Saaremaa – Juniper’s Love Island

At a time when juniper is in decline across the UK, mostly through poor land management, for a gin geek like me, a visit to an island where the plant is thriving promised to be quite an tonic.

But as I found out, as well as being a place of conservation, it is every bit a place of innovation. I met with Liisi Kuivjõgi at Orbu farm in pretty Leedri village who took time out to talk me through how they make their special syrup: and it is special. It has a taste and colour most similar to maple syrup but with subtle pine-forest notes, which admittedly doesn’t sound great to anyone familiar with 1970’s toilet cleaner. However, it is great, as are the various sauces and conserves all developed from the same process.

To make the syrup, they take fresh shoots from the new spring growth rather than berries. The shoots are steeped in water for four days then the resulting infusion is boiled down with sugar until rich and gloopy. This seems to give it a much subtler flavour, despite the rather vigorous syrup-making process.

Liisi and her sisters are planning. They are thinking about tapping their own birch and maple trees and seeing what new things they can make.

With a belly full of syrup, I grab some perfectly decent juniper beer made by Pihtla and head to my lodgings at the Aavikunurga Guesthouse in Randevere which are home to a different kind of innovation. As father of the modern Estonian language Johannes Aarvik, who grew up here, sought to standardise the various Estonian dialects. His methodical and open-minded approach included borrowing words from other languages like Finnish. It was readily adopted by the Estonian government and by doing so enabled a nation to be build in the inter-war years.

The next day I headed to the main town on the island, Kuresaare, for another meeting with some more innovators.

In the old electricity generating plant in Tolli Street, I met with Lisa who now brews Poide beer with her husband. With little experience but full of can-do spirit, they started brewing beer at home in Poide before up-scaling operations at their new building in Kuresaare.

Among a range of great beers, two stand out: The imperial brown ale and the rye beer which is like eating a slice of rich rye bread.

But leaving myself little time to linger, I went to visit another local produce provider. I met Maria and Inge at Idea Farm who have used their knowledge of food technology to grow the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices on a small-holding surrounded by beautiful woodland of pines, birches and of course juniper.

They make their own products which are available locally and through a little bit of personal exporting, also in Marlborough, England. Anywhere else, their small-holding with it’s neat rows of crops, would seem like a rural idyll, but on Saaremaare it’s just normal.

After grabbing a picnic, I headed for the beach, which meant walking through woodlands mixed with juniper. The sound of birds preparing nests and gentle waves lapping the shore while you can almost see the new juniper shoots pushing their way out a little further all serve to slow time down.

Sitting by the shore, nibbling some dried fish (I like it, but not to everyone’s taste), it’s a chance to reflect on what makes Saaremaa special. It is a beautiful island where juniper thrives. But what makes the island special is that it’s people have taken what nature has given them and made new things, all with a little love.


Useful links:

24 hours in Sillamäe – The push-pull of an open-closed town

Sillamäe is a small town in Estonia near the Russian border with a complex layered history, much like the shale it is built on. But what remains of the past and what does the most recent layer look like?

I went to find out.

After being destroyed in the Second World War, it was re-built as a town with a vision where its inhabitants would not want to leave, even if they could.

Built by gulag internees and POWs, this town had an urgent purpose. To supply uranium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program and help it catch up with the USA which had already demonstrated its capabilities at Hiroshima.

Closed to outsiders and removed from maps, to most of its inhabitants, this little town would have been a whole world.

Wandering around the neoclassical apartments, concert hall, and other municipal buildings, it has an eerily familiar feeling, at least for fans of The Prisoner. Perhaps it should be twinned with Portmeirion.

Having said that, my very first impression of Sillamäe during a torrential downpour wasn’t eeriness but queasiness from an overwhelming smell of gas. It would be easy to assume this is a bad sign for visiting this former Soviet nuclear town with a large tailing pond full of nuclear waste nearby. Making this pond safe and preventing spillage into the Baltic was a priority for the European Union on which work was completed in 2008.

One person who also felt the strange push-pull of the place was film director Roman Baskin who used it as the setting for his Estonian cult movie Vernanda a curious film that plays with the idea of being trapped in a town facing imminent doom.

Taking a wander down to the sea front, a must at any seaside town, offers a view of the Baltic and the port. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to run commercially viable ferries to Finland but the main hope still lies with heavy metals. Now the work is to extract niobium for mobile phones rather than uranium for weapons, which is progress.

As well as neoclassicism, the town also has a somewhat faded collection of grey brick Khrushchyovkas as well as a set of Brezhnev era panel-build flats which may be the most recent soviet relics, but also the ones apparently most in need of maintenance. The three sets of buildings each in its own distinct part of the town are like layers of Soviet history. Grand vision, shoddy improvement and shoddier decline.

The scrappier buildings have a smattering of graffiti, mostly in Russian with occasional bits of English and offer a reminder that at least 90% of the town’s inhabitants are native Russian speakers. Given the tensions between Russia and the West, what do these walls say?

Most comments are about Julia’s love-life. Lucky Julia…

There is a determined effort to make sure this town is on the up. Whilst the authorities are renovating the main thoroughfares and have added an eco-bike trail to the parkland. It’s the inhabitants who are taking the lead.

Sillamae Museum founded by two local artists provides both a look back as well as community activities. They have their work cut out for them as so much of the past is undocumented, but it’s their energy that makes the Sillamäe compelling and the museum a must, albeit with Google Translate.

As for where to stay, there’s the hotel – Hotel Krunk. Built as part of the neo-classical layer, it makes little of its architecture, but instead relies on serving passing trade with cheap beds. Reasonably priced food and drink are served at the attached restaurant accompanied by a continuous medley of Russian pop classics and a whirring glitter ball.

And with a full tummy, what better way would there be to cap off an evening than with a stroll around the neoclassical streets as well as let your ears – if it wasn’t for the smell of gas.


useful links:

The Skeleton Army

Industrialisation proved to be a brutal experience for many who turned to drink to drown their woes. Victorian England produced a new breed of crusaders who were determined to save people from their moral and physical squalor which meant abstention from the demon drink.

Going out for a Sunday walk in the late 19th century in a typical English Town or City, would have been an assault on the senses. Smog from the coal fires in every business and home, the smell of horse manure from the transport and the ghastly sound of two dissonant bands and choirs. If you followed the sound you would have come across a resolute company of Salvation Army volunteers in their Christian soldier uniforms being harried and harangued by another company of troops, the Skeleton Army.

And while the Salvationists would appeal to the citizens of town to repent their sins and take the pledge, the Skeleton Army would be there to stop the do-gooding. The Bethnel Green Post noted in November 1882:

“A genuine rabble of ‘roughs’ pure and unadulterated has been infesting the district for several weeks past. These vagabonds style themselves the ‘Skeleton Army’…. The ‘skeletons’ have their collectors and their collecting sheets and one of them was thrust into my hands… it contained a number shopkeepers’ names… I found that publicans, beer sellers and butchers are subscribing to this imposture… the collector told me that the object of the Skeleton Army was to put down the Salvationists by following them about everywhere, by beating a drum and burlesquing their songs, to render the conduct of their processions and services impossible… Amongst the Skeleton rabble there is a large percentage of the most consummate loafers and unmitigated blackguards London can produce…worthy of the disreputable class of publicans who hate the London school board, education and temperance and who, seeing the beginning of the end of their immoral traffic, and prepared for the most desperate enterprise.

When things got violent, the police were called on to intervene, although they didn’t behave in the way you might expect. In Weston-Super-Mare, three members of the Salvation Army were arrested and jailed for incitement to riot. Not that they were directly inciting anyone to riot, but wherever they went, the Skeleton Army followed and if they hadn’t been there, the Skeleton Army would have no reason to actually do the rioting.

In Worthing, the Salvation Army appealed for protection but the Home Secretary refused to give permission for the police to assist. All in all, government from magistrates to members of the cabinet seemed more fearful of the Sally Army’s organised and sober movement than a drunken rioting rabble.

However, not all meeting of the two armies led to war. There were occasions where Skeleton Army members and Salvationists shared tea and there were several conversions en route. Skeleton lout, Charles Jeffries left the mob and joined the Salvation Army and rising to third in command.

 

By the 1890’s the Skeleton Army had run out of steam and were disbanded, broken up by force or left to just fall apart, leaving the Salvationists continued their mission in peace. But despite the Salvation Army now being free to continue unhindered, the government didn’t fall at the hands of the sober masses and the publicans still had a steady stream of business.

The Gin Palace – a ship that ended an empire

HMS Agincourt must have look quite a sight as it steamed out of Scapa Flow in September 1914. Heavy and sitting low in the water; weighed down by a massive array of guns. It had far too many guns and too little armour to be a ‘proper’ Dreadnought and the Royal Navy wouldn’t have dreamed of commissioning such a ship for themselves. However, back in 1911, when the Brazilian Navy asked for it, there were no complaints in Britain. Foreign powers could have whatever they wanted as long as they paid hard cash. Intense rivalry between Brazil and Argentina meant that when Brazil commissioned a ship, it had to look impressive, and that meant guns. But, Brazil ran out of money and before the ship had even been finished, it had been sold on to the Ottoman Navy who had their own ideas on what made a ship impressive.

The Ottomans took no time in asking for the ship to be modified to their needs. They took the money which had raised by public subscription and lavishly decked the officers’ quarters. Alas, no Ottoman officer ever got to enjoy their little bit of luxury.

The ship was ready for trials when war broke out in August 1914. The Turkish crew was in England and the payment for the ship had already been made, but the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided that releasing warships to the Ottomans when they hadn’t formally declared their allegiance to the Allies posed a risk. The Turkish crew were barred from their ship which was impounded and the money confiscated. Istanbul was outraged – the Ottoman government sided with Germany and Austro-Hungary and the rest is history: Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia, the Balfour Declaration, the creation of Turkey and the Middle East as we know it.

As for the Gin Palace, it didn’t have the most eventful war. The Royal Navy had had little time to make it battle ready and the only significant modification was the replacement of the Turkish-style toilets with something British bottoms were more used to. The ostentatious quarters remained intact but didn’t house regular Royal Navy officers or even reservists but a more refined set of gentlemen who had been reassigned from the royal yachts, perhaps nursing pink gins to relieve sea sickness.

Meanwhile the crew, a rag-tag bunch of early-released prisoners worked below decks to keep the hulk moving. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that its new patriotic name, HMS Agincourt, didn’t stick but instead it was nicknamed the Gin Palace (A-gin-court).

Its only significant action was in the Battle of Jutland where it reportedly fired 255 shells but isn’t known to have hit anything. As soon as the war was over, it was mothballed then send for scrap. Let’s hope some of those interiors ended up where they belong – in a Turkish bathhouse or an East-end London boozer.

A Charlton Heston moment in Latvia with putting mixture.

I had my Charlton Heston moment in Latvia.

And by that, I don’t mean waving a gun around at an NRA rally.

It wasn’t that dystopian.

By Charlton Heston moment, I mean that point in the Planet of the Apes where he is staggering through a desert and he stumbles across the last remnants of human civilisation – the Statue of Liberty.

I had been in the process of ticking off one of the lower items on my bucket list and searching for the source of kümmel.

150 years ago, kümmel was every bit the rival of gin and being made with caraway rather than juniper, it had one main advantage. Caraway has a calmative effect, reducing flatulence and that bloated feeling after a heavy meal. This ‘medicinal’ benefit help Ludwig Mentzendorff create a healthy business importing kümmel to Britain to sell to the new breed of entrepreneurs and growing middle class who wanted to show off their new found wealth with groaning dinner tables without showing their lack of breeding with clouds of methane.

It also proved useful on the golf courses where it soon earned the name ‘putting mixture’ for its ability to help golfers steady their nerves whilst its sugary-stickiness helped them keep hold of their clubs.

Kümmel, came from the village of Allažu (Allaschin modern day Latvia, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. It was produced by a Baltic German aristocrat Baron von Blanckenhagen, a hangover from the days of the Teutonic Knights, who owned land around Allažu which included a pure and reliable water source.

The upheavals of the 20th Century put paid to that business. In 1905 amid the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, the Blanckenhagen mansion was burned down. The distillery closed and entrepreneurial Mentzendorff’s opened up production of their own kümmel in France.

Baltic Germans moved ‘back’ to Germany as tension between Russia and Germany grew and several distilleries in Germany produced their own versions of kümmel, where it is still known as Allasch and is a popular digestif. But in Britain, its popularity never recovered.

So, I went to Allažu to see what remains I could find of the distillery. It was the middle of winter and the shortest routes to Allažu from Riga were along ice roads, making it feel like a proper adventure.

When I got there I realised that it was something of a forlorn hope to find anything. With no manor house, factory or any other sign that this used to be the home of putting mixture, what was there here to see?

I trudged around the manor parkland at the edge of the village, seeing if I could find some clue, anything to justify getting this cold when I had my Charlton Heston moment.

I saw some surprisingly lush plants among the grasses which looked familiar. I picked the seed heads with my numb fingers and rubbed them. It was caraway.

This is what was left of all the activity that took place here a century and a half earlier, keeping golfers in Scotland happy and dinner parties flatulence free.

I had a quiet moment of contemplation on what traces of our civilisation may remain after we are long gone. I popped a few seeds into my pocket and allowed the rest to fall from my cold, dead hands.

Then I went to the village shop. I bought some smoked river fish and rye bread. There was a row of spirits behind till and I asked if they sold kümmel.

They didn’t.

The two cultures of gin in Ghent

Whilst London may be the spiritual home of gin and still has a fair collection of legacy buildings, none of them seem like places to actually drink gin. Maybe they’re fine for a pint of beer, a dram of whisky or even a gin-based cocktail, but a tot of gin on its own? No.

Gin drinking, unsullied by cocktails, is no longer a British thing.

To appreciate gin drinking as a culture, a visit to the Low Countries is required and what better place to visit than t-dreupelkot run by Pol in Ghent. However, it’ll take two visits to see both cultures.

1. daytime

A visit in the daytime, is a great chance to front-load a homemade cherry genever before a visit to the city’s museums – the final resting place for the treasures of high culture. But before you bury your head in a guide book and decide what to visit, look around you. Take in the the well-trodden wooden floors, the two old barrels for tables, the rows of different genevers behind the bar and the well-used counter with the little round man, Pol, leaning on it flicking through the newspaper.

Genever’s are poured out in the time-honoured fashion of topping up to the rim. The first sip to be taken with a slurp before picking up the glass.

It’s a chance also to appreciate something else that is rare in a busy city. Silence.

This part of the day belongs to the quiet gin drinkers. The slightly disheveled who pass the time in a dusty old armchair or propped on a bar stool in the quiet company of others, with only breaches of silence being the rustling of Pol’s newspaper or the pouring out of another tot.

For artists and social activists like Kurt Peiser, this nihilistic scene would need to be captured on paper and then thrust in the face of industrious, pious society.

2. evening

A stroll into Pol’s bar in the evening is a chance to see the other gin culture. 

Now it’s busy with locals and tourists, talking, gesticulating, laughing. Work is over for the workers, the tourists have duly ticked off their sights and everyone can at last have a well-earned genever.

And if the weather’s fine, you might catch Pol perched on a bench outside puffing on a cigar gazing out over the canal. It’s all part of a day’s work in gin.

Juniper in crisis – a last stand?

Juniper is old, really old.

It has been around for 270 million years and a lot has happened to life on Earth during that time including the breakup and movement of the great land masses. Oh and the odd mass extinction or two.

So when scientists warn of Juniper now becoming threatened across much of lowland and southern Europe, surely it’s just a load of whinging hype to get more funding right?

Wrong.

  1. England in particular has seen juniper under threat from a variety of sources including over-farming and disease. As the number of bushes decreases, so pollen has further to travel limiting the opportunity for diversity. So should we be concerned?
  2. Juniper isn’t just a plant, it forms part of an ecosystem. A juniper stand (a collection of bushes) can act as a nursery for other plants and in studies on the central grasslands of Hungary it has been seen providing shade for light sensitive plants. In a study in Eastern Poland, juniper provided environment for other plants to become established and seedlings to be protected from grazing.
  3. There is a very real fear of a collapse in juniper distribution as stands become more isolated, their genes do not diversify and the remaining stands can end up with older less fertile and male patches/stands which could die out. We just don’t know the consequences of this.

My (uneducated) guess is that juniper will be fine. Somewhere, somehow it will hang on and eventually prosper although it may be after we are long gone.

24 hours in Malaga – what to do

Only got 24 hours in Malaga?

Here are some dos and don’ts to help make the most of your time.

Don’t bother with the usual tired gift shops. If you do need to buy a little something for loved ones back home, go to Ale-Hop and get some funky gifts with a twist. …and don’t leave without buying yourself some drawing gear – you’ll need it later.

Do go to the Picasso museum and see how Pablo progressed from talented prodigy to the 20th Century’s most famous artist. Don’t worry about admitting to yourself that most of his work look like a five-year-old could do it. His genius was in seeing things differently. So do visit any of the plethora of bars nearby where you will create your own masterpiece while waiting for a tapa.

Don’t feel inspired? The locals, proud of their culinary heritage, call themselves Boquerones after the local anchovies – maybe you could try drawing fish people or lightly battered humans in olive oil. Be like Pablo and whatever comes into your head, just do it.

Don’t ignore the buskers who try to serenade you for the odd Euro. Unemployment in Malaga stands at an depressing 27% so instead of hurrying them away with a coin, do use the opportunity to talk to them and practice your Spanish.

Don’t just visit the Alcazaba to get a sense of this city’s long history but steel yourself and make the climb up to the Castillo de Gibralfaro to catch some breathtaking views.

Do make the trek across town to visit the Ataranzas market to enliven your senses. Wander round before grabbing some freshly fried fish and a beer at one of the many counters or sit at one of the terraces outside where the prices are a little higher but at least you get a seat.

Don’t be put off of visiting the Cathedral by the wonky unfinished facade or the 6 Euro price tag. It’s worth it alone to listen to the hilariously monotone commentary provided on your complementary handset. It’s as if this first class collection of religious art religious art in a truly monumental setting is as interesting as pile of second class train tickets.

Do walk down to the beach to catch some rays before the sun sets. It may not be golden sand, but you can cool your feet in the med before taking a stroll around the stylishly revamped harbour.

Don’t overdo the eating out. If you are staying somewhere with a kitchen, go back to the market to grab a rotisserie chicken, potatoes and a side dish from Pollos San Juan.

Do finish your day with a stroll and an ice cream along with the Boquerones who don’t bother listening to anyone telling them what they can and can’t do.

From gin to jenever, it’s all relative…

On a recent visit to Ghent, one thing that really struck me was how many stylish bars proudly offered gin and tonics, chalked up on boards outside. It’s a sign of how far gin has come from being mother’s ruin to the choice of the stylish and sophisticated. And G+T doesn’t just mean a Gordons and Schweppes with a slice of lemon. The diversity of gins, tonics and even garnishes is exemplified in the springing up of gin bars such as the London Gin Club. So in stylish places like Bruges and Ghent, bars advertise gin and tonics to entice people in.

Whilst it’s understandable that they need to get punters through the door, it’s also a little depressing that they don’t yet feel they can be so bold in offering up gin’s older Low Countries’ relative, jenever, to tourists instead.

Over the years jenever, particularly in Belgium, has suffered from something of an image problem. But there are people who are determined that this will change.

I met up with Davy Jacobs from Belgium’s Jenever Museum in Hasselt which has recently undergone an 800,000 Euro makeover of its own and sitting in the warm sunny Museum courtyard, he explained the problem.

“Unfortunately for many people in Belgium, jenever is seen as an old working man’s drink, also a drink of our grandparents, and they don’t think it is for them. We want to teach people what goes in to making a good quality jenever and to think about the different tastes.”
We go for a walk around the museum. There’s a spring in Davy’s step as he shows me around. Visitor numbers are up, although as Davy points out, it’s early days.

They have put effort into explaining jenever’s history including the nadir during most of the 20th century when jenever was banned from bars and limited for sale only to those who could afford to buy it in bulk. All the ills of industrial Belgium were attributed to excessive boozing. Hungover working class men after a weekend of excess would stagger to work on a Monday morning and limp through the day turning out lousy products. The original Blue Monday.

As we go round, we overtake a party of, let’s just say elderly gentlemen, and I can almost imagine the display, “… an example of the traditional jenever drinker.”

“Do you know the question we get asked most?” Davy asks, “What is the difference between gin and jenever?”

But before I get to ask the same question, we hop into an interactive room allowing you to add drinks to a body (unfortunately you can’t actually pour the drinks in) and then watch what happens. It’s linked to a video with a group of friends drinking and as the drinks flow, so they become worse for wear. I recognise one of the actors, it’s Davy, and by the end of the evening he’s slumped across the table. It didn’t seem polite to ask him if he had been method acting.

Perhaps it’s understandable that the authorities wanted to ban jenever, much as they did in the USA as well as the temperance movements across the rest of the industrialised world. But whilst the ban caused sales of jenever to slump, perhaps the real damage to jenever came from inside the industry.

Distillers consolidated into bigger organisations. Many stopped fermenting their own barley and instead started using cheaper and easier sugar sources like sugar beet or just bought in neutral spirit made on an industrial scale.

In an effort to preserve standards, the label vieux systeme or oude/old jenever was given to jenever made in the traditional way and based on grain products, whilst the new methods based on cheaper sources were called jonge/young jenever.

And whilst young jenever may be frowned on by some traditionalists, it has more in common with modern day gin than the old system.

We pop along to the show-piece of the museum, a collection of tinctures for each of the ingredients that go in to jenever and a flavour wheel which has been made to get people starting to recognise their look and smell.
And whilst we talk about the work done on this, the group of old men catches up with us and they have a good sniff of all the different bottles before swiftly moving on the bar.

We also head there and I get the chance to sample what it’s all about and what their head distiller has been concocting based on traditional recipes. I try their limited edition old style jenever and it’s great, no it’s fantastic and I can definitely pick out the malted barley flavours, perhaps not so much juniper but is there some caraway in there?

I ask one of the old blokes who was sipping away at his jenever what he thought of it. “Oh I drink it.”

And what about the museum? “Oh, interesting, I didn’t like all those different smells but put it together in this and then I drink it.” He smiles, finishes his glass and shares a joke with his friends.

I’d like to spend longer here but time is ticking and I have another appointment with one of the new breed of jenever producers.

But before I go I can’t resist asking Davy the question, “so what is the difference between gin and jenever?”

“Well we say, jenever has some characteristics of gin, it is flavoured with juniper and other botanicals but old style jenever also has some characteristics of whisky, it is made from a blend of malt and aged in barrels. You could say it’s the best of both worlds.”

I wobbled off on my old-style Dutch bike, not because of the booze but it’s a proper bone-shaker, and headed for Steevort to meet Peter Berx of ‘t Stookkot. He and three friends created their distillery after Fryns, one of the last distillers in Hasselt, was closed by its parent company and production was moved away. I say he’s part of a new breed, but Peter was the last distiller at Fryns in Hasselt and therefore its last commercial distiller.

They have rented part of an old farm the other part of which is now an art gallery.

He and his friends have gone local and eco. They get their produce from local suppliers and push for quality.

“We are part of a group looking at the shortest possible production chain. We get our wheat, barley and malt locally. What we are looking for fits nicely in the supply process.”

“There are very exacting standards for the grain that goes to the bakeries. Lower quality grain goes for animal fodder but in between the two, the grain is still high quality and ideal for our jenever.“

Jenever production during the 18th Century was seen as complementary to the agricultural process. Draff, the waste product from jenever, was used for animal feed. Its high protein and cellulose content made it ideal winter fodder. And by mixing manure with the ash from the stoves meant yields were increased so much that the three field system was no longer needed. An agricultural revolution all from jenever production.

But it’s one thing for hobbyists like Peter, who is an entomologist by day, to make ‘t Stookkot tick over producing small amounts of jenever for passing visitors and enthusiasts. To make the jump into working full time is a big commitment and quite a risk. Then they would be muscling in on the big boy’s territory. But Peter doesn’t seem to be disheartened.

“Do you know the main reason I do this? – The smell.”

“Put your head over a vat of freshly distilled Jenever, wow. It stings your eyes and takes your breath away. It’s harsh and unpleasant. But leave it a month and then do then same. The smell is wonderful. We have time on our side unlike the big distillers.”
He lines up some glasses on the bar and we sample his old style jenever, spelt and a range of other infusions which are all great.
The apple version catches my eye. Fruit flavouring is usually a sop to what is perceived as a ‘ladies’ drink’ but this stuff is cloudy and looks much more interesting.

Rather than using a traditional shot glass, he has brandy shaped glass to better appreciate the aroma. I swirled it and put my nose in and he asked. “Does it remind you of anything?”

Apples, was all I could say.

“For me it is apple pie.”

I sniffed again, hmm maybe yes it is more like apple pie but why?

“How about cinnamon?”

Once he said it, I could pick out the cinnamon, but it was subtle and welcome.

“One of the things I was taught when I was learning my trade. There should always be a soupçon. A little something that you can’t quite put your finger on”

And with that little gem of knowledge, I wobbled back to town on my bike past the espaliered fruit trees and fields with the first signs of the new barley crop.

Whilst the first and most important step to reviving jenever is making high quality products, getting people back into the habit of choosing it over foreign equivalents is another matter.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Radermacher, which is based in the ethnic German enclave of Raeren in the French speaking part of Belgium, has taken a more flexible approach to its own identity and has started branding what they make as ‘Belgian gin’ and ‘Belgian whisky’. So is this a sell out?

I don’t think so. Perhaps we rely too heavily on categorising spirits. Whisky is so popular because of the barrel flavours. Gins are popular because we like juniper and other botanicals. It’s just a small step from whisky to a whisky infused with other herbs and spices and similarly gin can take a dainty tip toe into a barrel for a year or two. They could meet in the middle and there they would find an old relative. Dear old jenever.