A RICH MEDECINE
The art of distilliation is said to be ivented by the Ararbs. The knowledge of distilling spreads during the 14th century all over Europe thanks to the universities and cloisters. The medieval alchemists refined the distillation techniques.
Initially the distillate ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘water of life’ was used as a medicine for the most diverse disorders. It was to be taken in drop form. Macerating various types of berries, seeds and herbs into it could further increases its medicinal powers.
Medicinal powers were also attributed to the juniper berry. For example, bathing in rainwater in which juniper berries were cooked, was recommended to cure skin and intestinal disorders. The smoke of burning juniper berries and wood was used to disinfect spaces in which plague victims stayed.
‘Aqua vitae’ was not only used as a medicine, it was also able to make people forget ‘human sorrow’ and made ‘the heart glad and strong and courageous’. As a result of these euphoria-causing properties, a century later, the medicine was a turned into the stimulant known as ‘brandy’. Brandy was no longer drunk by the drop but by the ‘shot’
A glass of old jenever
Initially ordinary people distilled beer and mead. Nearly every household owned its own brandy kettle. By the end of the 16th century grain brandy had become so popular that it was no longer distilled of flat beer but of fermented grain mash of barley, rye and malt. Sometimes this grain brandy was flavoured with juniper berries, aniseed, caraway or fennel, although juniper berries were most popular. The availability of juniper bushes in our regions and the strong belief in their medicinal powers played an important role in this.
PROS AND CONS IN THE 17TH AND 18TH CENTURY
In 1601 the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella issued a poster banning the production and sale of brandy made from grain, fruit and vegetables in the Southern Netherlands. The government was concerned about the excessive use of brandy and felt that grain was to be used for baking bread and not distilling grain brandy.
Lucky escape for Hasselt
In Hasselt, which until 1795 did not belong to the Southern Netherlands, but to the prince bishopric of Liège, brandy or genever could still be distilled. Jenever production there only really took off during the city’s occupation by a Dutch garrison in the 1675-1681 period. The fact that Hasselt jenever was flavoured, more so than other jenevers in Belgium, with all manner of spices, berries and seeds, can probably be attributed to this Dutch influence.
Distilling permitted again
Under Austrian rule (1713-1794) the distillation of grain brandy was again permitted and even encouraged – except during grain shortages. The authorities were interested not so much in the grain brandy but in the draff, since this non-volatile residue of the distilling process was used as cattle feed during the winter.
UNPRCEDENTED HEIGHTS IN THE 19TH CENTURY
In the 19th century Belgian jenever production reached unprecedented heights. Belgian distillers actively took part in the first industrial revolution. They achieved a considerable increase in yield by introducing steam generators and steam engines and by using the distillation column, developed by Cellier-Blumenthal, which allowed to switch to a continuous distillation process.
New, cheaper raw materials such as sugar beets, sugar beet molasses, potatoes, maize and Jerusalem artichokes made their appearance. In the last quarter of the 19th century, yeast and spirit factories that produced large-scale cheap, neutral alcohol were built in major cities.
Cheap jenever led to excessive consumption. In the second half of the 19th century no less than 9.5 litres of jenever (at 50% alcohol by volume) were drunk per capita and per annum in Belgium! Under pressure from the temperance associations, the authorities stepped in. The agricultural distilleries lost their favourable excise regulations and had to pay a higher excise tax, as industrial distilleries did.
LOSS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Agricultural distilleries disappear
The competition from cheap industrial alcohol and the increase in excise tax was a serious blow for agricultural distillers. They only survived thanks to the sale of cattle and stable manure. The rise of artificial fertilisers and the competition from farmers who applied themselves increasingly to cattle farming, led to many agricultural distilleries closing their doors. A number of distillers remained in the industry and became liqueur distillers, they purchased alcohol with which they prepared jenever and liqueurs.
During World War I the German occupiers confiscated the copper stills and used the copper to produce ammunition. After the war many distillers thought they were finished. To top it off, in 1919 the Vandervelde law was issued, which prohibited the serving of distilled spirits in public places and only permitted the sale of hard liquor on the condition that two litres were bought at a time. For workers this was prohibitive and the sale of jenever collapsed. This saw the start of a slow decrease in jenever consumption.
In the last decades, interest in jenever has returned thanks to fruit-flavoured genevers and the rising interest in regional products. Shot bars, jenever routes, the Jenevermuseum and the TV series De Smaak van De Keyser (= the emperor of taste) have also played a contributing role.
Protected designation of origin
Since 15 January 2008 jenever has been protected geographically by the European Union, as was the case earlier for whisky and cognac. Consequently jenever received its own ‘appelation d’origine contrôlée’, as it is referred to in wine jargon.
‘Regulation (EC) No. 110/2008 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 15 January 2008 on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks’ is the official document in which the full regulation is detailed.
In practical terms, only in Belgium, the Netherlands, France (the departments of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais) and Germany (Nordrhein-Westfalen and Niedersachsen) may the drink be produced that bears the name jenever/genever, genièvre or peket.
The designations grain jenever, grain jenever and genièvre de grains are reserved for Belgium, the Netherlands and France (Nord and Pas-de-Calais). The designations young and old jenever/genever only for Belgium and the Netherlands.
A few designations may only be used very locally, i.e., Hasselt jenever/genever (Hasselt, Zonhoven, Diepenbeek), Balegemse jenever (Balegem), O’ de Flander-East Flemish Grain Genever (East Flanders), peket-pékèt with or without ‘de Wallonie’ (Walloon Region), Genièvre Flandres Artois (Nord and Pas-de-Calais) and Ostfriesischer Korngenever (Germany).