Guest Spirit: Genever
WORDS: Richard Croasdale
Thursday 08 March 2018
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As a lover of quality spirits and enjoyer of the occasional cocktail, I was dimly aware of The Netherlands’ national drink,genever, but only to the extent that I knew it was like gin, yet somehow different. That’s why I took the opportunity while in Amsterdam to meet up with Ivar de Lange, master bartender at Lucas Bols, to find out more.
Founded in 1575, Bols is the world’soldest surviving spirits brand, and has been making genever since 1664. The Dutch have been drinking the stuff for much longer though; since at least the 14th century, when it was consumed as a way of warding off the plague, which was at the time busily wiping out three quarters of Europe.
“Genever started out as a non-alcoholic drink, simply water steeped with juniper berries,” explains Ivar. “Later, to give it a longer shelf life, they started adding grape alcohol. The Netherlands is a lot like the UK in that grapes don’t grow particularly well here, so this was an expensive business and we pretty quickly had the smart idea of switching over to grain-based alcohol.” The grain spirit that forms the basis of all genever is called Corenwyn, ‘coren’ being the Dutch word for grain. It’s a four-time distilled spirit with juniper berry, that uses a mash bill of roughly two parts corn to one part wheat and one part rye, with a dash of barley to help the
five-day fermentation along. In the 17th century, this smooth and complex spirit was picked up by the English, who had no idea how to replicate it, so just threw a bunch of botanicals at some neutral grain spirit, bastardised the name genever, and thus gin was born.
The long and ingredient-intensive process for making corenwyn is predictably expensive, and through the history of genever, there has been a trend for using less and less, leading to the development of several distinct categories of the spirit, most importantly oude (old) and jonge (young). Confusingly, this has nothing to do with ageing. Oude genever was the predominant style before the Second World war, and uses a much higher proportion of malt corenwyn, whereas cheaper, lighter jonge genever – bulked out with our old pal neutral grain spirit – took off in the 20th century.
Whether oude or jonge though, genever typically comes out as a relatively smooth spirit with light botanical notes (much lighter than British gin, for example, though often using the same group of botanicals). Despite being quadruple-distilled, oude genever in particular retains distinct malty notes that fans of beer and whisky will find delicious.
It’s a versatile spirit too, and can be served in a number of ways, as Ivar – whose duties at Bols include cocktail creation and “drinking strategies” – explains. “Genever is made to be enjoyed neat, but is also great in cocktails,” he says. “If you go the states and look at the first cocktail book ever written, one in four of the cocktails there was made with genever – it outsold gin massively. Then, when prohibition hit, we stopped exporting while the Scots and English continued. Gin and whisky flourished, whereas genever really died back to its home market, where it’s still the number one spirit.
“Probably the most popular serve though is the kopstoot, which translates as ‘headbutt’ in English; a beer served with a genever chaser. This usually takes the form of a light pilsner with an equally light jonge genever, though people are becoming more adventurous. There are obviously some great craft beers in The Netherlands now, which pair very well with some of the more flavoursome genevers like barrel-aged corenwyn. We hold a kopstoot club here, which has grown a lot over the past year, and we spend most of our time experimenting with different pairings.”
The reason this particular serve is called a headbutt is disputed, though two theories prevail. The first is that it refers to a famous Dutch boxer from the 1940s, whose famed one-two punch was reminiscent of the double whammy of genever and beer. The second (slightly more esoteric) explanation is that the genever chaser is served in a traditional ‘slurpertje’ glass: a short, fluted shot glass that should be filled right to the brim. As these glasses were difficult to lift without spilling your precious genever, it is customary for the drinker to lean over and ‘slurp’ the first sip hands-free. This, the theory goes, would often lead the seasoned drinker to headbutt the bar. As an interesting footnote to this grand tradition, the kopstoot is sometimes also referred to as a ‘hauf and hauf’ which, as our Scottish readers will no doubt be aware, is also the name given to a beer and whisky chaser. One of many links between the worlds of whisky and genever.
It’s been a fascinating evening chatting with Ivar in the cosy surroundings of the drie Fleschjes bar, and I feel I have a much better understanding of this delicious and subtle spirit. As someone who has never really had much time for gin, I feel slightly vindicated to have spent a night with its more refined, mature older sister. It would be great to see a resurgence of genever outside of The Netherlands and, given the larger current trends, I believe the drinks world might be ready.
KOPSTOOT; a beer served with a genever chaser
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