Genever: Renewal of a Historical Spirit
Getting lost in the winding mazes of side streets and canals in Amsterdam’s Old Centre is easy. And Wynand Fockink Spirits is easy to miss, laid into a side street, with two stories of white-paned windows, and a small sign above the doorway. When you do find it and step in, you’re transported back in time. The floorboards creak below your shoes, and on the left is a wooden bar with bottles, emblazoned with the bar’s signature logo, lined up on shelves from floor to ceiling.
The bar dates back to 1679, where patrons would come in and ask for liqueurs named “Bridal’s Tears” to celebrate upcoming nuptials or a “John in the Cellar”, to announce a pregnancy. You can ask for similar liqueurs today and travel even further back in time, ordering the country’s original grain spirit, corenwijn, or malt-based gin, or genever. The bar and its attached distillery are now owned by the Lucas Bols company, one of the first brands of genever to start this historical spirit’s revival.
Wynand Fockink still produces corenwijn and a few bottles are available for purchase. It has fallen out of popularity but it does inform one of the main components that defines genever—its malt-spirit base made from grain. Regardless of the “corn wine” namesake, most bottlings, both then and today, are a ratio of corn, wheat, and rye. Because of the difficulty in fermenting and distilling this mash bill in the 17th century, most of these liquors were tough to swallow. Inspired by the monks, producers added local juniper to make this spirit more ingestible and was a medicine for the diseases plaguing Europe at the time.
The Bols company had already been distilling for two generations when Lucas Bols was born in 1653. Executive Director of Genever at Bols, Sandie Van Doorne, explains, “Why was the company named after him? He became one of the Dutch East Indies Trading Company’s shareholders, and he signed a contract in 1700 that allowed him first choice of botanicals and spices from the East. Here was one example of how genever’s two components—malt spirit and botanicals—eventually met.”
Amsterdam entered their golden age as a trade and shipping port by receiving herbs and spices from all over the world. It was only natural that genever recipes grew and not just in Amsterdam.
Sixty miles south of Amsterdam and 15 miles south of Rotterdam is the small harbor town of Dordrecht. It’s a larger village that still feels quaint with winding canals that run out to the Rhine River in Germany. Rutte stands out from the grey and brown cobblestone facades with its bright red awning. Rutte was established in 1872 by Simon Rutte, who was already a third-generation distiller. He bought the small shopfront to sell wine and eventually the genever from his family distillery. The business went through his son, Anton, and then John. Current distiller, Myriam Hendrickx, was hired from the outside in 2003 to learn the family business, but unfortunately, John passed away a mere month after she arrived.
Laura Schacht, an ambassador for genever, is sitting with us, and while tasting through their range, explains, “Myriam needed help to go through the attic and found plenty of old books with the recipes from the whole family history. They tried to investigate through the number on the bottles—they were able to place recipes on a timeline. Every time [Hendrickx] comes up with new recipes, she goes back to the old books to see how they would have done it in the family and gives it her interpretation.”
Behind us is a massive wall of glass jars with ingredients listed in Dutch. Single-botanical tinctures fill each jar. Tasting through the Rutte line, it’s clear that Hendrickx has a knack for botanically-driven spirits. Her celery gin has won multiple awards and her “Old Simon” genever is made with hazelnut and carob tinctures, fresh berries, licorice, and of course, juniper. A malt base is used for Rutte’s gins, but here, in this trading city, that’s not the most crucial part.
Schacht continues, “Here we have botanicals. If malt fits, we’ll use 100 percent but if we want certain characteristics, it doesn’t need the high malt-spirit base. We could but then we would over-distill, to call it 100 percent. The geographic area took shape by having the waterways come through to make a city that was rich and thriving. Historically, the shop sold wine, started distilling with what came through, and took knowledge from previous generations.”
The landscape heading farther inland and away from the water starts to reflect the material that gives genever its whiskey-like quality. Beyond the botanicals is genever’s distinctive malt base. We drive through rural farmland and wheat fields dotted with cattle where the government forced the relocation of grain distillers because of the smell and pollution that resulted in working with it. It wasn’t fit for thriving city centers and many of the distilleries settled in Schiedam. Traversing down all the grey cobblestone is the Notaris distillery, with its distinctive (and very Dutch) working windmill that graces the entrance. It is one of the only malt spirit distilleries in the Netherlands. Along with outside Belgian distillers, they help provide the base product for others who focus on macerates and tinctures—just as Hendrickx does at Rutte. The malt portion is so important in Schiedam that it even has its own seal.
England had caught onto gin, and as we know it today, as a neutral grain spirit, not malt-based spirit. The palate across the globe began to favor drier styles over time, and politics had taken its toll on malt-based spirits in the 1900s. Prohibition occurred in the US and both World Wars saw the rationing of grains. Artillery was made from copper pot-stills. Neutral grain spirit came into style and the higher percentage of it in the spirit compared to a low percentage of malt base became known as Jonge or Young. A higher percentage of the malt-spirit base versus neutral grain became known as Oude or old-style. It’s in Schiedam and at Notaris where the old-style is making a comeback. Schiedam awards the seal to spirits who follow the same set of regulations that were in place in 1902—an incentive for at least 15 percent malt-base in genever.
Master distiller, Ad van der Lee, explains why it was needed, “There was a decline in quality and many companies started to use neutral alcohol. They made it in large columns from cheaper raw materials and the flavor was diluted. The protection rules were done by the fourth generation of the company. Because of World Wars I and II, the company was forced to make not 100 percent malt spirit. After 1960, you wouldn’t find it until 1987 where the sixth-generation decided to bring back the heritage of his grandfather and do it again.”
It’s not just the Dutch who wanted to harken back to old fermentation practices and experimental botanical recipes. At the same time that Bols was crafting a comeback, bartenders across the globe were searching for craft. Since 2000, a cocktail Renaissance took over bars in the United States. Bartenders were reaching for pre-Prohibition recipe books from the likes of Harry Craddock, Charles H. Baker, and Jerry Thomas. Many had multiple recipes calling for “Holland gin” and just as the desire for new cocktail recipes surfaced, so did the search for historical spirits. Bols’s original method from 1820 was re-discovered, re-made, and re-launched in 2008 to wide acclaim from the trade. Now, distilleries are exploring re-iterations of genever recipes all over the Netherlands and more of them are hitting the global market. They’re ready to spread the word of the Dutch’s beloved spirit—it only took one hundred years.