Next up on our Around the World in 80 Gins tour, we’re travelling north from the sun-drenched Mediterranean to Belgium and neighbouring Luxembourg.
The two counties have a renowned distilling tradition, which makes them something of a dream destination for drinkers. Time to discover the world of Luxembourgian and Belgian gin.
Before we get to gin, though, it’s impossible to discuss distilling traditions in Belgium and Luxembourg without first making mention of genever. Also written as jenever and genièvre, the spirit’s history goes back to the Middle Ages, when wine prepared with juniper berries was thought to have medicinal value.
Genever is rightly thought of as the precursor to gin, though the spirit does differ in certain key ways. For one, genever, which is frequently made from a blend of ‘malt wine’ mash and grain spirit, is usually richer and maltier than a standard London Dry Gin. While juniper berries are incorporated into the mix, juniper does not have to be the predominant flavour, as it does in gin, thus the characteristics of the spirit itself, as well as the different spices that are sometimes used during distillation, are often more prominent.
While genever is most strongly associated with the Dutch, both Belgium and Luxembourg share equally in the tradition. Prior to their 19th century independence, the two countries were incorporated into the Netherlands; as a result, genever is widely drunk in both.
Visitors to both Belgium and Luxembourg are likely to encounter two predominant styles of genever: oude and jonge, or old and young. However, these categorisations refer not to the aging of the spirits, but to the methods of distillation. Oude genever is a more traditional recipe, which tends to be stronger in character; it’s often served in small, tulip-shaped glasses and drunk neat. Jonge genever, on the other hand, is lighter in body and often used in cocktails. Other subtle variations – like the extra-malty corenwijn and cream- and fruit-laced versions – can also be found.
What do they drink
Genever remains popular in both countries, though only Belgium can legally distil it according to EU regulations. Particularly popular Belgian genevers include traditional labels like Smeets, Hertekamp, and Peterman.
However, Belgian gin is also now finding a foothold in the region, with several small-scale distilleries producing innovative versions of the spirit. Biercée Gin (crafted by a distillery that also produces genever) has a complex and spice-laden palate. Filliers is another genever distillery that has turned to gin; its Dry Gin 28 incorporates 28 botanicals and is wonderfully rich. Those after something a little bit different may also be tempted to try its special-edition Tangerine Gin, which works well in Martinis and Negronis.
How do they drink it
Given the great variety in genever (and gin) offerings, the two are drunk every which way. Traditional genever – typically bottled in clay jugs – can be drunk neat, with ice, or mixed. Several genever bars in Belgium, including ‘T Dreupelkot in Ghent and Maison du Peket in Liège, offer the perfect arena to sample the spirit. For the truly curious, the Nationaal Jenever Museum in Hasselt, Belgium, tells visitors everything they need to know about the drink.
Filliers recommends that those eager to try its traditional genever do so in a classic Collins recipe; of course, it works equally well with Belgian gin.
The Original Collins, slightly adapted
60 ml genever (or gin)
20 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
20 ml simple syrup
1 slice of lemon
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, mix the genever, lemon juice, and simple syrup; shake well. Strain into a Collins glass filled with ice, top with soda water and the lemon.