It has been said that the Scots have their whiskey, the French their congac, and the Dutch their genever. It is not gin, but can be rightfully considered the ancestor of gin. While at one time wildly popular in the United States, Dutch genever has a history dating back hundreds of years. Here's a short introduction to the drink and its history.
What Exactly Is Genever?
Let me start by saying what’s it’s not: genever is not gin, nor is it a “type of” gin. The two spirits really should be considered two separate things, even though clearly genever is the direct ancestor of gin.
Genever is a blend neutral alcohol and moutwijn (“malt wine,” a whiskey-like grain mash of corn, wheat, and rye). To this is added a distillate of juniper and other botanicals and spices. From there, the genever was traditionally barrel aged. This differs from gin, which is not barrel aged and is made without the malt wine or grain mash.
Consequently, it’s probably easiest to think of genever as a middle ground between whiskey and gin.
It makes a great Old Fashioned (especially with celery bitters – a personal favorite) and can be sipped straight just fine. You probably wouldn’t want to make a Gin & Tonic with it, though.
The History of Genever
Genever is simply the Dutch word for “juniper.” The berries from the tree (“jeneverbes” in Dutch) were long considered to have medicinal properties. It was considered to be particularly restorative for kidney problems, and some rumors point to Juniper cordials as a ward against the Black Death of the mid 14th century.
So, it is natural that including them with distilled wine and grain spirits to create medicinal cordials has a long history – well back into the Middle Ages. In fact, the Belgian National Genever Museum declares that genever was first created in Flanders in the thirteenth century, courtesy of a written references to it in Der Naturen Bloeme.
By the late 1400s, these juniper-infused cordials were well underway in a transition from medicinal treatment to social spirit. Records from that time confirm that the Dutch (or technically, Burgundians in that era) were making large quanties of brandewijn, a catch all for all forms of spirit but primarily applied to those with a base of cereals.
Using a grain mash instead of distilled wine was a cheaper production method. However, it was not as palatable due to the lack of refined distilling techniques at that time when only the pot sill was in use. So, distillers in the Low Countries (and elsewhere) began to experiment with various other herbs, botanicals, and spices to mask the flavor. Naturally, the juniper berries used in the medicinal cordials were an obvious ingredient to experiment with.
This was a trend that only accelerated in the 17th century with the rise of the Dutch Republic as an international trading powerhouse. Its ports became centers for the spice trade, which quickly made their way into the genever being distilled in most cities across the Low Countries – both in the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium and northern France).
This period saw the first printed genever recipe in the Een Constelijck Distileerboec in the 16th century.
Genever and Gin
As for that British staple known as gin, the most likely historical trajectory appears to coincide with the 1688 elevation of Prince William III of Orange, stadtholder of most of the provinces of the Dutch Republic, to the throne of England and Scotland. The Dutch William loved the genever of his homeland and tried, not quite successfully, to recreate it across the North Sea. That, combined with the popularity of his reign, lead to the growth of popularity of what would become gin.
Although, there’s also the complimentary theories that say British soldiers brought genever back with them from their fighting in the Low Countries in the late 16th century and then again in the 1630s.
I’d wager that all the above played a hand in the creation of gin from genever.
The Traditional Clay Genever Jug
Genever has traditionally been bottle in clay jugs, often with a carrying handle. Over time, the jug itself and its specific shape have become an iconic symbol of the Dutch spirit.
The oldest we have that I’ve seen reference to date from the mid 1500s, but it’s not an altogether uncommon occurrence to find jugs from the 17th century scattered about worldwide in all the places the Dutch Republic and its trading companies were at.
These jugs are also incredibly hard to come by in the United States, even as you can find them used as flower pots across the Netherlands and Belgium.
This is why I chose to commission one. My reasoning being, if I’m doubling down on my persona research and study of the late 16th century Netherlands by tracking down some suitable genever to share at SCA events (when there is a wet site, of course), then I ought to have a suitable, authentic jug to share it in.
So, it was a happy coincidence to be introduced to potter Doug Vukson-Van Beek (known as Tosten du Calais within the SCA) a few weeks back and inquire about a genever jug. Lo and behold, I arrive at Kris Kinder 2016 only to find he’d been able to make one – and a pretty spectacular one, at that (which you see in the photo at the top of this article).
So there you have it.
If you see me and the jug at an event, you’re welcome to taste some genever of your own.