Bringing It Back Bar: What to Do with Genever

Every bar sports marginal bottles that elude even the most seasoned drink-makers. That is, until someone dusts them off and uses them in a new way. In "Bringing It Back Bar," we shine a light on overlooked bottles and devise recipes to take them from back bar to front shelf. Up now: the malty proto-gin, genever.

As is the case with many once-popular cocktail ingredients, the early 20th century wasn’t kind to genever, gin’s thicker and malty predecessor. But the twice-distilled, juniper-inflected spirit made from a base of malt wine was once a staple of both Western European drinking and, later, America’s emerging cocktail culture. 

Having originated in the Netherlands and Belgium, genever spread in popularity after members of the Royal Navy garnered a taste for “Dutch courage” when England fought alongside the Netherlands in the Thirty Years’ War. Whereas gin earned a reputation for being of poor quality, genever—the original recipes for which recall the complexity of whiskey more so than they do modern-day gin—held its standing as a more carefully produced, better-tasting product for nearly two centuries. In all likelihood, the “gins” that barman Jerry Thomas calls for in his 19th-century bartenders guides were, in fact, genever, as the era’s importers were bringing in considerably more of it than they were English gin.

Then, in the 1880s, vermouth gained popularity as a valuable tool in the American bartender’s arsenal, paving the way for lighter, brighter cocktails—ideal for gin, and less so for genever. A decade later, the introduction and subsequent boom of the dry Martini further established gin as the country’s preferred juniper spirit. And, though scientific advances in distillation saw a lighter style of genever (known as jonge) emerge, it, along with the darker, maltier style (oude), never regained traction in the market.

The eruption of World War I didn’t help matters. Spurred by a wartime shortage of malt, the jonge style became the standard out of necessity. Following the war, in 1919—the same year that the United States instituted Prohibition—Belgium enacted a ban on hard liquor, further sealing the spirit’s 20th-century fate.

Needless to say, when it reentered the market anew during our present cocktail renaissance drinkers and bartenders alike weren’t sure what to do with the stuff.

“The first time I encountered genever was back in the late ’80s,” says Eben Freeman of New York’s Genuine Liquorette. “My father asked me to stock a home bar for him, and I chose Bols for the crock alone. The first Gin and Tonic I made with it was, safe to say, not what I had expected, nor wanted.”

He only began experimenting with the spirit again following a molecular mixology workshop hosted by Bols, the namesake brand of the famed Dutch distiller, who sent each of the participants a bottle of their dark, high-malt corenwyn genever after the conference. In his Corenwyn Clipper, Freeman shakes genever with blackberry liqueur and tops it with sparkling wine for a drink that’s akin to a heavyweight’s Gin Fizz.

At Midnight Ramblerin Dallas, Chad Solomon plays on genever’s distinct flavors, blending it with malted aquavit, pine liqueur and pine extract in the Pinetop Perker. “[Genever] drinks like a sweet and savory white whiskey with yeasty, malty earthiness and light pine notes,” he says. (At the bar, the drink—a sort of Egg Sour by way of northern Europe—is finished with a spritz of housemade “Alpine Woodland Essence” built on aromas of cedar, fir and bergamot.) The spirit’s botanical flavors are emphasized again in The Herbivore, a blend of genever, cardamaro, green Chartreuse and celery bitters that’s stirred, strained and served with a lemon peel at City House Nashville.

Riffing on the tiki tradition of blending different rums into one drink, beverage director Alex Smith of San Francisco’s gin-centric bar Whitechapel (from tiki man Martin Cate) opts for a one-two punch of both gin and genever in many cocktails. “I like the clean, crisp quality of gin, but feel that the bready or cereal notes in genever can add a mysterious backbone,” he says, adding that, historically, punches often called for funky spirits, like genever. But he lets the spirit shine on its own alongside savory, caraway-laced kümmel in The Dutch Nemesis, an herbaceous drink sweetened with pineapple gum syrup and lightened with sparkling wine.

Finally, at Los Angeles’ a.o.c., Dutchman Christiaan Röllich marries the Netherlands’ beer-and-genever-shot ritual, kopstootje (literally, “little headbutt”) with a drink with distinctly American roots: the McIntosh, a blend of IPA, poached apple purée and housemade pecan-brandy syrup—a liquid interpretation of apple pie. A thoroughly modern cocktail, it plays on genever’s Dutch roots and its prominent place in America’s cocktail history.