What is Dutch Genever? Go Bar Hopping in Rotterdam to Find Out

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Our writer logged some serious bar‑stool time on his mission to learn to drink genever like the Dutch.

I can’t remember which bar near Rotterdam’s sleek Central Station I stopped into when I arrived, but the genever I had there was probably a Bols, an example of what I would later understand to be a jonge jenever, or young genever: clear, with hints of sweet petroleum on the nose. I expected it to taste harsh, maybe like a Serbian rakija or certain house‑made Icelandic brennevín, but instead it was slightly malty with a touch of sweetness, herbal but only just. And while it looked and smelled like gin, there was whisky there, good whisky, the kind you roll around on your tongue on the way down.

Laphroaig had initiated me into the pleasures of distilled malts, and I’d come to gin by way of the Gibson (gin, dry vermouth, cocktail onion). My appreciation for both had only grown over the years – and now here was something that seemed to carry the best characteristics of both. I noticed locals drinking theirs quickly, a sort of Dutch espresso. I sipped and savoured mine. By the time I was done and on my way to my hotel, I had decided that my trip was going to take a hard turn so that I could learn as much as possible about this Dutch ancestor of gin, known in North America to only the most immersive mixologists.

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February 15, 2022
A bronze sculpture of a worker in the genever industry
A bronze sculpture of a worker in the genever industry is testimony to the central role the drink played here. At one point there were more than 400 distilleries in Schiedam.   Photo: Stuart Forster/Alamy Stock Photo

Genever was developed as a medicine in 17th‑century Holland. Although meant to take advantage of the diuretic properties of juniper berries, genever quickly became popular for its intoxicating effect. The British got wind of it almost immediately, and began importing it and calling it Schiedam, after the town just outside Rotterdam where it was first distilled. (Then, they infused it with coriander so they could say it was a new drink – gin – and sell it for more.) Now, by European law, genever can be produced only in the Netherlands, Belgium and a few areas of France and Germany (though outside of Europe anyone can make it, and quite a few distillers in Quebec do).

Barrelproof a tiny cocktail boutique in Rotterdam
Barrelproof, a tiny cocktail boutique in Rotterdam, is packed with rare spirits and mixers.   Photo: Barrelproof Company

My first stop was Barrelproof, the spot Google told me was one of the cooler liquor stores in town. Google was right. Not far from the Markthal market and the central Blaak station, the small, bright storefront was stuffed with local and small‑batch gins and genevers. The first question I posed to the woman behind the counter was about the most intriguing bottle in the place, smoked glass emblazoned with a dazzle of white zigzags. Since it had a very un‑Dutch name (Bobby’s), I figured it was an import. “Sebastiaan makes it, actually,” she told me. “It’s his company.”

Despite its obscurity in many parts of the world, I learned that genever is very much a going concern in Rotterdam, and everyone here has a connection to it. I later spoke with Bobby’s Dry Gin founder Sebastiaan van Bokkel, and he told me the story of how his gin (and later his genever, both named Bobby’s), came from a recipe his Indonesian grandfather Jacobus (Bobby) Alfons had devised. Alfons made his own local genever in recycled bottles with common Indonesian ingredients, like cinnamon, cloves, coriander, lemongrass and cubeb pepper, a recipe his grandson still follows. Van Bokkel also let me in on the standard Dutch way to drink the stuff (“You fill the glass up all the way to the edge, then slurp it off the top of the glass, then just nip it”) and introduced me to the kopstoot, a shot of genever with a beer chaser, that translates directly as “head‑butt.”

Schiedam windmill
Schiedam has the tallest windmills in the world, built to mill grain for genever. This wind turbine, which powers the Nolet Distillery, is disguised as a traditional windmill.   Photo: Richard Haddeman/Unsplash

I figured if I wanted the full story, though, I’d need to go to Schiedam, the birthplace of genever. Although it’s a separate town, it was just a couple of metro stations away and there was an official genever museum there that I was told would be the best place to continue my research. But, on the way, I took a wrong turn on the Sunday‑emptied streets of this still very 17th‑century burg, and ended up in front of a bar called Jeneverie ’t Spul. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the relative darkness. Even when I sat down and asked the bartender for a glass of something I might not find in a downtown Rotterdam bar, I hadn’t fully taken in the shelves. They were stocked with bottles of different genevers, the length of the bar, floor to ceiling, about 500 of them.

The bartender (and owner) was Robert van Klaarwater, who turned out to be just the genever historian I was looking for. I told him what I’d already tried, which turned out to be all jonge genevers, so he served me an oude, or old, which was mellower. As I was enjoying it, he explained that “old” didn’t mean it was aged, but that it was distilled in the old way. Young genever, which can be aged, is distilled from no more than 15 percent malt wine, according to Dutch tradition (the rest being neutral spirits), whereas the old requires at least 15 percent. (Both must be 35 percent alcohol by volume.) Then he served me a korenwijn genever, distilled from up to 70 percent malt wine (which is close to how it was made in the 17th century), often aged in barrels, giving it whisky hues and a wide range of flavour profiles. Finally, I got to try a moutwijn genever, or simply “malt wine,” distilled from 100 percent malt wine, which tends to be both stronger (about 40 percent alcohol) and more distinctly flavourful.

 Jenevermuseum housed in a former distillery
The Jenevermuseum is housed in a former distillery. At one point, the town was known as “Black Nazareth” because of the smoke the distilleries produced.   Photo: JeneverMuseum

I spent a long time on that stool. There’s a miniature genever museum in the back of the bar, made up of many artifacts van Klaarwater has collected over the years, like 19th‑ and 20th‑century brand merch and various tools of the distillers’ trade (I didn’t make it back there till I was about seven genevers in, so my memory of it is a bit clouded). I did eventually go to the official genever museum a couple of blocks away. It’s housed in an old distillery that looks as it would have in the 17th century. There’s great stuff there, including tiny bottles of genever at the gift shop, but all I really needed to know about genever, I learned at van Klaarwater’s bar.

At one point, I asked van Klaarwater about what I saw as the vast potential of genever for the cocktail world. He was blunt: “A lot of effort and energy goes into making a drink,” he told me. “And the distiller, if he’s a good one, doesn’t want his drink to be drowned in a cocktail.”

brown earthenware bottles
Ancestor of gin — the original Tom Collins recipe had genever in it — the spirit first made 400 years ago is traditionally stored in brown earthenware bottles.   Photo: Will Perrett / Alamy Stock Photo

Still, I like cocktails. And a couple of weeks after returning from the Netherlands, I ordered a genever manhattan at the dimly lit Canon bar in Seattle. It was there that I realized it hadn’t all been a travel‑induced phantasm: genever really is fantastic, and not only as a kopstoot. I don’t know what kind or what brand of genever my bartender used for my Seattle manhattan. He’d never made one before and went into an enthusiastic whorl to concoct it, taking down different bottles here and there from the spotlit shelves to customize it to genever’s particulars. I know he added walnut bitters at one point.

When it was ready, he set it in front of me and waited, watching, as I took one sip, then a second. I must have made a noise, because the guy sitting next to me asked me what it was. I told him, and gave him a sip. He also made a noise, and ordered one for himself. The bartender glowed. I stayed a while after that – Canon is a good bar – but by the time I left, the issue of whether this new genever cocktail would be named after me or the bartender remained unresolved.

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When You Go — Rotterdam

Stay

Wikkelboat hotel
Photo: Wikkelboat

Wikkelboat

Sleep in a sustainable floating hotel room, complete with deck and outdoor hot tub, moored in a downtown harbour. It’s private enough to keep you from feeling exposed, but a peek out the porthole, or a seat on‑deck, puts you right in the middle of the urban action. If you’re feeling sociable, you can even invite folks crossing a nearby bridge over for a drink as they wave and say hi.

Drink

bar cabnit Jeneverie ’t Spul
Photo: Jeneverie ’t Spul

You have options. In addition to Jeneverie ’t Spul, try 1714 in Schiedam for its hip vibe and menu that includes everything from sashimi to rib‑eye steak; the Rumah, a tiny place downtown that sets out to provide what they call “a new view on the old traditions of Rotterdam”; and Botanero, a Latin American‑themed restaurant and bar with a wide selection of genevers that they will, on request, work into your favourite beach.

Do

Rotterdam architecture
Photo: Richard Ciraulo/Unsplash (Kubuswoningen)

Take in the architecture. Rotterdam was flattened by the Germans on May 10, 1940, and instead of repairing and reviving, the city fathers decided to plow everything that was left into the ground, fill up the canals, and start fresh. The result is one of the most remarkable collections of 20th‑ and 21st‑century architecture in the world. Highlights include the soaring 2014 Central Station, the kubuswoningen or cube houses, built in 1980, that look like a well‑kept shrubbery in concrete, and the modern Markthal, the central market with its 118,000‑square‑foot interior mural of super‑saturated fruits and vegetables, and condos and apartments built into its vaulted walls.

Dine

François Geurds restaurant
Photo: Horecainbeeld (François Geurds restaurant)

François Geurds Restaurant

This restaurant, with its own flavour laboratory, is tucked into a viaduct in the Hofbogen district and features a private dining room in an inverted garden. Dutch chef François Geurds will give you one of those meals you remember forever from an innovative daily menu accompanied by an extensive wine list that includes more than 170 champagnes. Ask to see the salt box, which features 12 very different salts to enhance your taste experience.