The cocktail renaissance may well be in full swing, but it’s forgotten one of the spirits that started it all: genever. We took a trip to Amsterdam for a lesson in Dutch courage from Lucas Bols, the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand…
Traditionally drunk neat, this juniper-flavoured malt spirit played a starring role in early cocktail history. In fact, by the 19th century, one in four cocktails were made with genever (or ‘Dutch courage’). The father of American mixology Jerry Thomas favoured the spirit, frequently referring to “Hollands gin” in his books. He even named a drink in its honour – the Improved Holland Gin Cocktail.
Today Bols Genever is made according to the original 1820 recipe that Thomas and co found so compelling all those years ago, but the company’s history goes back further. Its very first genever was bottled back in 1664 – almost 100 years, if you can believe it, after the business was founded back in 1575. Despite centuries of rich history it’s gin, not genever, that has stolen the junipery limelight (at least for now). And yet without genever, there would be no gin.
When Dutchman William of Orange married Mary, daughter of James II of England, (the couple ruled England, Scotland and Ireland jointly) in the 17th century, he brought genever to England explains Sandie van Doorne, executive director at Lucas Bols. Distilleries in London wanted to start producing it, but at the time, they didn’t know how to recreate the most fundamental element of genever – malt spirit. “Instead they just created alcohol with juniper berries and named it after genever, calling it gin,” she says.
Bols’ malt spirit is made with three different grains – rye, wheat and corn (all malted, naturally), explains Piet van Leijenhorst, master distiller at Lucas Bols. “We do a long fermentation and distill it three times, then we marry it for six to eight weeks – during that time, the flavours are balancing with each other,” he says. “Then you make a distillation of this malt spirit with juniper berries. Other botanicals can be used to make a more complex taste and each producer has their own ideas about which botanicals to use. But the malt spirit and the juniper berry distillate is the base of all genevers.”
Historically, genever was made with malt spirit and just a handful of botanicals – mostly, van Leijenhorst says, because the column still didn’t yet exist, and as such, neither did neutral grain spirit – but today, many producers aren’t shy about adding flavour in this way. All Lucas Bols’ genevers are malt-spirit led as a nod to the past, in fact back in 2017 the team launched Bols Genever 100% Malt Spirit, described as “genever in its purest form”.
While genever has long been part of Dutch drinking culture, the malt-based spirit had fallen out of favour. Now, however, native drinkers are embracing their national spirit once more. “We see a new group of younger consumers who are taking up genever again,” says van Doorne. “People are going back to local traditions, local products, local brands. Genever is still the biggest spirits category in the Netherlands – the aged genevers especially are in favour.”
As for how to drink it – traditionally, the spirit is served in a tulip glass. “In Amsterdam there are bars that have a very low counter; you have a tulip glass filled completely to the brim with genever and you have to slurp it,” says van Leijenhorst. There’s also the kopstoot (‘headbutt’ in English) which is a beer served with genever; basically a Dutch Boilermaker. No matter the style of said genever – whether it’s heavy on the malt spirit, heavy on the botanicals, or even barrel aged – they all have a corresponding craft beer pairing. And of course, there are cocktails – below, you’ll find two to try at home. Proost!
Red Light Negroni
Named after the Lucas Bols Distillery, which is situated just around the corner from Amsterdam’s red light district. Served, fittingly, in a lightbulb. “The genever gives additional complexity but also makes it very smooth and grounds the whole drink,” explains van Doorne.
30ml Bols Genever Original
30ml Galliano L’Aperitivo
30ml Sweet vermouth
Pour all the ingredients over ice and stir. Garnish with an orange twist.
A malty and refreshing twist on the classic vodka-based Moscow Mule.
45ml Bols Genever Original
15ml Fresh lime juice
Top up with ginger beer
Dash of Angostura bitters
Fill the glass with ice and pour in 45ml Bols Genever Original. Top up with ginger beer, some fresh lime juice and a dash Angostura bitters. Garnish with the squeezed lime.