I used to think of myself as a whiskey person. Then I started to get into gin and began having a bit of an identity crisis. I even felt bad that I was cheating on whiskey. Good thing then that genever’s making a comeback because now, I can have the best of both worlds without the guilt.
Genever (sometimes spelled jenever) is the Dutch forerunner of gin. English soldiers discovered the juniper-flavored spirit in the 17th century while fighting the Thirty Years War in the Netherlands and the region that’s now Belgium. The Brits developed their own version back home, which came to be known as gin.
Though both beverages combine juniper with complex blends of other botanicals, their spirit bases are dramatically different. The base of modern gin—particularly the variety known as London dry gin—is usually neutral, while genever’s base contains malt wine, a grain distillate (usually malted barley combined with other cereals like rye and wheat) more akin to a young whiskey. When we taste gin, the botanicals take center stage. When we sip genever, the juniper and other botanicals hang back a bit and share the spotlight with the malty, grainy, sometimes nutty character of its base.
In addition to the pinelike juniper, genever contains a variety of botanicals, such as angelica and coriander. However, genever usually (but not always) contains fewer botanicals than gin.
Aged and unaged versions of genever exist; the former style tends to have an amber tint and some of the vanilla notes that the barrels impart. The traditional way to consume genever is neat, before or after a meal, in a small, 1- to 1.5-ounce tulip glass. Typically, it’s served room temperature, but increasingly bars have been serving it chilled. It’s also fantastic in cocktails and can replace gin in almost everything from a martini to a Negroni. Many bartenders have even swapped out bourbon and rye whiskey for genever in classic drinks like the Old Fashioned.
“It truly is a category somewhere between gin and whiskey, the unaged varieties being more similar to gin and the aged ones to whiskey,” says Myriam Hendrickx, master distiller for Rutte Distillateurs in Dordrecht, Netherlands. Rutte has been producing genevers since the late 19th century and continues to make spirits based on some of the original recipes as well as some more contemporary creations.
Genever was quite popular in the United States before the turn of the 20th century, and many cocktails that we traditionally associate with gin very likely originated as genever drinks. Among those is the Martinez, a predecessor of the martini.
Eventually, dry gin took over.
Today, the European Union recognizes genever as a regionally protected product made only in the Netherlands, Belgium and small areas within France and Germany. Anywhere else and it’s considered “genever-style.”
Here in the U.S., craft distillers have been experimenting with their own versions. Among those is Bend, Oregon-based Oregon Spirit Distillers, which produces Merrylegs Genever.
“We knew we wanted to make a clear spirit and we didn’t want to do a dry gin because it’s boring and didn’t really represent what we wanted—it isn’t very whiskey-ish,” says Oregon Spirit owner Brad Irwin.
When he discovered genever, he knew he’d found the ideal hybrid. “At that time in early 2010, not a lot of people in the U.S. knew about it,” he says. “Your quality mixologists had heard of it, but not many people were mixing with it because it falls in the gin category but doesn’t really taste like gin. No one knew what to do with it, ” Irwin says.
Oregon Spirit Distillers then released Merrylegs, which has since won four medals in major spirits competitions.
“I love selling Merrylegs to people who are used to malt-based products—beer drinkers and whiskey drinkers—because it always has the maltbased profile that people appreciate,” notes Irwin. “My favorite thing to hear from a customer is ‘I don’t like gin.’ Yay, you don’t like gin! I’ve got the perfect product for you.”
There are three distinct styles in the Netherlands.
Oude means “old,” but has nothing to do with age. It signifies that it’s the old-style genever. Its malt wine content must be between 15 and 50 percent (the rest is neutral spirit).
Jonge meaning “young,” is the newer style with a more neutral base. To be classified as “jonge,” its malt wine content must be below 15 percent.
Korenwijn means “grain wine” and its malt wine content is between 51 and 70 percent.