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So Good, I Flew to Amsterdam

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sometimes finding the best spirits takes more effort than a quick jaunt to the corner liquor store. For instance, last month I realized that my last prized bottle of oude genever -- acquired during a trip to the Netherlands -- had run dry.

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This was not an opportune time to be out of genever. It seems everyone in the spirits world is talking right now about this flavorful, earthy, malty Dutch gin. Cocktail historian David Wondrich, in his popular book "Imbibe!," points out that many of our classic American cocktails originally relied on genever rather than London dry gin. Wondrich also claims that genever often makes a tastier cocktail than dry gin.

Yet so far, the genever buzz has mostly been just talk. Real genever is not widely available in the United States. Some brands, such as Boomsma and Zuidam, are here but hard to find. Other types of Dutch gin, such as Damrak brand, have a nice genever-like profile but are tailored to an American palate. Things may be changing: At least one American company, Anchor Distilling in San Francisco, has released a small amount of a genever-style gin named Genevieve.

But right now, the only surefire way to get real genever is to fly to Amsterdam. So, a few weeks ago, that's what I did.

Now, I know what you're probably thinking about Amsterdam, but rest assured: My present vices do not extend to magic mushrooms or space cakes or patronizing the ladies of the red-light district. When I'm in Amsterdam, I love hanging out in the city's cozy neighborhood bars: the "proeflokaal," or tasting rooms, and the "brown cafes," so-called because of the dark wood and years of cigarette smoke. In two of my favorites, De Drie Flechjes and Wynand Fockink, both proeflokaal with sawdust on the floor, I learned the traditional way of drinking genever: The bartender fills the cordial glass well above the rim; the drinker leans down and slurps his first sip right off the bar. He chases the genever with a beer. The whole thing is called a kopstoot, or "headbutt."

On the first day of my latest visit, I went to the House of Bols, operated by the Lucas Bols liquor company, for a genever sampling. But before the tasting, I wandered around Bols's high-tech multimedia museum and its bartender school, which was great fun.

One surprise was the emphasis Bols seems to place on what's officially called "flair bartending," or what most people recognize as bartending like Tom Cruise did it in "Cocktail." At House of Bols, you can even film a video of yourself flipping bottles around and e-mail it to your friends back home.

Bols apparently takes the whole thing very seriously and re-engineered its liqueur bottles specifically for optimal flair bartending, developing "a bottle that is scientifically proven to offer significant cocktail making performance improvements of up to 33 percent," according to one exhibit.

That made me happy for flair bartenders. After all, 2008 is the 20th anniversary of "Cocktail," starring Cruise as an acrobatic, poetry-reciting bartender. Inspired, I even bought two practice bottles in the gift shop in hopes of auditioning for the inevitable "Cocktail" remake. (Note: Back home I have already spilled a lot of liquor on my kitchen floor.)

After the flair, I got down to business and sampled the three basic genevers: oude, jonge and corenwyn. Genever labeled oude, or old, is not aged but rather is made according to a traditional recipe calling for at least 15 percent malt wine.

It's a recipe the Dutch have used since the 16th century, when a chemist in Leyden invented the spirit by adding juniper ("genever" in Dutch) to distilled alcohol. Oude genever has a funky, earthy quality that is unlike anything else; it has become one of my favorite spirits in the world.

Jonge, or young, genever is the most popular spirit in the Netherlands. It follows a recipe that dates from the early 20th century. A more neutral spirit, it still maintains some of the flavorful maltiness of the oude.

Corenwyn (corn wine), a cask-aged genever, must contain at least 51 percent malt wine. The spirit's finest expression, corenwyn shares many of the characteristics of fine aged whiskey.

Corenwyn and oude genever generally are sold in the traditional earthenware bottles.

Philip Duff, Bols's brand manager, tells me the company is working to bring its genevers into the United States this year, though, he adds, "it's all very Secret Squirrel at the moment."

With that in mind, I filled up my suitcases with plenty of the stuff.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.


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