An all-too-rare blogpost; a gift to my followers for the holidays- a story of alcohol!
I am not much of a hard liquor drinker. I prefer my daily glass of wine (usually white these days) or a nice hoppy British ale.
Amsterdam was the topic of a recent episode of the TV travelogue ‘The Getaway’, guided by American comedian and late-night TV host Seth Meyers and his brother Josh. The program’s scenes made me want to revisit A’dam immediately but a couple of things in particular had me pulling out my pad and pen to make notes for future reference.
One segment showed the Meyers brothers trying jenever, the Dutch spirit that the Brits eventually mangled into the tipple they call gin. This jenever drink sounded intriguing so I made a note to track down somewhere in Amsterdam to sample it whether I ended up at the same spot shown in the clip or a different one.
Sooo, on my latest trip to Amsterdam, I got the name and address of a tasting bar that specialized in this unique booze. On my last night in Amsterdam, I took the tram to Dam Square, found the narrow alley named Pijlsteeg and the tiny tasting bar called Wynand Fockink, named for the distiller who started it up in 1679 (yikes!).
The bar had a serving window open to the alley – logical considering the bar inside had barely enough room to swing a jenever bottle; still, I went inside to see what was what.
There were a several shelves behind the bar, one with about 40 bottles, all the same size and shape but with different colored labels. Most of these were fruit flavored and sweet, so not ‘pure’ jenevers.
Two folks minded the bar. A guy seemed to be in charge of serving thru the window while a woman wiped down the bar and took care of the tulip-shaped cordial glasses bathing in a copper basin under a lazy, constant stream of cool water. Her name was Mirjam and she was my jenever guide. Mirjam’s first question for me after I told her I wanted to try some jenever was, “What spirit do you usually like to drink?” I told her that I drink vodka most often, and will have single malt Scotch on special occasions. This was an indication of which of the seven (only seven bottles out of all those?!) jenevers she would introduce. She chose four, each distilled in a different way, for me to try (I never did discover the personalities of the other three that I didn’t sample). Something on the list for the next trip.
I told Mirjam that I had tried gin in the past and did not like it; it smelled like perfume and tasted like pine needles. She said that was the juniper that the Brits had added in excessive (my word) amounts to the liquor when they decided to create their own version. Jenever has almost no juniper by comparison, which made it infinitely more palatable than, say, Boodles or Bombay. Sipping my way through my jenever lesson was extremely pleasant. Sure, those in the know willl remind me that jenever should be drunk, hands-free, from a full glass, with the surface tension only one drop shy of liquid splashing all over the table. I was just learning, ya know? Besides, four full glasses of jenever drunk that way and I might still be propped up against the alleyway in Amsterdam. Hmmmm… Anyhoo…
The first one was old (oude) jenever. This is made the same way as was done both before and after World War II. It had very little flavor, just a bit of fire at the back of my throat. Could be dangerous; you might not know you’d had too much until it was too late.
The second one was called ‘young’ (jonge) and is the version made during the World Wars when malt and other ingredients were not so easy to come by. A bit more personality and that same fire as the oude type. Maybe just a bit more of a sweet note, possibly from ingredients like beet sugar or molasses..
Next came de Vijf – a blend of three jenevers aged for five years, hence the name (vijf is Dutch for 5). One part of de Vijf is aged in French cognac barrels, another in port barrels and the third portion is aged in American oak. Lots of personality in this one and, I seem to recall, a bit of color as well. Better and better.
The fourth jenever was the Superior and to my untrained palate at least, the nicest of the four. Satiny smooth, not so much raw fire as the first two and still no real taste of the dreaded juniper berry. Just very, very nice. The Superior is distilled for three years in bourbon barrels. To be honest, I’ve never drunk bourbon, though I know folks who do, so I’ve no idea how the taste of the Superior jenever compares, if at all, to actual bourbon. Not important but what was important was finding out where to buy some to bring home. Mirjam smiled and pointed over my shoulder. “In the shop”, she said. Well, of course!
The shop was even smaller than the bar and there were several different size bottles to consider. I opted for the smallest – this was the beginning of my two-week trip after all; I needed to save room in the luggage for other still-unknown treasures. A clay bottle that looks to hold about 6 ounces. I was about to leave when I realized I wasn’t done – I needed to buy a glass so I could drink my jenever properly! Again, only one glass, with the Wynand Fockink name engraved on it, carefully packed in bubble wrap. I carried it in my backpack for the rest of my trip, perfectly and safely snuggled inside the metal-lined travel mug I always carry.
The fellow who was manning the window stopped by and confided that when the Dutch are in a good mood, they say that Dutch jenever is the grandmother of British gin and when they are in a bad mood, they say that British gin is the bastard granddaughter of Dutch jenever. Ha!
All thanks to Seth Meyers and my constant channel surfing looking for anything to do with Europe. Here is a link to an impressively detailed description of the hows and whats of Dutch jenever. There are several other websites if you need to know more. Proost!