Exploring the tang of Dutch genever

AMSTERDAM -- At the end of a long day exploring the Dutch capital's delightful streets, the light from our neighborhood eetcafe glowed like a beacon at sea, but we had to cross only one narrow canal and a few more rain-slicked cobbles to land at its gleaming bar.

A bracing drink was in order. I hadn't done my usual research before this trip, but somewhere in the cobwebs of my brain, I remembered reading an article, a year or two prior, about gin's Dutch origins.

"That's right -- it's called genever," said Timen, the affable young bartender at Cafe van Beeren. "Let me pour you a couple of my favorites, and you see what you think."

He set a frosty shot glass in front of me and filled it just to the brim, so that the liquid billowed above it without spilling. And without any clear thought, I lowered my head, put my lips to the cup and slurped.

Timen nodded, smiling. "That's exactly how you're supposed to do it. You don't want your hands to warm the glass."

I'd just wanted to avoid spilling any, but what I got was the taste of a brand-new but very old world.

Gin is my drink, but I'd only ever had the London-style gins found on Pennsylvania's state-store shelves. In these the flavor of juniper, from which the name derives, is a mild memory at best, and the mouthfeel is like water.

It's a bit of a challenge to find Dutch genever in the U.S. (the Dutch also spell it "jenever" and Europeans pronounce it "jen-EAV-er," but Americans tend to say it like the name "Jennifer"). You can buy it off the shelf in some large liquor stores in New York City, for instance, but in Pennsylvania, you only can special order one brand from the state's Liquor Control Board website. A few more varieties are available online from out-of-state merchants.

Any way you can get it, it is very much worth the effort.

And with local distillery Wigle Whiskey set to release its first limited batch of barrel-aged "ginever" tonight, you'll also want to try a Dutch import as a point of reference.

Originally a distilled malt wine, the drink got its name from the juniper berries used to flavor it. There's plenty of dispute as to its true origins: Was it invented in Belgium instead of Holland? Does its name come from the Dutch word for juniper berries, jeneverbes, or the French genievre?

Or did great minds in different places just happen to think alike?

Whatever the historical truth, genever had emerged by the mid-1500s as a malt-based spirit infused with the tang and supposedly medicinal qualities of juniper, and it thrived in that form until the early 1900s.

That's what I tasted a few months ago in Amsterdam. Discussion of its depth and complexity reminds me of how whiskey-lovers argue about single-malts and blends and various barrel woods. But instead of what I would describe as the golden, smoky flavor of good whiskey, genever has a peppery, evergreen tang which in the best variety -- made by the centuries-old method -- is softened by earthy or woody undertones and a rich, silky mouthfeel.

This old-style -- oude -- was superseded by the jonge -- not young, but new-style -- around the time of World War I, when grain shortages and new distilling techniques sent producers to molasses and other sources for their alcohol. For the past century, these blander, almost interchangeable spirits have dominated the international market.

Lately, though, there's been a resurgence of interest in the quirky, the artisanal and the old-school, which accounts for the sudden but limited availability of genever in the U.S.

How genevers are classified depends on how much malt wine they contain. The jonge style has 15 percent or less; the oude has 15 percent or more (and is considerably sweeter); and in a third variety, corenwyn or korenwijn (grain wine), the portion from malted grains is upwards of 50 percent.

We brought home a bottle of each of the two marvelous genevers we had at Cafe van Beeren. They were available at the duty-free shop in Amsterdam's airport, and bringing home one bottle per adult is the U.S. limit.

Our favorite, Bokma Oude Friesche Genever, is very smooth, with an earthy softness to offset the juniper tang and a silky, almost oily mouthfeel. We've made a liter last through six months of occasional tippling: The better the drink, the less you imbibe. It's so good, you hardly want to swallow. And once it's gone, that's it -- I have yet to find a single American importer of this gem.

We also loved and brought home the Lucas Bols Corenwyn, an old-style genever that's barrel-aged for years, slightly golden in color rather than clear, and sold in a distinctive tall, clay bottle. It balances a peppery tang with smoky malt flavors -- a liquid autumn forest.

Although the Bols Corenwyn is not available in the U.S., other Bols genevers are. Their New York office has a comprehensive list of American retailers (212-213-1701). On my husband's next business trip to Manhattan, he'll be visiting Warehouse Wines & Spirits to nab a bottle or two.

Pennsylvania's LCB offers Boomsma Jonge Genever, which you can order online and have shipped to you for about $37. This new-style genever has more bite than its elders. It's prickly and peppery at first, but there's a nice spread and cling to the finish. If I can't have Bokma, I'll certainly appreciate Boomsma.

I recently tried Junipero Gin, from San Francisco's Anchor Distilling, even though it's a London-style gin, wondering how the emphasis on juniper would compare to Dutch genevers. Its strong peppery kick is tempered by some citrus, herbs and other botanicals, and it has a more interesting, smoky finish than I expected. Overall, though, it's more crisp and less earthy than I like. It's available for $34 at a few local state stores.

Just behind Junipero's 49.3-percent alcohol-by-volume is Wigle Whiskey's "Ginever," at 47 percent. (The Dutch imports range from 38- to 40 percent ABV.) I tried Wigle a few months ago as soon as I learned they were experimenting with a "Dutch-style gin." I found it a very strong, green taste -- not as soothing as my preferred brands -- but I was intrigued to learn they were barrel-aging a limited batch for spring release. (See related sidebar.)

Most of the genevers or artisanal gins I've sampled have too-strong personalities to blend easily with other flavors -- not that I'm any kind of mixologist -- and the best don't need anything added at all. I realize now that what I was enjoying about dry London gins all these years was either the bitter quinine of tonic water or the olives that dirtied a martini. Genevers don't need any other flavor. Their rich, complex taste stands alone.

Ruth Reamer: food@post-gazette.com.


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