Way back before this American Dry/London Dry business, there was Dutch Genever. and things were good. Genever is truly a throwback in gins, with Bols’ recipe going back to one created in 1820.
Genever is a legally protected name, so alike real champagne, the origins are certain. As a protected name it implies its origins in Belgium, Netherlands, or a couple provinces of Germany or France. Bols is from the Netherlands where it has operated at the center of the Dutch distilling industry since the early 17th century.
On to the drink. I’ve read many descriptions of Genever, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the comparison of Bols Genever to that of a white whiskey. It is malty, thick, and complex. That complexity is due to the combination of botanicals. Juniper is present but just another flavor. The drink is simultaneously spicy and earthy, the taste has hints of fresh pine forest (or for those of you who haven’t spent time in the woods, maybe a Christmas tree stand and nutmeg.) It feels smoky without that overwhelming dark peat flavor of scotches. This is a tough gin to review, because the closest parallels for reviewing are in the whiskey family. This is a gin that a whiskey or scotch lover would appreciate. As for the exact combination of botanicals, one is kept secret:
Bols master distiller Piet van Leijenhorst, brandishing an ancient recipe book in his gloved hands, recited a litany of botanicals, including juniper berry, licorice, hops, angelica, “and an ingredient which I won’t tell you, which is my secret.” This last mystery is responsible for a slight tingling on the tongue. (source)
The warm earthy notes come out when sipped straight, and I highly recommend that everyone who purchases a bottle of Bols Genever enjoy it at least once this way. There are quirks, eccentricities, and depths that don’t come out as well when put into a mixed cocktail.
DO NOT MAKE A GIN AND TONIC WITH GENEVER! or a Tom Collins (Tom, Meet John). I mean, you could, but that’s not what this drink is meant for. Experiment, because Genever really shines when it is used in creative ways. One spectacular recipe is from David Wondrich’s book Punch called “Hot Bols Genever Punch.” Try it in a Negroni and see how the bitter flavors of Campari compliment the complexity of Bols Genever. Or what better combination than in a Last Word with ancient liquors such as Maraschino and Chartreuse?
Overall, Bols Genever is an enjoyable gin that is altogether not too gin-like. If you know what you’re getting yourself into (arm yourself with classic prohibition era cocktail books), you are going to really appreciate this drink. If instead you come to the party with tonic water, you might be a little disappointed.
Author’s Note: For the sake of trying, I did make a “Genever and Tonic” with Bols Genever. It wasn’t awful, it just isn’t recommended. The Tonic clashes with the flavor of the Genever. But, if you’re feeling like you need to try it yourself, consider this your friendly warning.
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