Genever’s recent past
As with all spirits that have stood the test of time, Genever has gone in and out of fashion. It may be waiting for it’s next surge in popularity having fallen close to the realms of national pastiche in recent years, but don’t count it out.
We wrote about the origins and distant past of the spirit (Genever’s often forgotten history) but here we tackle its more modern history. Not only are there signs of a comeback on the cards, Genever’s recent heritage isn’t to be scoffed at either. Like Gin it has a rich a colourful past that can be tracked right up to today.
Picking up the story circa 1900, two critical factors affect Genever in the first half of the 20th century: Wars and Prohibition. World War 1’s legacy left most Belgian distilleries on their knees, having stripped them of their stills. During the occupation, many distilleries were plundered by the oppressing German forces, who melted down stills in order to create artillery shell casings.
Belgium’s stills were raided because of the great strategic positioning they had for German’s on the road to France. The Netherlands, based further north, faired better and with many of their distilleries spared the same fate, they were able to continue distilling. World War II saw similar pillaging of resources, however this time none of the key Genever producing regions escaped. Moreover, with grain and food not scarce, there was little to distil in the first place even if they had the equipment to do it.
The second key factor was the Belgian government’s decision to enact Prohibition. Unlike other countries however, the law was only partial yet it lasted until 1985. Belgium only banned the sale of spirits in bars; it was still possible to purchase Genever from liquor stores, but the new laws dictated a minimum purchase of two bottles at a time. This was part of a deliberate plan to price the poor out, and had the added bonus of keeping the support of the rich (and influential). Once combined with the effects of the war, the result for Belgian distilleries was devastating.
After the law was passed in 1919 restricting alcohol to liquor shops, organised crime took hold. Even though it never amounted to the infamy of Chicago or the often-violent bootlegging operations of the US prohibition, Belgian mobsters did set up larger distilleries. Spread in a diversity of areas across the country, some of these makeshift distilleries were even entirely based underground. When the police discovered these activities, it was the labourers that were caught and arrested while the crime bosses vanished.
During the 1960s and 70s this was particularly common around the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. Interestingly, some of the distilleries that produced Genever for the black market are still in business today, having converted to doing so legally. Conversely, some of the biggest legal distilleries of that era were allegedly also involved in illegal activities. Supposedly, many were involved in counterfeiting, while others played the regulatory system by producing more than they declared. Naughty, naughty!
The Netherland’s post war Genever history, particularly in Schiedam & Amsterdam, was far less exciting. This steadiness meant that their distilleries managed to consolidate their status and the drink has remained firmly ingrained as the national spirit. In recent years, the interest has shifted from historical and more pastiche to enjoying a small revival. Brands like Bols have greatly helped breathe new life into the category and it is once again frequently being used in cocktails.
From a US perspective – prior to American Prohibition, as much as five times more Genever was imported into the country than gin, with many of the early 1900s cocktails calling for Genever in their recipes. By the time Prohibition had ended however, the thirst for Old Tom and subsequently Dry Gin had taken over and Genever slipped away. With the Protected Product of Origin status, no US distiller is technically allowed to make Genever, although, there are fine examples of Genever-like spirits such as Chief Gowanus New Netherland Gin, by NY Distilling. Named after the old Dutch colony of Brooklyn and made from grains grown in New York State, Chief Gowanus is based on an early American recipe for making a version of “Holland Gin” out of American rye whiskey.
The question that is difficult to answer is both if and when Genever will return to its former status and boom once more. Will it take craft distilling to bring Genever back? Will the transition many people are predicting (about consumer tastes heading from Gin to Whisky) occur and, if so, will Genever capture the imagination of this transient audience?
We think it stands a good chance of growing in years to come, as tastes favour aged spirits served neat. As for the craft movement helping, we think not. The problem is that due to the protected nature of Genever production, while the possible audience is huge, most of these craft distilleries that have captive audiences can’t make Genever even if they want to. What they will make is “Malty gin” or “Juniper Rye” etc…
Unfortunately – as a result – this means Genever is without their local, small batch appeal, their global networks or their resources. Unless the laws relax about where it can be made – many will never even hear about Genever and the spirit will never actually benefit.
Alternatively, the only way for a strong resurgence for the category is for there to be some breakthrough brands backed with heavy investment. Given Bols have tried (with good success but the mountain is step and high) and Filliers don’t have the financial muscle to do the groundwork from a global perspective – that player is yet to be seen.
Even though we’re predicting slow and steady growth in interest as opposed to a new revolution – exciting times lay ahead for Genever. We’ll be tracking the spirit’s movements and writing about its latest developments on Gin Foundry, so keep watching for new insight and information.
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