Spirits

A Guide to Genever

An insider’s guide to Genever’s centuries old history, styles and the best brands to try.

Overview

Genever is a complex sprit with a history few categories can compare to, let alone boast of. Yet, despite this, it’s often the forgotten giant of the booze world. 

We all know the early history of Gin is much more than the sole work of one man or something that began at one specific moment in time. There was a gradual coming together of two forces, juniper and spirit, with both enjoying many separate adventures before they were united in a glass of Genever or Gin.

It’s now clear that the linear notion that Gin came from Genever is a fallacy. There are several recipes recorded in history (let alone common sense) that suggests that similar juniper-laced spirits lived side by side for centuries. Likewise, it’s clear that Genever remained popular long after Gin’s star began to rise or be central to the infamous 18th century Craze. 

Clearly as they ascended in popularity, the two influenced each other and their stories are intertwined and inseparably linked. Reducing Genever’s story as just the precursor to Gin however, is a gross misunderstanding of the centuries old spirit however and underplays its cultural significance to a huge part of Europe. 

The story of Genever isn’t just under told or miss-sold, it’s often completely ignored. The fact that there are museums dedicated to it should tell you just how much there is to uncover, and yet for all the chatter about Whisky and Gin, as the spirit that sits between the two it is perpetually cast into the shadows by their radiant glow.

We thought it was a good time to look at Genever and take a deep dive into its history, what is it about and some of the brands to look out for today. 

Here, you can browse through the sections beginning with its ancient and often forgotten history, its more modern past, how to navigate the styles (along with a few rules and processes that define them) and last but not least, some of the key brands to keep your eyes firmly fixed on. 

Proost!

Forgotten History

The exact moment at which juniper berries were first used to flavour malt wine is one of history’s great mysteries. However, when it comes to drinking it recreationally one can narrow it down to two likely countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, which is where the history of Genever commences.

In our opinion, much of the story of Genever begins in Belgium and while we’ll avoid stating outright who made it first to avoid lengthy ripostes in our inbox, its national history is key to understanding Genever’s early days.

Belgium was a hotbed of distillers and an area that was fundamental to the propagation of distilling knowledge in the 16th Century. This came to a crashing halt by the 17th Century when there was a distilling ban which forced Flemish distillers to migrate to the Netherlands, France and Germany. 

Implemented in 1601, the ban (triggered primarily by the Government’s concern about a national food shortage) meant that many distillers departed. It is also worth noting that by this point thousands of migrants had already fled due to the Eighty Years War (1568 – 1648).

We’re not suggesting one country invented Genever, then passed it on to another. Historical accounts of distillers will attest to what we know today as Genever being made in several places before this great migration. Merely, that it’s important to note that food shortages and a war ravaged country displaced large portions of the population. These factors shifted the centre of prosperity from Southern Belgian cities further North.  

With skilled tradesmen, scholars and thinkers all moving with the tide, the resettlement laid the foundation for the “Dutch Golden Age”, which in turn is one of the big reasons why Dutch Genevers became so much better known across the globe than their Belgian counterparts…

Dutch VOC Docks.
Dutch VOC Docks.

In the century that followed, distilleries in the Netherlands prospered, with one particular customer, the Dutch East India Trading Company (the VOC) central to its rise. They took the spirit with them across the world using it both as valuable bartering commodity, as well as for rations for sailors who were entitled to the equivalent of 150ml a day. 

Journeys to the “New World” took anywhere between 9 months and 2 years, (meaning at minimum each ship would carry 135 to 150lt per sailor) and multiple stops required to restock water and food. A massive amount of spirit was required.

The VOC were not just the most valuable customer to many distilleries either, the symbiotic relationship they had created an irresistible loop that is fundamental to the story of Genever and to its flavour.

The VOC were huge importers of spice and other goods, meaning they brought unprecedented wealth to profit from, as well as new ingredients for distillers to work with. 

Their own requirements aside, the VOC also exported the spirit (both consciously and by default) back to a global market of colonies now under their control. Genever’s international customers and the trade network they tapped into was on a scale the world had never seen before. 

A frantic boom in production occurred and over the decades Genever grew in intricacy and in depth of flavour, transforming from its likely origins as a single botanical tincture to a complex spirit rich in spice and exotic aromas. Brands were established and marketed across the globe, distilling dynasties were forged and the reputation of Dutch Genever started to rival French Brandy.

Dutch Ship Sailing, VOC
Dutch Ship Sailing, VOC

It’s often touted that Genever was first introduced to Britain during the Thirty Years’ War. However, it was more of a gradual adoption than a singular moment. 

The fables about Genever actually begin with the Eighty Years War, some decades earlier. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth of England sent 6,000 men to the Low Countries to provide support against the Spanish. By the time the troops arrived in Antwerp however, they were months too late. Nevertheless, during their time there the troops observed a tradition among their Dutch counterparts. The Dutch would sip from small bottles they kept on their belts, after which they fought valiantly – thanks to their “Dutch Courage”.

Years later British and Dutch soldiers fought together once more (the Thirty Year War), drinking “Dutch Courage” ahead of battles. During these wars, slowly but surely, Genever travelled back into England where it began its rise in popularity. 

The English language reflects the slow transformation from Genever to Geneva, and then eventually, shortened to one intoxicating monosyllabic word: Gin, as wittily demonstrated in Massinger’s 1623 play, “The Duke of Milan”.

From a British perspective, Genever as a spirit only really became truly fashionable some years later, when it gained wider popular appeal with the arrival of the Dutch King, William of Orange in 1689

Prince William of Orange - Landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688
Prince William of Orange - Landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688
Prince William of Orange - Landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688

The mock funeral of Madam Geneva may have been etched into immortality in John Bowles' famous print (pictured below), but many historians and commentators seem to take this to heart and only focus on the story of gin from then on out, with their interest in Genever dwindling to a stop post-Gin Craze. Look past the British interest however, and truth is that Genever continued to thrive well into 1880s.

For example, if you take stock of the numbers at a key moment in the history of the spirit - when the ban was lifted after over a century and the Southern Low Countries were once again allowed to distil in 1713. 

Distilling grew in the South once more, but their northern counterparts showed no signed of slowing down either. By the end of the 18th century, Schiedam had grown from 37 distilleries to 250.

Sparing the twists and turns of history in this abridged story, following the Belgian Revolution and the creation of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands in 1830 – Genever literally exploded in scale. 

Having been relegated to an anecdote in Genever’s early history, Belgium began to play a central role in shaping the spirit’s trajectory once more.

The Funeral Procession of Madam Geneva, c1751 by John Bowles
The Funeral Procession of Madam Geneva, c1751 by John Bowles
The Funeral Procession of Madam Geneva, c1751 by John Bowles

The Belgian government decided to lower taxes on domestic Genever and banned the importation of Genever from the Netherlands. This drove the amount of distilleries in the country to over 1000 in a short period. By the mid 1880’s, Belgium was producing over 15 million gallons of Genever per year.

It’s worth noting the size and growth of Belgium here. In the century leading up to 1900 Belgium became one of the most densely populated states in the world, the fourth commercial power and fifth industrial power. It was a thriving, condensed and complex country.

To put this in context, 1000 distilleries would be a huge amount even in the context of the UK today (we still don’t have 700 licensed distilleries in 2021, for a population of over 60 million) but Belgium is smaller than Wales and at the time had a population of less than 8 million.

Key to this astonishing rise was the fact that Belgium was one of the first industrialised countries of Europe and new technology was being introduced at break-neck speed. Distilling in the country was no different. New tools and systems such as the column still greatly helped the efficiencies of what this tidal wave of distilleries were creating. 

One of the fundamental shifts to the flavour of Genever occurred in this period too. Not only were technological advances creating higher proof sprits faster and cheaper, but European imports of corn also started to impact Genever production. Though corn did little to improve the flavour of the base distillate, massive surges in availability changed domestic cereal prices. Corn was cheaper to produce and use than rye, wheat or barley. Combine this with the crop’s higher yield and its use in distilling was inevitable.

Many distillers did not like this new evolution, maintaining that they were making a better product using traditional techniques and traditional cereals. A distinction developed between the two methods, with makers either creating Genever using the old system and a higher portion of these age-old grains, named Oude Genever, and those who embraced using more industrialised techniques and used more corn during production, named Jonge Genever.

The quantity they could produce and lower pricing they could charge fundamentally favoured Jonge producers. While it wasn’t an overnight switch, historical records suggest to a clear huge demise in the amount of distilleries producing Oude Genever.

By 1912 Belgian Genever production had grown even more and surpassed 22 million gallons.

These heady, glory years all came to an abrupt end during WW1 however, when many distilleries were pillaged by occupying German forces, who melted down stills in order to create artillery shell casings.

The story was different further north. Even though both nations remained neutral, many of the distilleries in the Netherlands were spared much of the same fate in WW1 and were able to continue distilling.

Old Genever bottles
Old Genever bottles

Despite the ongoing perception of Genever being a predominantly Dutch product outside of Europe, this coup de gras for Belgian distillers was not something those in Schiedam, Amsterdam and elsewhere could capitalise on.

The reality was that a War raging across Europe impacted resources severely. Even if they could get hold of grains and supplies, there were too few distilleries that were producing Genever in the Netherlands to absorb the displaced demand. 

Many had not adopted the industrial progress of their Belgian counterparts and had already closed their doors. By that point, they had been unable to compete with the price points and growing popularity for the newer style of spirit, especially once combined with a stagnant economy, cholera epidemics and years of worsening poverty. 

Combine this with the decline of the VOC and the rise of Britain’s East India Trading company over the previous century (and that of Belgium) stemming the incoming tide of finance and resources - the blow was fatal for the spirit. 

It’s a key moment in history and important to reflect on when looking at why it became a forgotten spirit in the decades that followed.

The fortunes and politics of the two countries shaped Genever. 

Having gone from the principal instigators and exporters who built its reputation and serviced a global thirst, to almost out for the count and then back again, Dutch Genever has had a tumultuous history. 

It may never have reached the peaks of the Belgian makers in terms of raw volume, but its steady nature and continued quality has meant that Genever is recognised as one of the world’s most prestigious spirits.

Meanwhile, without the Belgian distillers and the industrialisation they so hotly pursued, it would taste and be perceived dramatically different today. Both changed Genever’s course several times and continue to do so today.

The category today

As with all spirits that have stood the test of time, Genever has gone in and out of fashion. 

It may be waiting for its next surge in popularity having fallen close to the realms of national pastiche in the 00’s, but don’t count it out. Genever is a complex and intriguing category and its recent heritage isn’t to be scoffed at either. Here we tackle its more modern history and some of the key aspects you need to know in order to understand it today.

Modern history

Two critical factors affect Genever in the first half of the 20th century: Wars and Prohibition. As we mentioned in previous sections, having stripped them of their stills, World War 1’s legacy left most Belgian distilleries on their knees. 

The Netherlands fared better with many of their distilleries spared the same fate and able to continue distilling in some form or other. The next time around was not the same. 

World War II saw similar pillaging of resources, however this time none of the key Genever producing regions escaped. Moreover, with grain and food scarce, there was little to distil in the first place, let alone a market to sell it to even if they had the equipment.

The second key factor was the Belgian government’s decision to enact Prohibition in 1919. Unlike other countries the law was only partial, yet it lasted until 1985. 

Jenever during Belgian Prohibition
Jenever during Belgian Prohibition

Belgium only banned the sale of spirits in bars; it was still possible to purchase Genever from liquor stores, but the new laws dictated a minimum purchase of two bottles at a time. This was part of a deliberate plan to price the poor out, with the added bonus of keeping the support of the rich (and influential). 

After the law was passed in 1919 restricting alcohol to liquor shops, organised crime took hold. Even though it never amounted to the infamy of Chicago or the often-violent bootlegging operations of the US prohibition, Belgian mobsters did set up larger distilleries. 

Spread in a diversity of areas across the country, some of these makeshift distilleries were even entirely based underground. When the police discovered these activities, it was often the labourers that were caught and arrested while the crime bosses vanished.

During the 1960s and 70s this was particularly common around the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. Interestingly, some of the distilleries that produced Genever for the black market are still in business today, having converted to doing so legally. 

Conversely, some of the biggest legal distilleries of that era were allegedly also involved in illegal activities. Supposedly, many were involved in counterfeiting, while others played the tax system by producing more than they declared. 

The Netherland’s post war Genever history, particularly in Schiedam & Amsterdam, may have been far less exciting but their steadiness meant that their distilleries managed to consolidate their status and allow the drink to remain firmly ingrained as the national spirit. 

In recent years, the interest has shifted from historical and more pastiche to enjoying a small revival. Brands like Bols have greatly helped breathe new life into the category and it is once again frequently being used in cocktails, while the like of Rutte and others are helping build a presence in the US market.

Vintage Genever Bottle
Vintage Genever Bottle

What does the category look like today?

The EU regulations specify that only spirits produced in Belgium, Holland, two northern French departments and two German federal states can use the term jenever / genever / genièvre on their products.

Not just revered amongst drinkers, the spirit is recognized for its historic and cultural contribution, the European Union protected Genever with 11 appellations, most of which are exclusive to Belgium.

Filliers Genever production
Filliers Genever production

What does it taste like?

Each brand varies but overall, Genever is a very distinctive style of juniper spirit. Broadly speaking, its flavour falls somewhere between a botanically layered spirit and an unaged whisky. 

Genever often retains clear flavours of its base ingredients - rye, malted barley and maize, with the best ones managing to combine this with rich botanical journeys.

To make it producers often combine two spirits. The first is malt-wine (which is has all those whisky-like characters) and the second is Neutral spirit (similar to a vodka). Malt wine is based on a mixture of rye, malted barley and maise grains and distilled in pot stills to a low overall alcohol strength (often less than 50% abv). As a result, it has a very strong malted grain flavour. Neutral Grain Alcohol on the other hand, is distilled in a column still to strengths of over 96%, giving it an almost inert neutral taste.

These two base spirits are made separately and in the context of Genever, distillers have been known to infuse each with botanicals before distilling. Other times, only the Neutral Spirit is infused and distilled, before being combined with the Malt wine (in essence like blending a gin and an unaged whisky together). 

Like Gin, Genever must contain juniper as an ingredient, but unlike Gin juniper does not have to be the predominant flavour, or indeed even evident to taste at all in the end profile.

Filliers Genever
Filliers Genever

What are the styles of Genever?

There are two basic styles of genever - jonge (young), oude (old). They differ in their use of botanicals and the percentage of malt-wine they contain. To understand each, the alcohol base is an important factor to focus on.

Jonge Genever is called young because it is a modern (younger) style of genever. It’s almost always a clear spirit without colour. Jonge genevers contain a lower percentage of malt-wine, typically only about 5%. They generally have fewer botanicals and are less botanically intense as either Oude Genever or Gin.  Along with other specific laws around production, other rules state that they need to contain no more than 15% malt wine and at be bottled at a minimum of 35% alcohol by volume. 

Oude Genever does not have to be aged. It’s named “old” as a reference to older more traditional production styles, not the fact that it is aged in a cask. That said, they tend to have an amber hue having spent years in a barrel. 

Not only is the percentage of malt wine higher giving them a grainier undertone, Oude genevers tend to also have more botanicals than jonge genevers. 

The rules state that while Oude genever do not have to be aged, to protect drinkers and meet reasonable expectations, if a label mentions aging in any way the genever must have been aged for at least one year in a barrel of 700 litres or less. Equally, they must contain a minimum of 15% malt-wine (although many go much higher). 

If you want the full-blown old school kind of Genever, look for bottles that have Moutwijn on the label.  It’s not technically an official category, but some contain up to 100% malt wine and are considered the most authentic historical type you can get hold of.

Brands to watch

Rutte Genever
Rutte Genever

Rutte Old Simon Genever

One of the great Genevers, Simon Rutte was the founder of the famous distillery, with this recipe said to be one from the family archives and created by the man himself. Old Simon Genever contains a number of typical botanicals such as juniper berries and coriander seed, alongside more unusual additions of walnuts, hazelnuts and celery.

Light overall, Old Simon is distinctly malty and nutty with a luxurious finish, it’s the kind of Genever that takes a drink like the Martinez (or Manhattan if you are coming at Genever from that direction) and elevates it to a new level. 

RUTTE GENEVER

Kettel 1 Jenever
Kettel 1 Jenever

Ketel 1 Jenever

Ketel may be known for their vodka today, but their Jenever is worth seeking out. Just like their successful Vodka, it’s been named after their coal-fired No.1 pot still (one of the oldest  operating stills in Schiedam) and is based on a blend of wheat, rye and maize distilled with 14 botanicals and rested French oak casks for around a year.

Not only is it tasty, theirs is also a family whose roots are firmly established in the spirits history (Joannes Nolet first settled in the midst of the granaries in 1691) and each sip continues that history forward into aa new generation. 

KETEL 1 JENEVER

BOLS GENEVER
BOLS GENEVER

Lucas Bols - Bols Genever

It’s hard to find a more iconic name in distilling that Lucas Bols. When it comes to Genever, they are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of global reach and recognition too.

The company was first founded in 1575 and began producing Dutch Genever in 1664. While this is a modern recreation of their recipe introduced in 2008, it’s said to be based off their archives in 1820 and for most, if you have had or seen or genever in the past decade, it’s likely that this is the brand you’ve come across. 

If you haven’t tried it yet, expect a malty and full bodied spirit, with apricot and a perfumed juniper note. Make a Negroni with it as enjoy a spectacular array of flavours unfolding in your glass. 

BOLS GENEVER

Bobby's Schiedam Jenever
Bobby's Schiedam Jenever

Bobby’s Shiedam Jenever 

Managing to bring a contemporary edge to Genever, Bobby’s mixes the old and the new seamlessly. Created by Sebastiaan van Bokke and named after his Grandfather, Bobby Alfons who unwittingly created a unique recipe of Dutch Courage and Indonesian Spirit. To make it, he enlisted the help of iconic producer, Herman Jansen. 

Located in Schiedam, Herman Jansen distillery have been producing spirits since 1777, where over seven generations the family have dedicated their lives to building their reputation as some of the finest producers in the country. 

Traditional Indonesian botanicals and spices give Bobby’s Schiedam Jenever its unique flavour profile. Fragrant lemongrass and ginger are clear on the nose, while to taste a fresh burst of lemongrass and herbs at dance on the tongue. 

BOBBY'S SCHIEDAM JENEVER

De Borgen Genever
De Borgen Genever

De Borgen Distillery

De Borgen produces and bottles its spirits at Hooghoudt, a small family distillery in the north of the Netherlands. Established in 1888 and now run by the 4th generation Hooghoudt is renowned for its centuries-old traditions and ability to capture flavours from herbs, spices and fruits. 

Like the others, they have a full range on offer, but the Malt Genever would be our recommendation.  The spirit itself is made with a combination of juniper berries distilled in copper stills coupled with plenty of malt spirit made from corn, wheat and rye. The rich cereal gives this malt genever its characteristic tones while the likes of caraway, fennel and sweet woodruff add depth. The clever use of Oloroso sherry casks to mature the spirit lends woody notes, hints of vanilla and caramel as well as enduring dried fruit on the finish. 

DE BORGEN

Fillier's Jenever
Fillier's Jenever

Filliers

Filliers might be a name that flies under the radar, but this Belgian distillery have been established since 1880 and as early adopters of long-term barrel aging programmes, have some of the oldest stock in the world.

Their 8 Years Old Barrel Aged Genever demonstrates their understanding of just how flavours develop in time. The wood of Bourbon barrels made from American oak and gives a welcoming aroma of vanilla, while the juniper is undemanding yet still reassuringly present throughout. 

FILLIERS JENEVER

Spirits Kiosk
Bobby's Schiedam Dry Gin
Bobby's Schiedam Dry Gin
70cl42%NL
£35.44
Bols Genever
Bols Genever
70cl42%NL
£25.94
Filliers Dry Gin 28
Filliers Dry Gin 28
50cl46%BE
£31.94

By Olivier Ward

21 March 2021