Véronique Beittel wanted to pursue the American dream.
Having relocated from Belgium to Washington, DC and achieved the standard clichés of personal financial success – corporate ladder climbed, Fortune 500 lifestyle lived, power lunches lunched – she often felt like something was missing. To fill a void, she would have her parents send the local genever (pronounced “jen-AY-ver”) from her homeland. However, she was realizing that prosperity didn’t necessarily equal fulfillment. Not to mention, since her friends shared her care packages, she kept running out of genever, which was getting harder to pass through customs.
Then one day, Beittel decided to wake up from the American Dream and import the genever, known as Diep 9 (pronounced “deep nine,” referring to the deep history of genever and from the nine botanicals in the small batch distillate.) So she and her husband packed up the dogs and moved to rural Vermont. Beittel set about learning everything she could about the history of genever, cocktails, spirits marketing, labeling and import laws – all in order to fulfill “the passion to share my spirit.”
Most people in the US associate genever with the Dutch. However, as documented in Beittel’s book on the subject – Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle – the spirit originated in 13th century Belgium and was first produced as a curative (the botanicals said to have healing properties against the Plague and other diseases). It was originally distilled from wine (early genever is often referred to as “malt wine” or “moutwijn” in Dutch), however in the 16th century, a massive cold wave killed many of the vineyards, and genever was from then on distilled from grain instead of grapes, evolving into the modern standard. The first official grain distillate and botanical recipe was created in Antwerp and spread throughout what is now considered modern Belgium (for those keeping score, Belgium didn’t officially become its own country till 1830 and Flanders was still technically part of Holland. The term “Dutch Courage” actually refers to the little bottles of Belgian genever British soldiers kept on their person while fighting alongside the Flemish against Spain in the Thirty Years War.) In the 17th century, when more political unrest caused the Belgians to flee to other parts of Europe, that original recipe from Antwerp finally caught on in Holland, now considered the top genever producer in the world.
To further the Genever Divide, Belgium suffered through an even longer Prohibition of sorts than the US, one that lasted from 1919 to 1985. Though genever was still produced, like all spirits, it was banned from sale in bars, and if purchased in stores, there was a two-bottle minimum. Wait. A Prohibition that encourages more consumption? Sounds OK, except the stuff didn’t come cheap and most people couldn’t afford to buy that much at once. It was essentially a Prohibition designed against the poorer classes, supposedly to keep industrial workers more productive. The regulations also account for the reason why Belgian beer became so potent – the ABV was raised to make up for lack of spirits in bars and convert spirits drinkers to beer drinkers. After 1985, the challenge was to re-introduce the once-national spirit to a country now comprised of beer drinkers.
The Netherlands never experienced that Prohibition, and kept on producing genever, hence its popularity and geographical association.
From a terroir perspective, however, genever is mostly Belgian. There are actually eleven official genever AOC’s, almost all of which are exclusive to Belgium (the rest are German. Oddly, there are none in the Netherlands.) According to Beittel, the AOC for Diep 9 is “O’de Flander Echte Oost-Vlaamse graanjenever, translated to O’de Flander Original East-Flemish grain genever or mostly simply referred to as O’de Flander. It’s also the only genever AOC that was awarded a seal/logo instead of just a verbal AOC.”
The base for modern genever is a malt wine made from grain blended with neutral spirit. But what sets Diep 9 and most Belgian genever apart from others is that the malt wine is made locally within the AOC, not outsourced. Diep 9 takes it further by producing the malt wine (and everything else “from grain to drop”) in-house at the Stokerij De Moor distillery. Beittel points out that another Belgian and Dutch stylistic difference in that the Dutch is more “juniper-forward” and uses corn in the grain mix, while the Belgian is softer, with no corn in the mash.
Diep 9 comes in two age variations, simply Young and Old. The Young has a pronounced citrus peel and floral quality, with hints of ginger, lemongrass and only a hint of juniper. The Old, aged two years in French oak, is dangerously sippable, smooth and lush, with hints of dark chocolate, blood orange, more ginger, cloves and hardly any juniper flavors
When Beittel proposed to import Diep 9 (known as Dirk Martens in Belgium), she did so on the condition that the formula not be changed in any way for American consumers. She assured the distiller, “The consumer is me.” This means the genevers were imported at their original 35% ABV, which is smooth for drinking, but considered low for cocktail purposes. However, with the right touch, both would hold their own. The Young works in more fruit-forward drinks while the Old mixes well with aperitifs and subtle liquers. Try it with Aperol and a delicate vermouth for a pretty Negroni variation. So it’s definitely worth experimenting beyond sipping these babies neat.
Amanda Schuster is the Senior Editor in Chief of Alcohol Professor and the author of NEW YORK COCKTAILs available from Cider Mill Press. Certified sommelier, former retail spirits and wine buyer - she likes to think of herself as "bi-spiritual." Please don't ever offer her a Pickleback. Complete bio here.