In a way, genever is directly to blame for my obsession with classic cocktails and spirits. It’s a story that begins almost twelve years ago, when my wife and I were honeymooning in Belgium. Out at dinner one night and always game to try new tastes, we ordered half a dozen shots of flavored genever. They were divine — absolutely pure flavors of vanilla, watermelon, berry with no alcohol bite — and they were, we were to discover later, not genever at all.
This later revelation came in 2007 when, happening to find ourselves in Amsterdam, we went on the hunt for those tasty, little shots again. What we ultimately uncovered came at us like some eleventh-hour deus ex machina straight out of Lost. First, what we had fallen in love with a decade earlier was not, as mentioned, true genever. It was Belgian genever or, more to the point, schnapps. True Dutch genever was an entirely different animal, the breed of which we had never encountered on the shores of the New World.
If you trust the Bols Genever bottle, Lucas Bols began production of genever in 1575. Actually, Bols started with liqueurs and didn’t get to genever until the middle of the next century — but that’s a story for another time. The origins of genever go back another three hundred years, meaning — in rough math — that it predates London Dry gin by almost half a millennium. I like to think of it as a “proto-spirit”, a common relative to both modern gin and whiskey. It is, in short, the missing link of the spirit world, and if that isn’t reason enough to classify it, tag it, and put it on your shelf, I’ll give you a few more.
The word genever is a variation on “jenever”, which simply means “juniper”. Distilled alcohol with juniper as the primary botanical could just as easily describe modern dry gin. So, what makes genever different? Rather than using just pure grain alcohol as its base, genever also uses maltwine, a fermented mash of various grains. Imagine a marriage of juniper-based neutral spirit and maltwine, which has a whiskey-like quality, and you’re getting the idea. The result is heady, well-rounded, and definitely too bold for a dry martini. It may be a gross statement, but it reminds me most of Mexican Mezcal.
If you were drinking a cocktail in 1850, there was a strong chance you were drinking genever. Due to the intrepid Dutch traders of yore, genever — or Hollands, as it was colloquially known — was a staple of the world’s liquor cabinets. Unfortunately, genever’s prominence was not to last. The turn of the century would bring with it London Dry gin and a changing taste in America’s palate, which together heralded the end for genever as a world player. Up until the last couple of years, true genever was completely absent from the U.S. market. Thanks to Bols and a few other brands, that has changed.
The modern Bols Genever has been inspired by their product of the 1820. I say inspired because that’s what they say — it’s not the same product. The taste has been tweaked to meet the preferences of the modern palate. So be it. The last attempt to meet the demands of the “modern” drinker resulted in “jonge” (young) genever, which was created in the 1950s as a competitor to the ascending spirit king, vodka. It essentially is vodka. If you find yourself in Holland or anywhere that sells the real stuff, opt for “oude” (old) genever, which is the good stuff. In fact, the Dutch like to say “Old genever and young women — never the other way around.” I can live with that.
Ultimately, I plan to use Bols as our utility player. Along with some classic Hollands-specific cocktails, we’ll be trying it in place of other spirits that didn’t make the 12 Bottle cut. And while it may not have the resume that dry gin or whiskey has, it’s going to bring to our drinks a level of history and intrigue that many of the other liquors simply can’t claim.
Our friends over at Drink Spirits also give Bols Genever high marks.
Esoterica: In Holland, genever is a natural partner for a strong beer. The Dutch version of the Boiler Maker, a Kopstoot is a shot of gin with a beer chaser. The translation of Kopstoot is “head butt”, which makes it all the more worth trying.