Original Gin

Paul Blow

Bartenders receive a lot of attention for their role in the culinary cocktail revolution, as they’re the ones mixing up all the creative drinks. But credit must also go to the distillers and spirit producers. Without them, we wouldn’t have the wide selection of rye whiskies available to us to make a proper Manhattan or Old Fashioned. We wouldn’t have a wide selection of bitters, with flavors from grapefruit to celery. And we wouldn’t have specialty liqueurs like crème de violette, which are called for in some antique recipes.

Last year another historic product, genever, had its American revival. Otherwise known as jenever or Holland gin (it’s still popular in the Netherlands, with hundreds of brands on the market), genever is gin’s grandfather, made from grain mash rather than neutral spirits. Two genevers entered (or re-entered) the market last year: One version is from the venerable Dutch distiller Bols, and the other is Genevieve by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling, which can’t call its attempt at the early gin style genever, because the name was granted AOC status by the EU in 2007 and can only be applied to spirits produced in the Netherlands and a few surrounding countries.

Both genever and gin are infused with juniper berries and other botanicals. The main difference is in the base spirit. Gin is a highly aromatized liquor based on neutral grain vodka, which is a thin, high-proof spirit. Original genever recipes, on the other hand, are based on malt wine, which is a mixture of rich grains like rye, corn, wheat, and barley, all distilled to a low proof. The malt wine comes out of the still tasting like unaged whiskey. And it’s that profile—malty, heavy, viscous, earthy—that gives character to genever.

The Bols product is gorgeous, with a rich, weighty mouthfeel, grainy richness, and a gentle evocation of juniper. “We went back into our databases, and there were around 300 [genever] recipes that have been collected since 1664,” Tal Nadari of Bols told me at a recent seminar. “They just started experimenting … and the one that won out in the end was the 1820 recipe. This recipe was high on malt wine, but it also came at a time when they had just learned how to use column distillation, so the product is far smoother than the ones preceding it.”

Bols Genever is a blend of malt wine (more than 50 percent) with some other botanical distillates and neutral grain alcohol. Anchor’s Genevieve is a little fierier, due to pot distillation and a higher proof, but it has that same malty heaviness, round feel in the mouth, and ethereal juniper quality.

Genever was the most popular spirit in the United States and Europe until the late 18th century, when lighter, drier, English-style gins started to rise. “But after Prohibition was enacted in 1920,” writes cocktail historian David Wondrich, “we cease to hear much about [genever] as a cocktail liquor. After repeal it comes back in the occasional drink, but 14 years of American speakeasy-goers accustoming themselves to the idea that gin at its very best was a blend of neutral spirits and juniper oil had done their damage. World War II, with the German occupation of Holland, was the final blow to genever’s position at the center of American mixology.”

With the renewed interest in old cocktails, there has been some confusion about which turn-of-the-century drinks call for gin and which really mean genever. It does matter. Try—or, rather, don’t try—a genever with tonic. The two don’t pair well at all. But Bols Genever or Genevieve is absolutely delicious when drunk straight or on the rocks. Or try this Improved Holland Gin Cocktail from Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion:

Improved Holland Gin Cocktail
2 ounces genever
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to one part water)
1/2 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
2 dashes angostura bitters
1 dash absinthe

Shake well with plenty of ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.