Jenever (Genever)

Jenever (Genever)

Jenever - the alcoholic beverage flavoured with juniper berries - is a traditional drink from the Netherlands. Jenever (also commonly spelled as genever) has a long history in the Netherlands. Jenever is often described as "Dutch gin" but this is incorrect.

Jenever - a traditional Dutch spirit

Jenever is the Dutch word for juniper, because the drink is flavoured with juniper berries. Jenever was originally made by distilling malt wine until the alcohol content reached 50 percent. The spirit which resulted from distillation had an unpleasant taste - that's why herbs and juniper berry extract were added - to make it palatable.

There are two different categories of jenever: jonge (young) and oude (old). These categories refer to the distilling techniques used to create the types of jenever, rather than the age of the jenever itself.

Jenever is not gin

Jenever is sometimes confused with gin, because their names share the same origin as both spirits use juniper berries. Jenever has a malty flavour, more like whisky than gin, due to the base that is used in making it.

Jenever was brought to England by soldiers coming back from battle during the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century, which inspired the English to make gin. Gin is albeit a completely separate drink, which contains different ingredients and goes through a very different distilling process. 

The origins of jenever

Nowadays, one of the most famous Dutch drinks, it is difficult to tell when exactly in Dutch history jenever was discovered, or who discovered it. Many attribute its discovery to a Dutch doctor in the 17th century, however, jenever was used as a medicine long before it started to be consumed for enjoyment.

In the late 15th century, jenever went from being a medicine to a beverage, and in 1606, taxes were already levied against it, just like other alcoholic drinks. During the 1500s to 1700s, all Dutch cities and even large towns had several distilleries for jenever or other spirits, making use of windmills to grind the malt for the jenever. At one point, Rotterdam had 200 distilleries, making it the unofficial jenever capital.

Cities where jenever is produced today

Nowadays, the Dutch cities Amsterdam, Schiedam, Groningen and Dordrecht are known as jenever-producing cities. There are even events and festivals centred around jenever, the most renowned one being in Schiedam. In Schiedam, there's even a jenever museum. Here are the famous brands and distilleries that come from these cities:

Jenever distilleries in Amsterdam

  • Van Wees
  • Wynandt Fockinck
  • Bols – a well-known brand of jenever, distilling since 1575

Jenever distilleries in Schiedam

  • Notlet – where Ketel 1 jenever is made
  • Onde de Boompjes
  • Hasekamp

Jenever distilleries in Groningen

  • Hooghoudt

Jenever distilleries in Dordrecht

  • Rutte

How jenever is made

The typical distillation of jenever is carried out in several steps:

  • Rye, corn and malt are mixed together and then water and yeast are added. The yeast turns the sugars in the mixture into alcohol. This substance is then distilled until it reaches an alcoholic content of 20 percent.
  • The mixture is distilled a second time, until it has an alcoholic content of 30 percent. In the third round of distillation, the mixture becomes malt wine and reaches an alcoholic content of around 46 to 48 percent.
  • The malt wine (moutwijn) is distilled a fourth time with botanicals and juniper berries. The quantities of juniper berries and herbs vary according to the producer’s specific recipe.

Old jenever and young jenever

Oude jenever and jonge jenever are the two distinct categories of the drink. They are categorised depending on the way they are made and their ingredients, and not their actual age.

Young jenever (Jonge jenever)

Young jenever arose when imports of malt became scarce during the Second World War. It was made using molasses from the sugar beet industry, distilled to high-grade alcohol with an almost neutral flavour.

To carry the name jonge jenever, the spirit must contain no more than 15 percent malt wine and 10 grams of sugar per litre. This type of jenever contains more grain, as opposed to malt. Young jenever can also comprise plain sugar-based alcohol.

Old jenever (Oude jenever)

The word “old” in old jenever is associated with the original method of making jenever, which includes making it from malt wine. The finished product must be more than 15 percent malt wine, with no more than 20 grams of sugar per litre.

Another Dutch drink, Korenwijn or grain wine, is similar to the type of jenever that was available in the 18th century. This alcoholic drink, aged in an oak barrel, contains up to 20 grams of sugar per litre, just like old jenever. The difference is that the malt wine content is higher in Korenwijn, at 51 to 70 percent.

Jenever is a protected term

In 2008, jenever received an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) from the European Union. This means that jenever may only be called jenever (or genièvre or genever) if it is produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and certain parts of France and Germany. This is the same well-known rule that Champagne follows: Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region of France.

How to drink jenever

In bars across the Netherlands, jenever is often served in so-called "tulip glasses", small glasses with turned-out rims that resemble tulips, which are believed to help you enjoy the flavour even better. Jenever is poured right to the top so that the liquid level reaches just above the rim of the glass and is held there by surface tension.

Unlike Dutch beer which should always be served chilled, it is recommended to drink jenever at room temperature. Furthermore, connoisseurs of jenever would tell you to enjoy it slowly, as you would a glass of fine whisky. Young jenever is often drunk as an aperitif, before food, while old jenever is more typically drunk as a digestive, after dinner.

Eating Dutch snacks along with jenever, especially bitterballen, the croquet-like balls, is also a typical Dutch treat. In fact, bitterballen got their name not because the balls themselves are bitter, but because the accompanying distilled spirit - jenever - has a bitter taste. 

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