How the English Stole Holland's Juniper-Flavored Liquor

Before gin was gin, it was genever—the original, Dutch version. A gin-loving bartender on the history of a favorite spirit.


Some green-horns ape their Burton ale, and some their rum-and-water,
And some their port wine Bishop, whilk I call the devil's daughter;
But I'm for gin, immortal gin, a nectar fit for deities—
(Now, don't take this for granted, sir, but drink, and then you'll see it is).

—Vulgarisms On Gin-punch, By A Practical Philosopher. 1826

My first gin experience was courtesy of Tanqueray. My brother introduced me to the thrill of a Martini made with dry gin sometime around my 21st birthday, which I quite liked. Maybe too much. As the night progressed, we left all trappings of sophistication behind and ended up pulling from the neck of the stout, green bottle. Nothing I would recommend, as the next day I had a splitting headache and burped up my first tasting note: pine.

I imagine this is a typical gin-drinking story for the neophyte, but what distinguishes me from those whose experience left them gin-sour is that instead of swearing off gin forever, I swooned. Gin became my warmer-month beverage (it also makes an occasional appearance in the cold months too) and I have never faltered in my affection. To me, to dislike gin, for any reason other than a medical condition or alcoholism, is damn-near a character flaw. I mean, can a person be so timorous as to let one night spoil a beverage for an entire lifetime?

If so, might I suggest they're also drinking the wrong category of gin. That's right, there's more than one. London Dry is the most popular style (e.g. Tanqueray, Beefeater), which came about in the early 19th century with new methods of distillation, but the first actual mention of a gin-like spirit is as far back as 1552 as "genever aqua vitae," or genever. Genever is the Dutch word for juniper and, as implied by the name, is made in Holland (along with Belgium and in some areas of France). Gin is the shortened and anglicized version of the word.

Genever is traditionally made with malt wine and has three categories: jonge (young), oude (old), and corenwyn (corn wine), corresponding to their respective styles and not necessarily to age. Jonge genevers have the least malt and sugar and are cut with a neutral spirit. Oude and corenwyn are progressively maltier and sweeter, almost whiskey-like, and are more often used for sipping than in cocktails. In all cases, they bear only a passing resemblance to their British offspring.

In cocktails, genever adds a dimension not found in dry gin. One of the most commonly mentioned cocktails with genever is the Holland House. For that I use jonge or oude genever. You can also try replacing a London Dry gin with genever in classics like the Tom Collins. Perhaps one of my favorites though is the Fancy Gin cocktail (recipe below).

Either way, neat or in a cocktail are far better choices than the unceremonious pouring of a bottle down the gullet. In that way, genever is the older and wiser gin.

Recipe: Fancy Gin Cocktail

  • 2 ounce Oude Genever
  • 1/4 to 1/2 ounce Rich Simple Syrup (two to one ratio of sugar to water)
  • 2 dashes Aromatic Bitters (Boker's are best)
  • fresh lemon peel (3/4" by 2")

Combine ingredients in mixing glass with ice. Stir until properly diluted and strain into glass with ice. Garnish with new lemon peel, which should also be rubbed on the rim.

Image: Rob Ireton/flickr