A brief history of Dutch jenever
Jenever or genever both refer to the alcoholic beverage flavoured with juniper berries, which is so typical to the Netherlands. For ease, we will refer to the beverage as jenever. Jenever goes way back in Dutch history, so let’s take a quick look at its origins.
What is jenever?
Jenever is the Dutch word for juniper, hence its use to refer to the spirit, which is flavoured with the berries of this plant. Jenever was originally made by distilling malt wine until the alcohol by volume content reached 50 percent. The spirit which resulted from distillation was not pleasant and so herbs and juniper berry extract were added to give the alcohol a more palatable flavour.
There are two distinct categories of jenever, jonge (young) and oude (old). However, these categories do not refer to the age of the spirit, but to the distilling techniques used to create the types of jenever.
Jenever must not be confused with gin, even though the English word has its origins in the Dutch one. Although both spirits used juniper berries, jenever has a malty flavour, almost like that of whisky due to the base that is used in making it.
When was jenever discovered?
It is difficult to tell when exactly and who discovered jenever. 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 pleasure.
In the late 15th century, jenever made the leap from medicine to beverage, and in 1606, taxes were already levied against it and other alcoholic drinks. During the 1500s to 1700s, every large Dutch town had several distilleries making jenever or other spirits. Rotterdam even had 200 distilleries, making it the unofficial jenever capital.
- Van Wees
- Wynandt Fockinck
- Bols – a well-known brand of jenever, distilling since 1575.
- Notlet – where Ketel 1 jenever is made
- Onde de Boompjes
How is jenever made?
The classical distillation of jenever is done in several steps.
Firstly a mix of rye, corn and malt is made and mixed with water and yeast. The yeast turns the sugars in the mixture into alcohol. This is then distilled in a pot still until it reaches an alcoholic content of 20 percent.
The mixture is distilled again to 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 is distilled again with botanicals and jenever berries according to the distiller’s particular recipe.
Old and young jenever
Oude and jonge jenever refer to two distinct categories of the spirit. Which label a jenever receives depends on the way it is made and its ingredients.
Young jenever came into existence when imports of malt became scarce during the Second World War. The spirit was thus made using molasses from the sugar beet industry, which were distilled to a high-grade alcohol with an almost neutral flavour.
In order 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.
The “old” in old jenever refers to the old-style of making jenever, which includes making it from malt wine. The finished product must be more than 15 percent malt wine and have 20 grams of sugar or less per litre.
Korenwijn or grain wine is similar to the type of jenever that was available in the 18th century. This alcoholic drink contains up to 20 grams of sugar per litre, as does old jenever. However the malt wine content is higher at 51 to 70 percent.
Champagne is made in France, jenever in the Netherlands
In 2008, jenever received an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) from the European Union. This means that, just like Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region in France, jenever may only receive the title of jenever if it is produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and certain parts or France and Germany.
If this article has got you thirsty for some Dutch jenever, why not try making some Dutch punch:
Which typical Dutch food or drink is your favourite?