Jenever, gin’s tasty grandpa from Holland

The jenever section in a Dutch liquor store. Traditionally the drink comes in stone jugs.

The jenever section in a Dutch liquor store. Traditionally the drink comes in stone jugs.

One of the most popular (and if I may add a personal note most tasty) drinks is the gin tonic. It goes down smooth every time, even the day after a rough night when the thought of beer alone already gets you nauseous. Even people that don’t like gin or tonic can be quite fund of the combination of the two. The mix drink is a global hit. But not many people know that the invention of gin was actually an accident. The English experimenters who came up with the recipe actually wanted to create jenever, the local strong drink (must be at least 38% to earn the name) in Holland and Belgium. Time to get to know gin’s tasty grandpa.

Nowadays jenever – or Dutch gin as the English call it – isn’t that popular among young people in Holland and Belgium, who mostly turn to beer, wine, cocktails or worldwide better known drinks like vodka, whisky and tequila. Older generations find their way easier towards the booze that’s often kept in a stone jug. There was a time that jenever was significantly more popular. Both Holland and Belgium have a long beer tradition, but if people really wanted to forget the tough everyday life, they would turn to the local hard stuff. When the industrial revolution hit these countries in the 19th century most factory workers didn’t get their payments in money, but straight in jenever.

In these days jenever was made by the original recipe that inspired the English to create gin. But more about that later. This original drink is nowadays known as korenwijn (literal translated: grane wine). In the process alcohol is distracted from malt. For extra flavor juniper berries (and often other herbs) were added. In Dutch they are called jeneverbessen and that explains the name of the drink. Originally it was made as a medicine in the times that the plague was torturing Western Europe. Instead of the juniper berries there were also experiments with other ‘healing herbs’, but the jenever version was found the tastiest. In Holland jenever was produced on a large scale in big cities like Schiedam, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, where in Belgium it was more a product from the countryside and monasteries.

From the start of the 20th century most jenever brands are not made like this anymore, since people realized it was easier to mix water with ethanol than creating malt wine. Since than we see three different kinds of jenever: korenwijn, young jenever and old jenever. The most important difference is that korenwijn has a minimum of 51% malt wine, old jenever less but a minimum of 15% and young jenever no more than 15%. Therefor korenwijn and old jenever have a darker color and a stronger herb flavor.

Now back to how jenever lead to gin. In 1689 the Dutch stadtholder Willem III van Oranje conquered England, Scotland and Ireland and was crowned king of these territories. Jenever could now be exported to Britain without paying expensive taxes. The result was that the drink, on the islands known under the name gin, became quite popular. When Willem III died in 1702 he was childless and in Holland the Second Stadtholderless Period started. To make a long story short: Britain was mostly cut off from jenever, while the people just got the hang of this new drink. So the British started experimenting on their own to find the formula for “Dutch gin”. While they didn’t actually succeed, they did came up with their own gin. The same one we often enjoy nowadays with some tonic and a slice of lemon.

For tourists in Holland or Belgium that want to try a good jenever, it’s advisable to visit one of the traditional “brown bars”. These places (bruine kroegen in Dutch), named after their dark interior usually serve a large variety of different kinds of jenever. And with any luck you get a barman that knows what to pour you.

Micky Bumbar

17 thoughts on “Jenever, gin’s tasty grandpa from Holland

    • Really? Can you tell me more about this? I know that the craft of distillation came to Ireland and Scotland in the 15th century and shortly after the first whiskiey’s and whiskies are mentioned in the history books. If you have some interesting links on this topic, I would love to see them.

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  1. If you were to go to one of the “brown bars” in Holland, you can also order a “kopstoot”, which translates to “headbutt”. What will be placed in front of you is a small glass of jenever and a glass of beer. It is custom to drink the jenever or “borrel” as it is also called in one gulp and then drink the beer as you please.

    This is a way to get warm quickly if you just came in from the cold nasty outside, or a way to speed up the getting-drunk-process.

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