Why you need to put down that gin, and grab a glass of jenever
If you’re in Amsterdam, chances are you’ll want some gin. And, sure, gin’s great -- if you’re looking for something that literally requires a tonic to make it drinkable. Jenever (sometimes known as genever, peket, Dutch gin, or “that stuff in the cool bottle”) however, is gin’s older, wiser, and more delicious relative, and it’s what you should be ordering. Here’s what it is, why it’s better than the juniper juice you’ve been drinking, and where to get it when you’re in town.
1. It’s medicine. Really.
At least, that’s what they said when they began shilling it in pharmacies around the Netherlands by the 17th century. The extra-earthy flavors associated with jenever (“ye-NAY-ver”) come from the variety of "curative" herbs they cram in there, number one of which is juniper (or jenever in Dutch). The intensely piney berries are allegedly a primo diuretic, digestive, anti-inflammatory, etc.
To get yourself a prescription in awesomeness, head to Rembrandtplein-adjacent Café Slijterij de Oosterling, where they still dispense liquid medicine to the needy, and double as a late-night liquor store -- or you can time travel with an A. van Wees distillery tour at De Ooievaar (holding strong in Amsterdam’s Jordaan since 1883!) which ends up at nearby distillery-owned tasting room De Admiraal.
2. 400yrs turpentine-free
London has Holland’s Willem III, aka the male half of England’s William and Mary, to thank for gin. He was kind of a giant dick to his fatherland, hyper-taxing jenever imports while turning a blind eye to peeps spewing out turpentine-laden bathtub brew. Thus, gin was born. Do a side-by-side jenever-gin comparison at the ultra-modern museum and cocktail room the House of Bols, from the original jenever AND gin producer (since 1575), or head to their former rival's hilariously named tasting room Wynand Fockink.
3. Flavors include “Bitter Suffering’s Comfort”, “Shirt Lifter”, and “Little Hans in the Basement”
OK, technically jenever only comes in three varieties: oud (old), jong (young), or korenwijn (corenwyn). The difference boils down to how old-school the recipe they used was. The jong stuff tastes more like vodka (or gin) than the sweeter, more firey, oak-aged oud and korenwijn varieties. And korenwijn uses more malt wine as a base for an even gnarlier, more distinct flavor. To try them for yourself, make like Anthony Bourdain and let the barman of the back-Medieval-alley Drie Fleschjes guide you. Just ask him to be gentle.
The possibilities don’t stop here, though. Jenever’s almost always sold alongside a line of liqueurs flavored with herbs, fruits, nuts, and flowers that’re just as old and authentic as the juniper juice itself.These are the guys with the fun names from above. (OK, want some more? Try “Bride’s Tears”,“Parrot Soup”, and “My Aunt’s Perfume”.) Often more pleasant to drink, you will still feel the burn. Work your way through the wall of flavors in A. van Wees’s Centraal Station outpost De Ooievaar.
4. There’s a special drinking ritual, with an optional happy ending
Say you find yourself at In de Olofspoort, a spot that can trace its roots to Amsterdam’s origin legend. On the bar in front of you, a tulip-shaped glass of jenever is filled to the brim, and daring you to spill it. How do you tackle this stuff? Well, you're supposed to put your hands behind your back, and dip your head down to the glass, that's how. You can even follow it with a beer, a combo called a kopstoot, or headbutt. In fact, this process is so awesome that it’s already been documented by Thrillist in San Francisco.