Saturday, 29 September 2012

The seductive magic of Dutch Genever...

Imagine an old bar in the heart of Amsterdam, the walls lined with bottles, flagons and barrels. Saucissons hang from the ceiling and a stout wheel of Gouda sits on the bar. There is a scattering of sand on the floor and old barrels used as tables. The lighting is low and the atmosphere is convivial but not raucous. No it is not an off-shoot of a Davy’s wine bar but a description of one of the many tasting rooms to be found across Holland’s most famous city and the ideal spot to sample some of their national drink: Genever (pronounced ‘Geneva’). 

In my previous post about ‘The Dam’ I made hints that I would be writing on this topic and I have been true to my suggestions. Here I am going to concentrate on the drink in question rather than the location or the setting (for more information on where to sample this drink click here). Let me begin by stating that whilst it is an acquired taste, whatever form it comes in, it is a truly subtle, almost magical draught!

The great adventurer and man of letters, Patrick Leigh Fermor, gives a scintillating account of his first experience of drinking this potent liquor in his travel classic A Time of Gifts (1977) which he dramatically described as akin to fire and ice, How extravagant! And if only I had thought of it first because it is a marvelous description of how it drinks, cold on the tongue and hot on the back of the throat. 

Genever comes in varying forms, crucially hinging on its distillation method, but the two most popular (which you will see across every bar in Holland) are the Old (Oude) and the Young (Jonge). The former contains a high quantity of malt and is like a cross between gin and scotch whisky whilst the latter contains less and is more like a cross between gin and vodka. Both in their own way are delicious and come in very distinctive stone bottles which merely adds to their rustic, continental charm. 

In addition, much like Scotch single malt, Oude Genever can be aged over a number of years and there are shops all over Amsterdam selling all sorts of bottles, from the youngest to some which are 25 years old plus! On my most recent trip I was lucky enough to try a 10 year old vintage which - I was informed by the barman - was the ‘Emperor’ of the Bols (Holland's main spirits and liqueur brand) portfolio. Served at room temperature, I was advised to sip slowly whilst cradling the glass in my hand to warm the spirit. It started with a taste reminiscent of a light whisky gave way to rich brandy notes as it warmed in my palm - and this was a gin? It was quite surreal, but well worth the 5 euros I paid for it and urge you to try it should you be lucky enough to go to a bar where they have a bottle. 

Finally - for this is but a short post - I must mention the ritual that surrounds Genever, which is a Dutch tradition for the consumption of this time-honoured drink. Almost always served in a tulip shaped glass (in reference to Holland’s national flower) alongside a glass of cold Dutch lager, the Genever is poured so that it forms a precarious film over the top of the glass almost to overflowing point. The next step will seem strange and I saw a number of tourists confused but the first sip has to be taken whilst the glass is still on the table, known a slurp. It felt a little surreal to me when I first did it and I thought that it was some elaborate joke at the first bar I tried it at and unfortunately I cannot find anything about how or why this ritual started. No matter, it adds a sense of fun and occasion to the drink which is sadly lacking from so many an experience over here in dear old Blighty. after this you can either knock it back before the lager or drink it in tandem, it's entirely up to you! 

But where can I purchase this magical drop? I hear you cry from in front of your computer screens. Fear not my friends, for it is readily available from any good wine merchant worth their salt or hit the internet and purchase it from their without the trouble of going to the shops. Thus, you have no excuse for not trying this intriguing and fantastic drink! 

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