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Dutch Gin: The Traditional and the Modern

By Jim Clarke

Gin is, to many, a quintessentially English drink. When I lived in London, Gin-and-Tonics in hands that normally gripped a pint-glass were, like a robin, one of the first signs of spring. However, gin’s beginnings actually lie across the Channel in Holland. The maritime Dutch were among the early leaders in distillation because they found that distilled products were more stable during shipping than wine; their investments in France led to the development of today’s Cognac, for example. At home, distilled grain alcohol was originally considered a medicinal product, which they used as a base and infused with helpful herbs and plants. These concoctions evolved into the recipes for gin used today.

A physician in Leiden – a town now primarily known for tulips – named Franciscus Sylius is generally credited for introducing juniper berries into the mix and thereby giving gin its first name, genever (Dutch for “juniper”), which an English penchant for brevity would eventually shorten to “gin.” Gin’s rise in England began when the Dutch William and Mary were put on the English throne in 1688, and 18th century taxes were based on volume rather than alcoholic strength, making gin importation a better value than wine. Gin quickly became England’s poison of choice, with complicated social ramifications; check out Patrick Dillon’s Gin; The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva to get the story of England’s love affair with and struggle against gin.

Meanwhile genever continued its own development back in Holland. Both countries eventually turned to a dry version of the spirit (For many years gin was sweetened, and I can only imagine what the hangover must have been like.), but the Dutch never really became interested in mixing their gin, and even today prefer genever chilled and neat (and filled to the brim). Consequently their gins tend to be fuller and more flavorful than their English cousins. They become diffuse when mixed, whereas London Dry Gin actually gains in complexity when used in a cocktail. Eben Klemm, Mixologist for B.R. Guest Restaurants in New York, suggests that Dutch gin’s awkwardness in cocktails may be only a matter of fashion; cocktail drinkers in the past were not as inclined to light and less flavorful liquors as those of today. More recent Dutch gins have made a nod in this direction in response to the international market; even London gin is being produced in more subtle styles such as Tanqueray Ten and Bombay Sapphire, and traditional full, Dutch gins meant for drinking neat are becoming more difficult to find internationally. The following is a good representation of the range of today’s Dutch gins:

Damrak

Damrak – named for one of the main drags of Amsterdam – is Dutch giant Bols’ nod toward the international style. While they continue to make fuller, oilier gins in the traditional style and intended for drinking neat, Damrak provides versatility. It has a pronounced orange aroma, surrounded by notes of coriander, flowers, and juniper. It’s creamy on the palate and medium-bodied, with a touch of white pepper on the finish. The texture still lends itself to drinking neat, but the overt orange character makes it a natural in contemporary, fruity cocktails. I particularly liked it in Gimlets and Cosmopolitans; as a martini gin it definitely prefers a twist to olives. It was heavier than London Gin with tonic, and mixed somewhat less successfully in some Old School cocktails. For example, I liked a Damrak Negroni but not a Pink Gin; the orange scent blends well with the Campari in the former, but in the latter it tasted uncomfortable beside the tang of the Angostura bitters. Nevertheless, its flexibility makes Damrak a great gin to keep in the bar at home: it works well in cocktails, but is still interesting enough to pour in a glass and enjoy neat when you don’t want to bother with mixing. The bottle itself is also an elegant addition, with a Grolsch-style, metal-catch top that looks great and also means you won’t have to crawl around on the floor searching for a lost stopper.

Van Gogh

Van Gogh is another Dutch gin which acknowledges the preferences of the international mVan Gogh On StarChefsarket without abandoning its roots. It’s beautifully packaged, with the frosted glass typical to today’s premium vodkas and a painting of an Amsterdam canal across the middle (in the style of Van Gogh, of course). The concession here is not in the aromatics but in the texture, which is light and clean, and never dominated by the alcohol. The nose is fresh and intense, touched by notes of juniper, angelica, citrus, and clove. The palate is more direct, concentrating on juniper and coriander, with a warm, dry finish. I think the popularity of the Pink Gin could be revived with this gin as the base. Negronis and particularly Gin-and-Tonics also worked well with the Van Gogh. For fruity cocktails I would probably turn to Van Gogh Vodka as the herbal qualities of the gin’s aromatics seem wasted – perhaps they blend in too well. Neat and chilled, Van Gogh Gin seems rather removed from its Dutch origins; it lacks the creamy, oily texture, making it a bit lighter than usual; on the whole it dances best with a partner.

BoomsmaDamrak On StarChefs

Boomsma is the most traditional of the gins I tried – the label even reads “genever” rather than “gin” – and definitely reminded me of my time living in Holland. There are two varieties, Jonge and Oude (“young” and “old” respectively). The Jonge is clear, with a nose of white pepper, orange zest, juniper, and coriander; the latter two dominate in the mouth. So far that may not sound too unusual to most gin drinkers. The texture, however, is creamy, oily, and full; the gin is smooth, with a substantial finish. This gin is made for enjoying neat; although it retains its character in a martini or with simple mixers like tonic water, it generally loses some of its complexity in cocktails. Even in simple mixed drinks I lost the interest of the mouthfeel; why mess with something that stands well alone?

The Oude is “old” because it is aged in oak, which gives it a surprising, golden color like an añejo tequila (The parallel between blanco and añejo tequilas and jonge and oude genevers is a fair one.). The flavor will surprise many gin drinkers as well; vanilla and baked apple wrap around more usual juniper and cinnamon notes. It’s very creamy and round, with a long finish. Because of its texture and complexity, using this in a mixed drink would be as wasteful as using single-malt scotch in a Rob Roy. Chill it and sip it, and back it with a Trappist ale if you must have something with it. After a long dinner, both of the Boomsma Genevers give white-liquor fans something to drink proudly in the rarefied air of Cognac and Scotch drinkers (and with a secretive smile; the gin is much more affordable).

There are a number of other Dutch gins available in the Netherlands. Most brown cafés (so named because their walls are stained by years of cigarette smoke – consider yourself warned) carry a decent selection, but proeflokalen – “tasting houses” – are the traditional places to enjoy genever. Originally they were attached to distilleries, providing samples of their wares to potential buyers. If you are in Amsterdam, here are a few good places to enjoy genever as the Dutch do. They generally open mid-afternoon to catch the post-work crowd and close around midnight.

Wijnand Fockink, Pijlsteeg 31
Centrally located just around the corner from the National Monument, this proeflokaal has been in business since 1679.

De Drie Fleschje, Gravenstraat 18
A cozy spot at the base of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), De Drie Fleschje also has a long history, dating back to 1650.

‘t Smalle, Egelantiersgracht 12
Off the beaten path in the fun and funky Jordaan neighborhood west of the center, this distillery-turned-brown café even has a terrace on the canal where you can pull up on your boat.

VOC Café, Schreierstoren, Prins Hendrikkade 94-5
Inside the landmark Schreierstoren, a defense tower where women would supposedly weep as they watched their sailors head out onto the sea, the VOC Café is conveniently located near Centraal Station and features two terraces for when the weather’s good.

Importers:

Damrak Gin
c/o Remy Amerique
1350 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (212) 399-4200
Fax: (212) 399-2462
www.damrakgin.com/
Van Gogh Gin
Luctor International
9635A Gateway Drive
Reno, Nevada 89521
Tel: (888) 539-3361
www.vangoghgin.com/
Boomsma Genever
CVI Brands
1025 Tankage Road, Suite F
San Carlos, CA 94070
Tel: (650) 595-1768
 

 


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 Published: September 2004


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