Perhaps its the cozy fireplace I’m sitting next to while I write this post from my many starred hotel in Brugge (thanks much, Hotels.com points) that makes me feel imperious and thereby impervious, but dammit I must speak my own truth… And frankly, I’ve always thought jenever was horrible. I first tasted it back when I was working as a brand ambassador for Martin Miller’s Gin, a lovely little London dry. So naturally I was biased towards English gins, and certain that the primitive ancestor of gin, jenever, was a spirit best left in the past, to those with sentimental ties to it (and thereby biased palates), or to those about to die in war (the Dutch famously consumed it before fearlessly plunging into battle). Over the past six years I have avoided the category with great success, save a punch or two at an industry event. This past week I found myself in Amsterdam, and may have made a casual remark on Facebook concerning jenever, that did not go unnoticed by a dear friend and talented (native Dutch) bartender. I received an aggressively punctuated message asking me if I had been to a certain “Wynand Fockink”, and having only gained a slight command over Dutch street names and pancake varietals I was not certain I had. Or perhaps I had been, possibly, completely unbeknownst to me. As long it was not a “coffee shop” or a brothel, I was down. Any invitation given by the talented and lovely bartender (and recent blogger) Tess Posthumus must not be passed up. Tess, in all her passion to educate and enlighten me, invited me to the distillery and tasting room of an old, renowned jenever house in Amsterdam. Just off the Red Light District, home of many zombie-like, pizza/waffel-ravenging millenial touristas, sits an institution, and the most badass place to have a happy hour drink in town. The tasting room is everything I have been looking for and hadn’t yet found – intimate, local, quality – and well hidden in an alley from the very people I was attempting to avoid. I stood, jaw agape, at the shelves buckling under the weight of the multitude of bottles, everything from genres to liqueurs to fruit brandywine. Hans, the bartender on duty smiled gently and then arched an eyebrow in my direction. As it turns out, much like the wildly varying botanical profiles of brands of gin – jenever can be equally diverse.
If you don’t happen to be Dutch, you may be wondering what genever or jenever is, exactly. Jenever (also known as genièvre, genever, peket, or in the English-speaking world as Holland gin or Dutch gin), is the juniper-flavored national and traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium, from which gin evolved. As Martin Miller’s liked to say the Dutch invented it and the English perfected it, which I very much believed prior to this visit. Jenever, still a popular spirit to imbibe in both the Netherlands and Belgium, was originally produced by distilling malt wine to 50% ABV. The resulting spirit was not terribly palatable and herbs were added to mask the flavor, specifically our familiar friend the juniper berry, which was purportedly chosen for its alleged medicinal effects, but it may have had something to do with its aggressive flavor masking abilities. As it turns out there are two types of jenever: oude (old) and jonge (young). The difference between expressions is not a matter of aging, but rather of distilling techniques and available resources. Jonge jenever has a neutral taste, like vodka but yummier and more complex, with subtle aromas of juniper and malt wine. Oude jenever has a smooth, aromatic taste with significantly more malty, earthy flavors. Far more nuanced than memory serves. Sometimes aged in wood, its flavors are quite reminiscent of whisky. During the Great War, lack of imported cereal grains (malt, specifically) grew the category of jonge by default, which contains more grain than malt. Different cereal grains used in the production process – barley, wheat, spelt and rye to name a few – produce different flavored jenevers, go figure. Ketel One is quite well-known for producing vodka in the states, but it started out as – and still is – a jenever distillery (!!!)
So how does one properly consume jenever? Traditionally it is served in a tulip-shaped glass filled to the brim – actually over the brim but not to the point of spilling – and Hans does this with remarkable dexterity every single time he pours. Jonge jenever, colloquially a jonkie – young’un to us yanks – was originally served at room temperature with some sugar and a spoon, not unlike an old fashioned. But the kids nowadays like to drink their jonge ‘vodka style’ from a bottle kept in a freezer or on the rocks (jonge met ijs). Yes, I looked that up – my Dutch did not improve with jenever consumption, unfortunately. Oude jenever (and korenwijn), which is generally perceived (by the Dutch) as being superior, is usually served at room temperature. When jenever is drunk with beer as a chaser (or for the trendy set, boilermaker), it is referred to as a kopstoot, or “headbutt”. Tess and I enjoyed oude with lager, maybe a few times. Maybe I lost count. I might have tried a few of the fantastic liqueurs as well, time and space magically fly in the tasting room of Wynand Fockink! I embraced the very Dutch tradition of the kopstoot thoroughly, like a local – better yet, a native – bending, lady-like, over the counter to take the virgin sip of a nearly overflowing glass without holding it (look ma no hands!) then following with a manly gulp of lager. We then proceeded on to a vertical (sugar content-based) taste of the five different bitter liqueurs produced at Wynand Fockink, all with distinct botanical profiles, and all gorgeous. I tasted the Rogge and Spelt genevers, in addition to the traditional Kornwijn. In short, I left stumbling like many a neophyte Amsterdam-er, though feeling slightly superior given that my inebriation was due to higher learning rather than simple recreational pursuits.