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.

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.