to linger over it. The aftertaste is gently bitter. Adding water brought out a peppery note.
Overall Impression: The dry and delicately balanced taste makes this ideal for drinking straight. However, it could also take center stage in a cocktail like a Martinez. It could work in a Genever Old Fashioned, though a more malty Genever would be better.
De Kuyper JDKZ Geneva (37.1%)
Nose: A perfumed nose that is more robust than the Bokma Friesche. The nose is a blend of citrus and sweet malt, with juniper in there as well. The delicate balance of the Bokma Friesche is lacking, but there is still plenty to appreciate.
Taste: This comes across smoothly. The citrus and malt are very up front, with the combination pleasantly resembling a chocolate orange. As you swallow you get a burst of juniper. There is not much of an aftertaste. It is not as subtle or balanced as the Bokma Friesch, but nevertheless is easy to like. Adding water reduced the citrus and made the drink a bit drier. The water also drew out a background note I did not especially care for – something like ammonia. This had been faintly present before, but the water made it obvious. For me this taste became an unpleasant distraction.
Overall Impression: This could be drunk by itself or used in a cocktail. It is robust enough for mixing and I like its heavy citrus character. However, I prefer the Bokma Freische for its better balance, and because it is free of that ‘ammonia’ taste. This one gets points for the crooked bottle design though. It is kind of cool.
Bols Genever Zeer Oude (35% alc/vol)
Nose: This has a rich aroma that is far more sweet than spicy. You can smell a rich layer of grains, laid on top of which are some spicier notes, primarily juniper.
Taste: A big rich flavor. There is a creamy mouth-feel with tons of malt, with some gentle juniper flavors making things interesting. Citrus does not make its presence felt in a big way. Adding water did little to change the intensity of flavor or the mouth-feel. The water brought out some new tastes though, revealing a hint of the ‘musky’ taste I had noticed in the Boka Friesche. There is gently bitter aftertaste, almost like gentian or something. It is very smooth with no unwelcome flavors or unpleasantness.
Overall Impression: This is great for sipping, and would make an ideal basis for traditional Genever cocktails like the Fancy Gin Cockail. Of the four spirits I have sampled, this would be the best starting point for somebody wanting to understand Genever. All the characteristics are present.
Some Concluding Thoughts
To round things up I want to say that the Oude style is really what Genever is about. If shopping for Genever you should try and start there. If you are lucky enough to find some korenwijn grab that too. The Jonge is nice, but has only some of the character of the Genever once popular in cocktails. Using the Jonge in traditional Genever cocktails is going to be like cutting the rye in your Manhattans 50/50 with vodka. You may get the idea of the drink but you will not get the real experience. Of course, since the Jonge is by far the most popular and easy to find style, you will probably end up experimenting with it anyway. Nothing wrong with that and it is still fun to play with.
In a future post I will look at some Genever cocktails.
* Thanks to Jared Brown of the Exposition Universelle des Vins et Spiritueux for straightening out this confusion.