The Gin Festival team were lucky enough to go on a “research” trip to The Netherlands to check out some of the jenever distilleries of Amsterdam.
As part of our ongoing mission to learn as much as possible about gin (and drink lots of it along the way) Gin Festival founders Jym and Marie treated the Gin Festival team to a business holiday in one of Europe’s prettiest capitals, Amsterdam. In addition to taking in plenty of the city’s culture, we made a beeline to two of its jenever distilleries; Bols and Wynand Fockink.
Some of you might be asking why Gin Festival is off looking at jenever, or even what is jenever? Well, it’s a kind of spiritual parent of gin. Jenever (or genever or sometimes even genièvre) is made from malt wine (basically distilled beer) with added botanicals, including, crucially, juniper.
Being a distilled juniper spirit it’s very similar to gin, but gin is made from a much higher strength and more neutral base whereas the malt wine base for jenever is very noticeable, lending the drink many of the qualities of white (unaged) whisky but with a juniper bite.
Jenever can only be made in The Netherlands, Belgium and selected parts of Germany and France but originates in The Netherlands. In fact, the term Dutch courage comes from the drinking of jenever. English soldiers witnessed their Dutch allies sipping jenever before battle and attributed their courage to the medicinal properties of the drink. Gaining a taste for it, they brought the recipe back to England where it gradually developed into the gin we know and love today.
We learned most of that, and a little bit more at our first distillery, Bols.
Lucas Bols is the world’s oldest distilled spirits brand and one of the oldest Dutch companies still active. Beginning in 1575, the Bols family opened a small distillery named "t Lootsje" (the little shed) producing liqueurs; with cumin, orange peel and cardamom being their first flavours.
The company would expand rapidly thanks to the efforts of Lucas Bols, a major shareholder in the Dutch East India company, one of the world’s most powerful businesses at the time. The Dutch EIC brought wealth and power to The Netherlands as well as a huge amount of exotic ingredients, herbs and spices that could be used to make new liqueur flavours. Indeed, under Lucas Bols' managership their recipe book expanded to 300 different varieties. He also expanded the business to begin distilling jenever, to great success! Jerry Thomas, writer of one of the earliest cocktail recipe collections, recommends Bols Genever for many cocktails where gin would be used today.
Now, Bols trades in over 200 countries with 42 different liqueur varieties in production (though not all for sale in every country) plus the jenever range and sub-brands like Galliano and Damrak Gin.
The House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience isn’t a working Bols distillery, it’s a visitor attraction, but it is excellent for learning about the history of the company and of how jenever and liqueurs are produced. The museum features sections on the history of the company and of Lucas Bols the man, as well as a fun little room that contains every single one of the delfts blue houses that has been made so far. These are small pottery houses, each a replica of an actual building in Amsterdam, which are filled with Bols jenever and given as a present to every first class customer of KLM (Dutch royal airlines).
The most entertaining part of the museum though was easily the Hall of Taste, a somewhat (very) surreal sensory experience that demonstrated how flavour was affected by your other 4 senses. It ends with you standing in a room, drinking from a mysterious unmarked vial of liquid while flashing lights go off in your face, strange noises are piped over the speakers and the sound is loud enough to physically vibrate your face. It looks and feels like being in a cross between The Doctor Who opening credits and the video for Bohemian Rhapsody. Supposedly, the sfx changes the flavour of the liqueur and, without spoiling what happens for you, we can confirm that this is the case.
Not sure about the room of flashing lights but we did really like the room where you could smell every variety and guess the flavour. We’re also proud that Maya and Pete, who write all the tasting notes for us, nailed every aroma!
The House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience finishes up with The Bols Bartending Academy. The largest bartending academy in Europe, they also host cocktail workshops for individuals and big groups like ours. So yes, we all got stuck into making cocktails! An ordinary day at work for some of the staff but quite the challenge for those of us who spend all day looking at spreadsheets, as you can see from comparing our cocktail master Pete’s Espresso Martini with our website manager Adam’s attempt.
Finishing up at Bols’ impressively well-stocked gift shop, we moved on to one of the oldest and most interesting bars in Amsterdam, indeed the world, Wynand Fockink.
Wynand Fockink comprises 3 buildings which all date back to 1679, the distillery, the liquor store and the tasting tavern (i.e. bar). The bar in particular, has remained basically unchanged for more than 300 years, in spirit, if not in all the details. Other than a small side bar with some beer taps, there is nothing served that isn’t made by Wynand Fockink. They have a small sink at the bar for washing glasses and shelves stocked full with Wynand Fockink liqueur and jenever bottles. And what shelves too, check out the bend! That is some old wood.
Shelves, bottles, glasses and a sink, that’s it! No card readers, no soda gun, no coffee machine, in fact, no chairs! Not necessary, because, at this bar, it’s all about enjoying amazing spirits made just next door. These include some of the best jenevers we personally have ever tried plus a host of traditional dutch liqueurs with names like: ‘Volmaakt Geluk’ (Perfect Bliss), ‘Bruidstranen’ (Bride’s Tears), ‘Hansje in de Kelder’ (Jack in the Cellar), ‘De Boswandeling’ (A Walk in the Woods) and ‘Half en Half’ (Half & Half). Sadly, none of their products are available for sale anywhere except their bar and liquor store. So, if you want to try their korenwijn (and you do!) you need to book a flight to Amsterdam.
The original distillery is now a museum which we were, unfortunately, unable to attend due to the size of our group. The current distillery, located nearby, is rather confusingly named the Lucas Bols Distillery. That’s because Bols purchased Wynand Fockink in 2013 (repurchased actually, they bought them once before in 1954) and Wynand Fockink now makes much of the distillate used for Bols’ liqueur range, as well as Bols’ jenevers, in addition to their own extensive range.
What makes the bar so wonderful isn’t just the delicious spirits, or the time-travelling atmosphere but the excellent barmen who take the time to smile and talk to customers even in a crowded and busy bar. They’re hugely knowledgeable about their business and history and taught us the proper way to drink jenever. First sip, don’t lift your glass from the counter. Instead, bend down and sip the “head” from the top until you can pick up the glass without spilling.
Both places are well worth a visit for any gin geek. Or, If you're inspired to try jenever but don't want to venture all the way to Holland, we have a jenever selection in our gin shop. Trust us, we'll be adding to it soon.
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