Last Friday, Jacob Grier put together a classic Dutch tasting: a liquor called Genever with a beer back. In the Netherlands, they call this combo "kopstootje" (an word translated, enigmatically, as "little head butt"). On hand were a representative of Bols, a genever producer, and Alex Ganum, who brewed the beer specially for the pairing. I of course asked the dumb American question right off the bat--let's hope I was alone in this regard--"So, what's genever, some kind of Dutch gin?
Gin is made from a neutral spirit and gets its character from infusions of botanicals, notably juniper berries. Genever is also a botanically-infused liquor--in fact "genever" means juniper in Dutch. But genever is based on a mixture of distillates--a bit less than half from neutral gain spirits and the other portion from corn, wheat, and rye mashes--more like whiskey than gin.
Tal Nadari, the Bols rep, said that in a Dutch bar there might be as many as a hundred genevers available. I asked what made them differ was the infusions. "No," he said, "botanicals are nothing." It is the blend of "maltwine" distillates that made them distinct. Some may have a greater proportion of corn--making them sweeter--or rye, making them spicer. The blends are guarded by the master distiller--Nadari himself didn't know the proportion in Bols.
Gin came later--the bastard child of refined genever. According to Bols, "the result of an attempt to copy genever gone awry." Whether because of the vaunted maltwine base or because the botanical infusions are lighter and less intense, Bols Genever does taste different. You can actually taste the base liquor, which is soft and slightly sweet. The herbs are richer and less dependent on juniper than gin, and the result is a liquor pleasant to drink straight. There's absolutely no burn or kick--just a smooth, herbal, almost rainwater fresh quality.
Of course, people don't drink it straight. In the Netherlands, the version of beer-and-a-shot is light lager and genever. For our tasting, Upright provided a crisp biere de garde as the accompaniment. Alex infused the beer with similar herbs found in genever, as well as rye, wheat, and corn. He also used a lager yeast--a nice touch that kept the beer clean and light. The herbal infusion was understated, though there was a lovely woody note Alex guessed came from angelica root. Personally, I found both the genever and the beer preferable on their own--they needed neither augmentation or dilution. They were fine together, but I found myself going back and forth, enjoying them concurrently, rather than simultaneously. (Genever is also apparently versatile in cocktails as well.)
On the other hand, I'm always a fan of ritual, and the "little head butt" is pretty entertaining. The tradition holds that the bartender fills a genever-specific tulip-shaped shot glass all the way to the brim. Further, actually, until the meniscus arches up like a little dome. Since you can't hoist a glass this full before you down it, you have to slurp it first. Then comes the beer chaser, and finally, an amused "prost!" If you're out for a night on the town, one round of kopstootje might be in order. You can currently find the Upright/Bols Genever pairing at Beaker and Flask, Broder, Clyde Common, Cruz Room, Grain and Gristle, Hop and Vine, Irving Street Kitchen, Spints Alehouse, Spirit of '77, St. Jack, the Temple Bar, and the very lovely Circa 33, which hosted us for the event.
Alex Ganum is on the far left and to his right is Tal Nadari. Jacob Grier is second from right.