The town of Schiedam (pronounced... no forget it, it's un-pronouncable for non-Dutch speakers) just west of Rotterdam is THE Jenever capital of the Netherlands, in fact its very existence is down to Holland's national drink. It used to be nicknamed 'Black Nazareth', due to its narrow streets and alleyways like the Palestinian city (the WA has never been there, so can't vouch for that similarity) and for the fact that the streets were black from the brown coal soot emitted by the chimneys of numerous jenever distilleries.
Jenever production began around 1700 and during its heyday in the late 1800s there were some 400 distillers in the town, directly or indirectly employing 90% of the population of around 12,000 at the time. The grains, traditionally barley and rye, were grown around the town and the malt was ground in the dozens of windmills in the town. Nowadays only 2 distillers remain, the commercial Herman Jansen distillers (of which more later) and a small-scale operation in the Jenever Museum itself, and only half a dozen of the windmills remain, which are said to be the tallest in the world (excluding modern energy generating ones presumably), because they had to keep their heads above the warehouses.
The Wine Anarchist and his wife were lucky as they entered the museum, as there was a distillation in progress in the working part of the museum. All 5 volunteer workers were staring with glee as the clear liquid flowed from the still into the holding vessel.
Also luckily the staff were in rather better condition than on this cartoon:
All 5 staff are unpaid volunteers, whose simple love for their work soon became apparent as Ton, one of them, started to give us a detailed account on how they make their jenever. The method in the making of their 'Old Schiedam' Single Malt Genever (Dutch spelling is with J and English spelling is with G, so I hence the inconsistent spelling) is strictly in the traditional way as they would have done it in the 17th century (except for the fact they don't use brown coal to heat the still anymore). In 1902 jenever production was revolutionised and changed significantly, more of that later. This is the last distillery to still use this method, all parts of the process being carried out on site.
First the raw materials, 2 parts barley to 1 part rye, is soaked in water, then spread on the floor to be allowed to start germinating. As it does starches get converted to sugar at which point the germination is stopped by drying the grain. The resulting malt is then ground in one of the local mills and a mash is produced by adding boiling water and extracting the sugars from the malt. The sugary liquid is then fermented to about 5 % to effectively create a beer just like in malt whisky production. The fermentation takes place in these mash tuns:
This is now distilled 3 times in copper pot stills. Having seen many a still in Scotland, these are relatively small, about 2.50 metres tall.
The results of each distillation are known as ruwnat (low wine), enkelnat (single distillate) and bestnat (malt wine) with a respective alcohol content of 12%, 24% and 48%.
Again the process so far is just like for malt whisky, however the stills used here seem less efficient than say for Scotch or Irish whiskeys as the alcohol content of those after their final distillation is usually much higher. Very occasionally, as also on the day of the WA's visit they produce a special edition with a fourth distillation and longer aging. Oh yes and talking about aging, the spirit is then aged for 3 years in 225l second hand American oak barrels, which previously contained Jack Daniel's or Jim Beam.
Now there is only one ingredient missing, the one that has given jenever and its British cousin gin its name in the first place: juniper berries. This is done differently here than at other distilleries. A small separate batch is distilled in the laboratory with juniper berries to effectively make a juniper extract. A small amount is then blended into the matured spirit to give it just a subtle hint of juniper. To re-distil the final product with the juniper berries would result in the loss of the light golden colour which the oak barrels have imparted onto the jenever during the aging process.
Having had an introduction to the traditional way of making jenever, the Wine Anarchist and his wife went to explore the rest of the museum. Here the modern process of producing jenever is explained too. In 1902 the introduction of the column still revolutionised jenever production. In a continuous distillation process higher alcohol levels could be achieved more efficiently and the result was a cleaner tasting product. Jenever made predominantly from this method became known as jonge jenever, young genever as opposed to oude jenever, old genever, which was made by the old method. Therefore the common descriptors old and young on jenever labels do not refer to the aging, but to the method.
Usually the first stage for all jenever is still the pot still and and malted barley and rye are still required without the addition of any sugar. However other grains, most notably maize, are now added too, whilst part of the distillate is re-distilled with herbs, part with juniper berries and part will go into the column stills. All parts then get blended back together for the final product which may or may not be aged.
The museum also gives a lot of glimpses of the role of jenever in the daily life of the Dutch, from posters from the temperance movement or a glimpse of a 1970's Dutch living room...
to various typical Dutch bar settings from different periods such as the Bruine Kroeg, the brown pub, which was a kind of extension of the Dutch living room:
or the 1970's style Kraker's Café, the hangout for the anarchist scene:
Visitors were invited to add their own graffiti...
Other exhibits included a huge collection of miniature spirit bottles from around the world and many other paraphernalia connected to jenever. At the end of the tour the Wine Anarchist and his wife finally sat down in the tasting bar for a well deserved borreltje, as the Dutch like to call it, or a wee dram to the Scots.
First up he tasted the Standard 3 year old Old Schiedam Original Single Malt Genever 40%AbV. The colour is pale gold. The nose reveals slightly honeyed aromas, a bit lie gingerbread,delicate juniper berry notes without being over-powering, some malty character, molasses and more than a passing semblance with a young malt whisky such as Glen Grant. The palate is smooth and warm with some spicy, slightly liquoricy notes and a long finish. A very fine product indeed.
As the Wine Anarchist is always interested in anything organic, he was delighted to spot a jenever made from 100% organic grains: the Notaris Jonge Graanjenever, 35%AbV, from the aforementioned Hermann Jansen distillery. There is little information on their website or the bottle on the exact method of production or indeed the ingredients beyond that it is made from a blend of grain spirit and malt spirit from organically grown grains and herbs. However, apparently it is possible to visit the place (something to remember for next time) and someone who has, has written an interesting and informative blog post on it. Anyway as to the tasting notes: this is a clear spirit, which has not been aged. It displays a delicate nose of juniper, nutmeg and cloves combined with some floral / herbal notes, colt's foot perhaps. The palate starts with a gentle sweetness and clean herbal flavours but finishes dry and long. Very nice character for a white spirit.
Finally the WA tasted the Old Schiedam 10 Year Old Moutwijnjenever from the museum. The colour was pale gold. On the nose delicate juniper aromas combined with citrussy notes, lemon and orange peel and hints of cinnamon and vanilla and a pinch of mint. The palate was warm and delicately sweet with a nice spicy note and more citrussy fruit, finishing long and smooth. Very good indeed.
To visit the museum yourself it is located on
Lange Haven 74-76
open Tues-Fri 12-5
Not all tablets and films are in English as well as Dutch, but English speaking staff are at hand and very helpful.
So cheers from the Wine Anarchist and his new best friend Proosje, the mascot of Schiedam