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The Serious Eats Guide to Genever

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The Dutch have long had a cosmopolitan culture, and the spirit we know as genever testifies to that fact. Beginning in the 16th century, the Dutch profited mightily off the spice trade, sending shipping fleets around the world in hunt of spices to sell on the European market. The global reach of the Dutch spice trade may seem like just a historical footnote, but it plays an important role in the history of both gin and its antecedent spirit: genever.

As I mentioned last week while describing the history of gin, 16th-century Dutch pharmacists sold a medicine made of barley wine or barley spirit. The medicine was rough tasting, and instead of making it palatable with a spoonful of sugar, the pharmacists relied on Holland's thriving spice trade, and started blending the medicine with juniper berries and other spices. This was the origins of genever and its descendent, gin.

Genever today tastes malty (similar to a light Scotch) with subtle undernotes of herbs and spices. It's fair to say that genever tastes somewhat like a blend of gin and a light Scotch whisky, but that description is also an oversimplification. I've chosen to discuss genever separately from gin simply because genever is a unique spirit. If you don't like gin's piney qualities, please do not assume you'll also dislike genever.

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Hoe maakt men genever? // How is genever made? [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

Genever: Spelling and Pronunciation

Genever, jenever, genièvre, ginebra...they're all variant spellings of the same word.

As for how it's pronounced, that depends on whom you ask. In the U.S., you mostly hear juh-NEE-ver or JEN-uh-ver. The Dutch pronunciation, however, is closer to ye-NAY-ver.

Where It's From, What It Is, and How It's Made

By the laws of the European Union, genever can be made in only a few areas: the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of Germany and France.

Genever starts with a blend of malted barley, rye, and corn. This grain blend is ground or milled, and then mixed with water to form a mash, in a process similar to Scotch whisky production. Mashing allows the water to break down the starches in the grain and make them "available" to the fermentation process. Fermentation can take up to several days; slower fermentation results in more complex flavors.

The fermented mash is distilled, up to three or four times, to produce a delicate, malty spirit. Some of that new spirit is distilled yet again, but this time with a blend of aromatic botanicals, such as juniper. The botanical-laden spirit is mixed with spirit made without added botanicals, and then this is blended further with neutral grain spirit. In some cases, this blend is then aged, up to five years or more.

Types of Genever

Before discussing the types of genever, I need to clarify some terms. Oude and jonge may seem to correspond to the English words old and young, and they certainly do. But you would be mistaken to think that oude is aged, and jonge is unaged. Instead, the terms refer to recipes and distillation techniques; oude genever is the older style, using a traditional recipe; jonge is a newer style, using a more modern recipe.

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[Photograph: Lucas Bols]

Genever Brands Available in the United States

The Netherlands and Belgium produce a number of genevers that are not currently exported to the United States. In this section, I'll focus solely on brands you might conceivably find at your local liquor store, or online at retailers such as BevMo or DrinkUpNY. At present, unfortunately, there aren't many.

One of the world's most famous vodka brands, Ketel One, started as a genever distillery; its genevers are available in Europe, but not in the United States, alas. (You can get their gin, Nolet's Silver Dry.)

Are you into genever? Got a favorite brand? Let us know in the comments.

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