Gin may have come from genever, but you can't really put the two in the same box, according to Jacob Grier, Portland-based bartender and brand representative for Bols Genever. "Genever is really its own category," he explains. "We compare it to early tequila importers. They labeled the spirit 'Mexican whiskey' because they didn't know what else to call it."
The difference, he says, is that gin, which is made with neutral grain spirit, puts the focus on the botanicals. " Botanicals aren't as important in genever," Grier notes. Instead, the spirit emphasizes the malty characteristic that comes from a blend of corn, wheat and rye distilled into malt wine in a copper pot still. That malt wine is blended with neutral grain spirit and botanicals, but it retains a flavor not unlike unaged whiskey.
And unaged whiskey production is sort of how it originated. "It's an indigenous spirit for Holland," Grier explains. "Amsterdam was a huge port city with a lot of herbs coming in, and juniper was medicinal. Early genever was like unaged whiskey made in pot stills because column stills, which make vodka, didn't exist yet. And people threw in botanicals because they weren't very good distillers."
The Brits came into contact with genever when warring with the Dutch. Gin was an attempt to mimic genever, but it was made in column stills, which created cleaner spirits flavored with juniper.
London dry-style gin didn't really develop until the 1800s, and genever was far more popular than gin in the United States until the 1890s. "Then London dry-style gin takes off in the U.S. because people realized it was good in martinis," Grier says. "Then you get Prohibition and World War II, and the Germans invade Holland, and then there's no more genever in the U.S."
It stayed that way until about five years ago, when Bols Genever, which first began production in 1575, started importing to the States again. And this week, it's officially re-launching in Colorado, with Grier in town for the occasion.
Because of the malty characteristic, you can expect to see the spirit substituted for gin or whiskey in many drinks, though "the genever and tonic isn't a great drink," Grier admits. But genever does pair well with lemon and chocolate -- including mole bitters -- serves as the base of many classic cocktails, which were initially written to include genever rather than gin.
To exhibit genever's versatility, Grier pours a series of cocktails, including an old fashioned, a Collins and a particularly delicious twist on a Corpse Reviver II that he calls the Van Houten cocktail: a blend of Bols Genever, cocchi americano, lemon juice, green chartreuse and mole bitters.
In Amsterdam, though, the traditional way to drink Bols is called the Kopstootje (cop-stow-tje), which loosely translates to "little head-butt." Essentially, it's a beer and a shot poured to the rim of a tulip glass, and taken in a very specific way. As Grier describes the official instructions:
Scoot to the edge of the bar. Bend from the waist down to sip from the tulip glass. Look a little silly? Perfect. Sit up. Take a sip of your beer. Now introduce your new friend to a stranger. Repeat.
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You can try the Kopstootje -- and a variety of other Bols Genever cocktails priced at a meager $3 a pop -- tomorrow night at Boulder's Bitter Bar, where Grier will guest bartend from 5 to 7 p.m. Can't make it to the Peoples' Republic? Try it in a cocktail at Colt & Gray, Williams & Graham or Green Russell.
Barrel-aged Bols will hit the shelves someday soon, too, Grier promises.