In the Netherlands, with Genever as a Guide | Nat Geo Traveller India

In the Netherlands, with Genever as a Guide

Hidden from sight in the Venice of the North, a local spirit that inspired gin is flourishing in a host of long-established taverns and modern tasting rooms. | By Sneha Chakraborty  
In the Netherlands, with Genever as a Guide 4
Schiedam’s surviving 18th and 19th-century windmills played an integral role in processing the grain needed to make genever. Photo by: Serhii Milekhin

On a hazy, autumn afternoon in Holland, gin connoisseurs flocked to Schiedam, a small city on the western edge of Rotterdam, to sample what many consider the great grandaddy of gin—genever (or jenever), pronounced yuh-nay-ver. The nectar on the agenda was the Originele Ketel 1 Jenever,  a smooth, jonge (young) malty spirit that has apricot tones with a musky juniper hit and a reputation to match, tasted right out of the De Nolet distillery. The historic structure doubles as the world’s tallest windmill, and houses a 17th century coal-fired copper pot still along with rows of 217-litre botanical-imbued casks of French oak. Visiting Dutch families quietly nibbled on charcuterie and crudités, their visible anticipation at meeting a spirit thought to be influenced by late medieval monks, and later adopted by early pharmacies, appearing to be an almost religious experience.

Throughout the 13th to 15th centuries, early origins of the juniper-heavy spirit were developed as a medicinal elixir used to reportedly treat everything from gout to gallstones. By the 16th and 17th centuries genever became more of a recreational tipple, popularised by the cultural awakening known as the Dutch Golden age, and the Anglo-Dutch wars: a series of spars that spurred the spirit across swathes of England, which became widely adopted, gradually morphing into dry gin.

 

In the Netherlands, with Genever as a Guide 1

While both genever and gin use juniper as a flavouring agent, the process of making genever is far more similar to whiskey as it calls for a malted mash of grain and can be aged in a cask. Photo by: Sneha Chakraborty

 

For hundreds of years genever has ingrained itself in Dutch history through feast and famine. At its apex at the turn of the 20th century, Schiedam became the Genever capital of the world with an estimated 400 active distilleries; there were so many operational coal-fired coppers stills, the smog-hued sky earned the city the discourteously-used nickname, Black Nazaren. During World War II dark clouds took over the horizon once more, though this time it signalled the widespread devastation of the region’s genever producers. A few survivors—five of them were not decimated, and another (De Kameel) was rebuilt in 2011—have since paved the way for new palates to now enjoy the revitalised interest in one of the world’s most culturally significant craft spirits.

Today, De Nolet and the other traditional institutions are only part of the draw. Hitching their wagon to the area’s traditional malthouses are a healthy handful of high-end breweries and contemporary gin and genever-tasting bars. The city has certainly nourished a dynamic spirit culture: that I can uphold after a night at a former police station turned cafe, Lucas Drink shop. There I met Cas De Bakker, a restauranter from Amsterdam, sampling house-made gin days before opening a bar of his own. “They say that Schiedam is home of the Dutch tipple, but it often remains missing from the itineraries of domestic and international travellers,” said Cas, receiving cheers of agreement from adjacent tables that had grown crowded with tulip-shaped glasses.

 

In the Netherlands, with Genever as a Guide

The local municipality (Old Town Hall pictured) has certified genever that is crafted in Schiedam in accordance with traditional 100 per cent malt wine methods with a Seal of Authenticity since 1902. Photo by: Adrie Oosterwijk/Shutterstock

 

In 2003, a few weeks after opening his first restaurant—east of Amsterdam, in the Singelgracht canal area—Cas and his brother, Abbe, travelled across the country, twice, to curate authentic gin experiences for travellers interested in the Netherlands’ historic tasting traditions. Schiedam was at the top of their list. “We come back every year to zoom out,” said Cas. “This place takes me back to the days when I would urge visitors to try the traditional distilled spirits instead of spending their euros on gimmicky infusions.” These days, with pioneers like Lucas Drink Shop carrying the torch of genever tasting, visitors are learning about Schiedam’s distilling culture before they visit. Cas pointed out, “Yesterday, I met a group of 22-year-old guys from Ireland who put Schiedam on their itineraries just for the tastings.”

Cas and Abbe ordered almost every drink from the bar’s menu, coating their tongues, and inhaling loudly after every sip to properly savour the botanicals. Paired with endless platters of bitterballen (fried Dutch meatballs), they finish the tasting with a pour from the limited-edition LUCAS lustrum gin, an apt representation of boutique productions that are popular in the district.

Another old town gem is Jeneverie ‘t Spul, a cafe-cum-borrelmuseum (borrel translates to a small drink). Since opening in the late 1990s, Jeneverie ‘t Spul has amassed a collection of over 400 different brands of genever as well as numerous ‘gin items’ present in the small museum. But the real draw is its owner, Rob van Helder, a chirpy gentleman steeped in stories behind each shot he serves. Stay for one of his wildly popular tastings, an excellent way to better understand the nuances of genevers and gins, followed by a rowdy pub quiz to find the meaning of ‘Dutch courage.’

 

As the National Drink of Holland, genever is a popular export, now joined by the region’s gin and vodka. Photo by: defotoberg/Shutterstock

 

Over at Branderij (Distillery) de Tweelingh, a family-owned business started by the distiller Herman Jansen in 1777, an 11 a.m. guided tour led by Ms De Vries in English. “We believe that in the preservation of gin as a tradition lies the potential to adopt the modern culture,” said Ms De Vries as she stood outside the brewing plant in Zijlstraat. “Visitors often ask for the original recipe, and glimmer with surprise when we also offer them an unexpected range of cocktails and mixers.” The highlight of the 1.5-hour tour is tasting the Egte Schiedamsche Moutwijn’ NOTARIS the signature liquor that single-handedly put Branderij de Tweelingh on the international map.

After a full day of tastings, rest up at the Stadsvilla Mout Rotterdam-Schiedam, a plush 18th century townhouse turned hotel. The residence’s bar is an ideal destination to sneak in a nightcap and better understand the immense influence of gin and genver on the little city.

 

For those looking for a non-alcoholic bevy in Schiedam (left), or perhaps a good mixer, the local lemon squash, known as kwast, is a popular choice; Two-hour tours of the famed Nolet Distillery (right) are typically held throughout the week at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., however, they have been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic. Photos by: Adrie Oosterwijk/Shutterstock

 

The next day is another opportunity to extend your genever-fused holiday. After a morning walk to Lange Haven canal and a much needed espresso, do you indulge in a hearty brunch before a tasting at Ginfever, head to the second oldest Dutch distillery from some artisanal ‘old jenever’ (Boompjes Old Dutch), or make tracks to the Koemarkt tram stop, a lively town square full of jazz bars, for some local hair of the dog?

I would make time for it all.

 

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  • Sneha Chakraborty is a multimedia journalist and photographer reporting from Western Europe and the U.K., as she continues to travel the region widely, writing at the intersection of culture and food. When she's not working, you can most likely find her running—often towards baked goods.

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