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Sebastiaan Vanbokkel – Bobby’s Gin

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Written by Gin Foundry

The Bobby’s Gin founder has come very far in the past five years, building his small start up idea into an international success story. We took him back to the start of the journey…

Bobby’s is a familiar name to many, but just in case any of our readers weren’t paying attention, could you give a brief introduction?

Bobby Alfons was my grandfather. He infused his genever with herbs that we know from Indonesian cuisine. Think of lemongrass, cloves, cubeb pepper etc. and let his infused genever lay for a while to give it more taste. That recipe is called pineda raci. It’s a recipe that my family in Holland and on the Moluccan islands still make today.

And can you tell us a little about Bobby himself?

My grandfather was a sergeant major from a Catholic part of Indonesia called the ‘Molukken’. During the 2nd World War he was in the Army (KNIL) and fought on the Dutch side, after the war he and everyone who fought on that side had to leave Indonesia and move to Holland.

My grandfather always appreciated a good drink, but he was missing the Indonesian flavours so he started infusing Dutch Jenever with typical Indonesian botanicals such as cubeb pepper, lemongrass and others.

The gin that you’ve made today is based on that old family recipe. What made you want to bring it back to life?

Before I started with Bobby’s I worked for Duvel Moortgat (Belgian beer) and branded Vedett in Holland. I quit my job because I wanted to make my own spirit. I had ideas about making Jenever at first as I wanted to make something that was as real as could be.

Jenever is probably one of the oldest spirits in the world and it’s expertly distilled in Schiedam which is so close to Rotterdam (I was born and raised in Rotterdam). Add to this that my grandfather used to drink jenever too and the connections were all there, the history, the memories.

My grandfather loved the old stone clay bottle ones. And the thing was that my grandmother re-used all empty jenever bottles. For example, she used to boil tapwater and let it cool down and fill the empty jenever bottles with the boiled tapwater. So as kids at my grandparents’ house we drank water from the empty Jenever bottles. That memory has always stuck with me and it felt like I could work with that story in my quest to make my own. Once I started doing more work developing the idea, my mother pointed out to me that my grandfather infused his Jenever.

He poured his jenever in his own bottle and infused that. My mother has that bottle at home. ‘Yes your grandfather poured his Jenever in this bottle and added herbs to it’. I never knew about this before. I was too young when my grandfather was still alive to learn about this.

By the time she had told me, I had already learned about the history of Jenever and how it had evolved and how it was exported all over the world. And also how Jenever evolved into Gin.

I had that interest and was already on this path, but once I was told about our family recipe, I knew I wanted to bring this to life. I was transfixed.

The idea and information was there but were there any physical recipes to go off how did you even know where to start and were you trying to recreate it exactly, or just use it as an inspiration for something more fitting of the market today?

Well, I had never tasted my grandfathers ‘cooking’. But luckily, my aunt still follows his recipes. And my family on the Moluccan islands do as well. The challenging part was that the ‘pineda raci’ is literally an infused Jenever so the taste and quality will differ when exposed to sun or cold or simply because of the ingredients floating in the bottle.

We wanted to make a gin that had the same taste every time you drink it. But also to keep the old recipe alive. So we changed the way of making it. Same recipe, different method..

How long did it take you to go from that idea and base information to making the first batch?

The whole process from idea to the actual production of the first bottle took about two years.

Initially, it appeared to be very hard to replicate the recipe from Bobby Alfons. As we couldn’t change the recipe, we needed to change the way of making it. After many trials and errors, we went to Ad vd Lee (Master distiller) and Dick Jansen (6th generation Jansen to lead the distillery) and challenged them to distil all botanicals separately.

Instead of trying to make a London Dry, we were going to make a distilled gin. They decided to distil all eight botanicals separately and then blend them together. The biggest advantage for us was that we were able to try all botanicals separately and ‘place’ them where we wanted. Lemongrass very dominant, also on the nose for example.

Let’s talk about that recipe and flavour profile – when did you know you’d nailed it?

After about two years and 63 samples. When we hit the right mix of taste according to the recipe and also what we basically just really liked. We wanted lemongrass, cloves and cubeb pepper to really stand out at first.

What’s your favourite way to drink it?

I like it in a G&T with dry tonic water and a clove studded orange as a garnish. Alternatively, Gin & It (equal parts gin and sweet vermouth) – delicious!

You’ve mentioned Herman Jansen, whose family distillery is one of the earliest known figures in the history of Jenever still active today. What’s the thing you most admire about them?

The one thing what brought us to Herman Jansen is that they are a family owned distillery, and they have roots in the early development of Jenever. It is amazing when you visit Dick’s (Dick Jansen, 6th Generation) and Diederik’s (7th generation) office, as it hasn’t changed since the 1800’s. It’s the family history, the knowledge accumulated over the years, and the traditions we admire most.

Jenever doesn’t quite have the appeal globally that it does in Holland, but as the Gin world gets crowded, it’s good to have a point of difference. Have you noticed a resurgence in Jenever lately?

We sure have! For the last 2 years we have seen a spiked interest in the category in the top 100 bars over the world and top bartenders everywhere We are currently involved in the “Jenever Crusade” bringing the Jenever category back to the US (as it used to be huge there) with several other brands, and the industry there receives it with open arms.

We’ve also seen many top bartenders working to change the spirit’s reputation. It’s also logical; “Dutch Gin” where Jerry Thomas refers to in his handbook to bartenders is nothing more than the traditional Jenever made in Holland (as at that point in time the Dutch where exporting millions of litres of Jenever abroad.)

What’s the response been like to the Bobby’s Jenever, and for those who haven’t tasted it, what’s the big flavour difference?

As we use 4% maltwine, the smell of this dominates the nose and gives the Jenever a characterful spirit with a rich juniper profile, and plenty of citrussy zing, ginger freshness and earthy spice. The big difference with the gin is that the gin is a flavour explosion, and the Jenever is more delicate.

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