Words by Thijs Klaverstijn
To a greater or lesser degree, malt wine is at the heart of all genevers: the ever-important yin to the botanicals’ yang.
Most commercial gins owe their aromas and flavours to an assortment of botanicals, their proportions carefully calculated by a skilful head distiller: herbs, spices, roots, fruits, and the like, with juniper berries being the one botanical required by law. They are the seasoning for what would otherwise be a bland dish of neutral grain spirit produced by continuous column distillation.
The development of the column still was pioneered in the United Kingdom two centuries ago by Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey. It enabled more efficient and economical manufacture of spirits and pushed traditional batch distillation in pot stills to the wayside. Column stills also caused a categorical shift between gin and its predecessor from Belgium and the Netherlands, genever. One became the modern juniper-led drink adored the world over; the other is now a niche spirit, still honouring its malty roots from many centuries ago. The big difference between contemporary gin and genever is the inclusion of a batch-distilled grain spirit called malt wine.
Whereas neutral grain spirit is a blank canvas upon which gin distillers paint with their botanicals, malt wine is already much closer to a finished painting. It consists of a grain mash bill that is fermented and then distilled in traditional copper pot stills. Malt wine relies on yeast strains, grain varieties, fermentation length, distillation methods, and maturation in oak for its flavour. Anything but neutral, it ranges from malty and bready to fruity and floral.
Depending on the category, genever either includes between 1.5 and 15 per cent malt wine (young or jonge genever) or more than 15 per cent (old or oude genever). This is supplemented with neutral grain spirit – unless it is a 100 per cent malt wine genever.
Many centuries ago, when distillation methods were cruder, botanicals were added liberally to genever in an attempt to mask any harshness. Now that distillation technology has advanced, the current crop of genever distillers are generally reluctant to add too many botanicals, using ones that complement their malt wine rather than detract from it. “Personally, I find malt wine the most interesting aspect of genever,” says Pascal Peeters, master distiller and founder of The Stillery in Amsterdam. “We only use botanicals in support of our malt wine. That’s also the reason we don’t have a jonge genever, because we value the influence of our malt wine too much.”
Founded in 2015, The Stillery is part of a new wave of craft distilleries that value control over the entire distillation process – from grain to glass. Its current genever, The Stillery’s Ouwe, is made wholly from spelt. “We felt it added a pleasant maltiness combined with marzipan-esque sweetness and the richness of white chocolate. Those are very specific flavours, whereas barley is mostly known for fruity notes, and corn for its sweetness. We figured a malt wine made exclusively from spelt would also mature well,” Peeters explains.
After a lengthy two-week fermentation and careful distillation process, the malt wine is distilled one final time with botanicals – but there is only a handful of these, including Citra and Amarillo hops to make the genever suitable for a Boilermaker (a shot of genever paired with a pint of beer).
Situated far from the hustle and bustle of the Dutch capital city, close to the border with Belgium, family-owned Zuidam Distillers is the most prominent malt wine distillery in the Netherlands. It’s currently run by second-generation master distiller Patrick van Zuidam. He too is careful with botanicals: “We use botanicals very sparingly, such as juniper, liquorice root, and aniseed, but not much more.”
Back when Patrick was a young boy helping his father clean the pot stills, most of Zuidam’s malt wine was sourced externally, either from Filliers Distillery in Belgium or Hollandia, a since-closed industrial distillery. That changed in the early 1990s. “Eventually we started producing enough of our own malt wine that we needn’t buy from someone else anymore,” Patrick says. “Over a period of 10 years, we phased out all sourced malt wine. It had to be gradual, because of its importance to the flavour of our genever.”
Equal parts of malted barley, rye, and corn make up Zuidam’s malt wine. Rye is one of Patrick’s favourite grains and he believes it adds a spiciness and richness to the malt wine, while corn tends to contribute a certain warm, sweet aroma. Malted barley is a necessity for its enzymes, which help convert starch into fermentable sugars, but it also supplies cereal notes.
The grains are fermented for seven days (“a stupid long fermentation”) by using a mixture of M-strain, a traditional distiller’s yeast, and Belgian brewer’s yeast. The M-strain is incredibly effective at converting sugars to alcohol, and Patrick believes it also has a pleasant congener (or flavour compound) profile. The Belgian brewer’s yeast adds a fruitiness to the fermented mash, which sits at around 12% ABV after fermentation.
The mash is then distilled three times in pot stills, after which a large portion of Zuidam’s malt wine is aged in new American oak casks. Some unaged malt wine makes its way into the distillery’s jonge genever, while Patrick says his oude genever “benefits most from maturation because it is a little rougher and fattier.” The botanicals are added before maturation. “You’ll taste the juniper at a younger age, but it fades away after several years in the cask.”
Located in Belgium about two hours southwest of Zuidam, Filliers is another family-owned distillery, with the sixth generation waiting in the wings. Filliers produces more malt wine than any other genever distillery and it might be the stingiest when it comes to adding botanicals. “We’re legally required to add juniper berries, so we do,” says Filip Waelkens, the distillery’s production and site director. But its production methods differ significantly from Zuidam.
Filliers doesn’t have one single mash bill for its malt wine. According to Filip, rye and wheat are the predominant grains, although they’ve also been known to add corn in some instances, and often include malted barley, sometimes up to 25 or 30 per cent. Filip explains, “It’s expensive but we find it is necessary to achieve the quality that we strive for. It adds something that makes our malt wine more unique. Barley has a lot of character and is common in whisky, but not necessarily in genever. Traditionally, genever was made from rye, wheat or corn that was left over after the harvest. There wasn’t often a surplus of barley.” When Filliers’ malt wine is designated for further maturation, the mash bill generally consists of only rye and malted barley. The distillery has also experimented with spelt, sorghum, and buckwheat.
At the heart of Filliers Distillery sits a column still. This is where the first distillation takes place. But instead of distilling the fermented mash to above 90% ABV – which is what would usually happen in a column still – Filliers distils it between 60 and 70% ABV. It is followed by a second (and final) distillation in pot stills. This is where Filliers separates the heart of the distillation run, while the foreshots and feints (often known as the heads and tails respectively) are discarded. “You’ll find all the best flavour components of a grain mash in between 60 and 70% [ABV], so that’s what I aim for with our second distillation. I’m looking for a genuine malt wine that represents the flavours and aromas of the grains that we use,” says Filip.
Finally, some of the most traditional malt wine is produced in the Dutch city of Schiedam at De Gekroonde Brandersketel, the distillery of the Dutch Jenevermuseum. Its genever, called Old Schiedam, is made from one part rye and two parts malted barley. “The malted barley adds notes of fresh and stale bread,” says head distiller Rutger Vismans. “Additionally, I believe the rye to be responsible for some distinct notes of raisins, and even a whisper of mint.”
Old Schiedam is as spartan as Filliers in its use of botanicals, if not more so. Rutger explains that one of its products has no botanicals at all – it is just a straight-up malt wine, and can’t even legally be called genever. The other products are augmented only with the addition of juniper berries. “Malt wine is the foundation of any genever, or at least it should be,” says Rutger. “I believe the quality of your malt wine is more important than the botanicals you include. Genever needs to have that bready flavour, which can only come from the malt wine.”
It’s a philosophy Rutger also applies to his own brand of 100 per cent malt wine genever, Rudy’s. He distils a mash bill of one part malted rye and two parts malted barley. The only botanical he uses, besides juniper, is thyme. And unlike Old Schiedam, his genever is unaged.
“I believe it is important to honour the heritage of genever, and grain influence is a huge part of it,” Rutger says. “Zuidam maybe uses a few extra botanicals, but the grain is always there – a great genever. And that’s the through line for most genever. From Ketel 1 to Old Schiedam, they all have that distinct taste of malt wine.”
Images © DE GEKROONDE BRANDERSKETEL | FILLIERS | ZUIDAM DISTILLERY
This article, and many more, can be found inside the 2023 Gin Annual.