As is the case with many once-popular cocktail ingredients, the early 20th century wasn’t kind to genever, gin’s 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 17th-century 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 called 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 current 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 New York bartender Eben Freeman. “My father asked me to stock a home bar for him, and I chose Bols for the crock alone. The first Gin & 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, which sent each of the participants a bottle of its dark, high-malt corenwyn genever after the conference. In his Corenwyn Clipper, Freeman shakes genever with blackberry liqueur and tops it with sparkling wine, yielding a drink that’s akin to a heavyweight’s Gin Fizz.
“[Genever] drinks like a sweet and savory white whiskey with yeasty, malty earthiness and light pine notes,” says Chad Solomon, who pairs the spirit with malted aquavit, pine liqueur and pine extract in the Pinetop Perker.
Like blending rums in a tiki drink, combining gin and genever together can add complexity to a drink, a method that San Francisco’s Alex Smithfavors in 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.
Genever harmonizes well with confectionery flavors, like the vanilla tones of certain sweet vermouths (see: Sugar Monk’s Hanky Panky) or the nuttiness of amontillado sherry (see: the Mint Julep–Sherry Cobbler mashup I Am ... I Said). And its malty flavor is welcome in rich flips, too.
Finally, consider pairing the spirit with beer, in a nod to the Netherlands’ beer-and-genever-shot ritual, kopstootje (literally, “little headbutt”). At New York’s Dutch Kills, the Hop Over riffs on the radler by introducing genever to hoppy IPA, orange flower water and falernum, while the McIntosh from a.o.c. in Los Angeles blends an IPA, poached apple purée and housemade pecan-brandy syrup—a liquid interpretation of apple pie. A thoroughly modern cocktail, the latter plays on genever’s Dutch roots and its prominent place in America’s cocktail history.