Unearthing the past

Genever has been out of the mainstream loop for so long that gin has stepped in on the classic cocktails. But Hamish Smith finds grounds for optimism


IMAGINE YOU PRODUCE a spirit that has been in long-term decline. Your loyalists are mostly domestic and at the latter stages of life. When they’re not around anymore, your company won’t be far behind. This is where genever producers found themselves 10 years ago.

Genever, with around half a millennium of rich history, seemed like it was entering its final chapter. During the 20th century the Dutch spirit had become neutral – in flavour profile and ambition. Most brands’ malt wine content – the thing that sets it aside from gin – had dwindled and so had their marketing budgets. Some got out, diversifying into other areas such as gin and liqueurs. All that was left for those that remained was a dying domestic market and a few similarly shrinking export destinations with historical connection to the category (Argentina, West Africa and the Caribbean). In the big spirits markets in the most prosperous parts of the world, genever had almost ceased to exist. To make matters worse its closest relative, gin, was redefining itself as a key player in the cocktail renaissance, flaunting new botanicals and riding the wave of craft.


Yet today things look much more positive. Genever has been rediscovered in pockets and there’s cautious talk that the Dutch spirit could be making a comeback. So how did genever rouse itself from slumber?

It didn’t. A cocktail historian named David Wondrich sounded the alarm. In his now seminal book on classic cocktail culture, Imbibe! (2007), he proposed that many of the classic gin cocktails becoming popular among a new wave of bartenders were likely to have been made with genever. It has since been suggested that genever out-sold gin in the US by as much as 450-1 during the mid-1800s.

“Until Imbibe! came out nobody realised that genever was important to cocktail history, which around 2007 was beginning to get a lot of attention,” says Wondrich. “It was something I discovered in my research and it took a fair amount of digging and even more arguing and waving evidence around to convince people of it (many still don’t believe it, or don’t care). Before that, people – myself included – looked at that word ‘gin’ in books by Jerry Thomas and his contemporaries and assumed it meant London Dry or Old Tom. If genever had been better established, it might have picked up a little more quickly but, as it was, the effect of Imbibe! and the other deeper recovery efforts regarding cocktail history took a couple of years to really sink in. The launch of Bols genever in 2008 helped get that word out, at least in the top bars. But that, too, took a while.”

As Wondrich says, Bols was the first to react. “Genever was completely forgotten as an international product,” says Sandie van Doorne, Bols Genever director & PR. “It’s thanks to David Wondrich and his book. He and bartenders of the time told us they’d forgotten all about our history in classic cocktails. So we started to look and found that our history was ingrained in cocktails. But it took bartenders to remind us.”

By 2008 the cocktail renaissance was well underway and gin – a much bigger category – had come to dominate the classic cocktail space too. It seems inexplicable that in the modern age a country of distillers could have such collective amnesia, but perhaps two world wars and changes in ownership and direction offer some mitigation.

Rutte, which has been owned by De Kuyper since 2011 and now benefits from its global distribution, launched on the international market two years ago and is another brand catching up on its past. “I’ve since spent weeks in the attics searching,” says Myriam Hendrickx, master distiller at Rutte, which produces Old Simon for export markets. Hendrickx didn’t have the benefit of a proper handover from the previous Rutte distiller, who died shortly before she took the reins in 2003. “We now know a lot about our history but we don’t know it all. For instance, I don’t know if Rutte was ever distributed to the US.”

Now there are half a dozen genever brands closing in on the cocktail opportunity. But for a long while there, for most bartenders, Bols Genever was the only show in town. Its decision to produce an oude genever – high in malt-wine and truer to the original style – turned out to be the right one. It is the speciality styles, though still niche, which are providing the growth to what is, by numbers at least, an ailing category.


Bols Genever is now exported in three recipes – Bols Genever, Bols Barrel Aged and 100% Malt Spirit – and is the number one export brand. “We make sure we are in all the cocktail cities in the world – New York, London, Hong Kong, Paris, and cities in Germany,” says Van Doorne. In truth, the genever market has been an easy market to dominate and, if anything, Bols wants more competition, not less. “It’s encouraging that others are starting to export,” says van Doorne.

De Kuyper and Bols, two giants of Dutch distilling, are not known for seeing eye to eye, but when it comes to genever, they share the same vision: build a category. “It’s great for us that Bols started 10 years ago and has done such a good job – I applaud their work,” says Hendrickx. “For years bartenders have almost only known Bols, but now they can discover other styles. This is important for the category. When there are 10 brands on the market it becomes a proper category.”

So, has this small but burgeoning export opportunity made a difference to overall genever sales? According to IWSR data, the overall market shrunk 35% from 2006-2015, leaving it at 1.9m 9-litre cases. The Netherlands, where two-thirds of genever is consumed, is in historical decline (-37% from 2006-2015). The rest of the Benelux is the category’s second largest market with a share of 21% and has also been steadily shrinking – 25% over the 10-year period. In what seems a quirk of history, Argentina is the third-largest market, as genever has long been a feature of Gaucho culture. Here, genever is 39% down over the 10-year period.

So what’s all this optimism about? There are small pockets of growth, but they are in the right areas – the trendsetting cocktail markets. In 2015, the UK imported around 750 cases, a 50% increase over the 10 years The US imported 5,500 cases in 2015, according to IWSR, an increase of 450% from 2006-2015. According to Philip Duff of new brand Old Duff Genever, sales in the US are now rapidly growing. “Old Duff is on course to sell 1,000 9-litre cases in its first 12 months, so it’s exciting times in the US. If we use craft spirits sales increases (+27% in both value and volume) as a proxy for cocktail bar sales and the increase in the number of cocktail bars, we are in a rising market.”

“I’m going to build Old Duff as much as I can in New York, then the next market is London. These are the cities where the more educated consumers are, where there’s a lot of media and the bulk of the bars. New York and London are places that have been shown to adopt new spirits. I’ll also look to do a small launch in the Netherlands. I hate it when a product isn’t available in the place it’s from.”


If genever is to convince consumers, it has to communicate a rather complex message. There are jonge and oude styles but this doesn’t mean time in barrel – it references the traditional or post-war style of production. Oude genever must contain at least 15% malt wine, but no more than 20g of sugar per litre, and jonge genever can contain no more than 15% malt wine and 10g of sugar per litre. Broadly speaking, ‘grain distillers’ produce the malt wine, while ‘botanical distillers’ rectify the botanicals in neutral spirit.

Timo Janse, co-founder of The Flying Dutchmen, a new bar in Amsterdam, has made it a mission to showcase quality genevers. He says genever is a complex category but you can broadly split the styles into three camps: “You have genevers that veer towards gin (jonge). Some have more malt content and are more like whisky, and there are those that are aged and are more like cognac.”

For Patrick van Zuidam, of his eponymous spirits company, the identity of the genever has to be clear. “Genever needs to focus its story on what sets it apart from other spirits,” he says. “It is, of course the original gin, predecessor of what we now know as dry gin.

“But it should learn from other spirits, such as scotch malt whisky, to tell an honest and interesting story to consumers. A story that speaks about its heritage as one of the oldest distilled products in the world but also about now and the future.”

When it comes to Zuidam genever, the message is also about provenance. “We produce genever grain to glass. Better still, we are moving to a farm distillery that will grow our own grain. We hope to grow 100% of grain around the distillery within the next four years. We focus our story on provenance, terroir, the fact that we distil only in pot stills and that we age most of our products in oak casks.

“We had more than 6,000 casks ageing in our warehouses at the end of last year, probably more than double all the other producers combined.”

For Duff, the message is also one of quality and authenticity. “Old Duff is made by Herman Jansen, family distillery,” says Duff. “It and the Jenever Museum are the only two distillers with the Seal of Schiedam.” Which means they produce their own malt-wine in Schiedam and practice grain to bottle, unlike Amsterdam distillers which are more in the mould of gin rectifiers. Bols and Rutte, being based in Amsterdam, are therefore ‘botanical distillers’ rather than ‘grain distillers’, so malt wine is bought in from trusted suppliers and the emphasis is on old recipes and choice of botanicals. “We have 12 botanicals in our genever and the most important characteristics are the hazelnuts and walnuts,” says Rutte’s Hendrickx.

There’s no one style of genever and therefore no easily communicated identity. So, if the genever message is to be conveyed, it will need a concerted, collaborative effort which finds the common threads. Such an initiative is now underway. “Together with some other genever brands, we now have an EU subsidy to promote genever in the US,” says Van Doorne. With a handful of brands currently involved, it’s not exactly a category-wide effort, but for the export brands, it’s a start.

Indeed, things are finally moving in the right direction to bring this grand old international category back to a semblance of good health. Now that genever producers have remembered their old place in the world, they’re not likely to forget it again.