The French have their cognac, the Scots their whiskey. And Belgium? They have genever. For more than 500 years, genever has been celebrated as Belgium’s national and authentic spirit.
To many, Belgian specialties and cuisine mean waffles, chocolates and beers. While beer may be Belgium's most famous alcoholic beverage, genever (also known as jenever or genièvre) has been the country's authentic and national spirit for over 500 years. As with any cultural food and drink, its history is intricately tied to the soil and water from which it grew.
Credited as the grandfather of gin, genever (pronounced "juh-nee-ver") is a juniper-flavored spirit produced by the blending of neutral alcohol and malt wine, whereas gin doesn’t contain any malt wine at all. Genever derives its predominant flavor by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash (malt wine) giving its traditional malty grain taste and very recognizable smell similar to wheat bread. Unlike gin, genever does not have to have an apparent juniper aroma or taste to it. The minimum alcoholic strength of genever has to be 30% Alc. by Vol. (60 proof). This unique spirit secured a place at America's early cocktail bars. If you were having a cocktail party in the 1800s you were shaking up genever cocktails. Recognized for its historic and cultural contribution, the European Union protected genever with 11 appellations or AOC’s of which most are exclusive to Belgium.
Mixologists are celebrating the return of genever, a lost spirit category that is now making a resurgence in restaurants and bars, with customers asking for more unique and complex cocktails. Quite popular in the U.S. during the 19th century, before prohibition in 1920 brought legal liquor consumption to a halt, the import of genever to the U.S. was six times greater than gin. Many of today's classic cocktails were originally made with genever. At the same time, prohibition was also enacted in Belgium, prohibiting the serving of distilled spirits in public places. Belgium's strong beers owe something to this period: many brewers upped the alcohol content to console drinkers forced to give up genever.
For centuries genever has been bottled in jugs handcrafted from clay. The clay jug doesn’t alter the taste of genever, is impervious to light and provides an excellent protection against temperature fluctuations. Its iconic shape is recognizable and unique to genever. These historic handcrafted clay jugs which can still be found in old shipwrecks. Check out the bottles’ imperfections, as every jug is unique. Even though the disposal of these pieces of art is still extremely environmentally friendly, reuse the jugs for olive oil containers, flower vases, candle holders, or art projects.
Read more about the fascinating history of genever.
Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle
written by Veronique Van Acker-Beittel