Dutch gin

by Tanja
Bols distillery

Jenever has been Holland’s national spirit since the 17th century. It is said Dutch people have the same amount of words for jenever, as the Eskimos have for snow. English speakers, however, will know the lovely spirit by the name of Dutch gin. You can try Dutch gin, called ‘Jenever’ in one of Amsterdams century-old distilleries.

Here are 10 facts about Dutch gin:

1. Gin is a Dutch invention

A Dutch physician who lived in the 16th century came up with the idea of adding juniper berry to the common brandewijn. (In England this drink is known as ‘brandy’, a name derived from the Dutch word). In doing so, he created the first type of gin.

Classic Dutch jenever is made by distilling grains and malt wine. Different grains can be used like barley, wheat, rye and corn. The taste of Dutch jenever is rather neutral with a hint of juniper, a bit like vodka. Dutch gin has an alcohol percentage of at least 35%. Dutch gin (jonge jenever, see point 3) is best drunk very cold.

If you are looking for the best Dutch gin brands, here are the 3 best results from a tasting session:

  • Hartevelt
  • Ketel
  • Jonge Bols
best dutch gin

2. Dutch gin started out as a medicine

The first Dutch gin was sold only in pharmacies. It was herbal medicine. Bathing in water boiled with juniper berries was used to cure skin diseases. 

Smoking juniper berries and juniper wood was used to disinfect a room infested with the plague. 

3. Oude jenever and Jonge jenever

There is a distinction between oude jenever (old gin) and jonge jenever (young gin). Oude jenever is produced in a much older procedure (before 1900). Jonge jenever was developed during WW II, when the ingredients needed for jenever were in short supply. Instead, molasses and sugar beet were used. The different procedures and ingredients give old jenever a softer and sweeter flavour. It’s more yellow of color and often a higher percentage of alcohol.

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4. More Dutch gin: bessenjenever, lemon jenever…

Apart from oude and jonge Jenever, there are different distillation processes and ingredients for gin. Korenwijn (grain wine) for example has matured in an oak cask for some years.

Also berries and fruits can be added during the distilling process. Some became a hit and are now a brand of themselves. Examples are Bessenjenever (Sloe Gin), distilled from raspberries. Bessenjenever has sugar added and is very sweet, with less alcohol. Citroen (‘lemon) jenever, (also named ‘Citroentje‘, ‘a small lemon’) has lemon added.

5. Dutch gin is not very sexy

Though foreign gin is a popular liqueur used for mixed drinks and cocktails, Dutch gin lacks sex appeal. No hip club visiting youngster is likely to order jenever. Jenever is famous in Holland for being an ‘old man’s drink’. If you see young people drinking jenever, they are probably tourists trying to go local and failing hopelessly.

6. May I have a ‘blow to the head’?

In Amsterdam, jenever is traditionally ordered together with a glass of beer. This combination of beer with jenever is called a ‘blow to the head’ (kopstoot). You drink both slowly, taking a sip of jenever, followed by a sip of beer. NEVER drink a Jenever like a shot.

Dutch gin
Sipping off the ‘head’ of a liqueur at Wynand Fockink.

7. Sipping the head

The tall, slender jenever glass needs to be filled up with jenever so much that it has a so-called ‘head’ (de ‘kop’). The ‘head’ can only be drunk by leaning towards the glass, to avoid spilling the precious drink.

8. ‘Dutch courage’

Gin is sometimes called ‘Dutch courage’ in English. According to historians, Dutch gin was popular among English soldiers fighting on the side of the Spanish during the 80-year long war between Holland and Spain. They found a bit of jenever helped them relax before going off battle, giving them ‘courage’.

9. Tasting rooms for Dutch gin

Interested in tasting some different jenevers? In Amsterdam, several jenever distilleries are open to the public. Here you can drink a real Dutch gin or buy a bottle of Dutch gin in Amsterdam.

Wynand Fockink has been spirits and liqueur distillery since 1679 in the Pijlsteeg, a little alley off Dam Square. In its best of times it was the biggest Dutch gin maker in the city, with huge distilleries.

Nowadays all that remains is the Amsterdam gin distillery in the Pijlsteeg. At the charmingly small decorated tasting room you can try their many liqueurs and jenevers. On Saturday you can tour the distillery.

Bols is the most distributed jenever brand in The Netherlands. The House of Bols offers an attraction where you learn the history of the drink and make your own cocktail using jenever.

Dutch gin distillery Wynand Fockink
Dutch gin distillery Wynand Fockink near Dam Square.

10. Beerenburg, Kruidenbitter and Vieux

The Dutch have a fancy for strong spirits. Besides the classic jenever, the Dutch Beerenburg is a famous drink. Beerenburg is a herbal bitter made from a mixture of licorice, sandalwood, bay leave and other herbs. Beerenburg owes its name to the Amsterdam spice merchant Hendrik Beerenburg.

Kruidenbitter (spices bitter) is a little sweeter than Beerenburg. Mixing Jenever with soft drinks, using the English word ‘longdrink‘ is not very popular. You can of course mix it with for example, Coca Cola. This is called ‘Cola tic’. Instead Dutch people use Vieux, a brandy similar to cognac to fabricate cocktails instead of Dutch gin.

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