It is hard to talk about the difference between Gin and Geneva without talking about their origins and history, because Gin is essentially an immigrant child of Geneva. At the core, these distillates are essentially the same; a juniper flavored spirit. Look a little closer though and you’ll be able to see some major distinguishable and recognizable differences.
The key difference between Gin and Genever is that Genever must be made from a grain base, much like whiskey. Other differences are that Genever is usually sweetened, and usually barrel aged making it a brown spirit. These aren’t always the case, and with experimental contemporary gins on the market the lines are starting to blur.
Read on and we’ll explain more, but first, a history lesson
When Did Geneva (or Genever) Originate?
Geneva or Genever (or sometimes even Jenever), the first juniper flavored, grain-based spirit to make a name for itself, originates in Holland as early as the 15th century. The Dutch, during the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries dominated the international trade industry. The Dutch East India Company had major success during the race to establish the quickest route to East Asia and the abundance of unique spices the area provided. Included in the variety of spices was Juniper berry, which grows on evergreens, giving its distinct Christmas tree-like smell. Juniper was said to have many health benefits, including protection from the plague.
By the 17th century, an estimated 400 pot stills were being used to make Genever, the Dutch word for juniper, called Geneva or Dutch Courage, by the British. Geneva starts with malt wine, made traditionally from barley or rye. This malt wine is then distilled with juniper and a myriad of other botanicals in a pot-still which results in a semi-sweet, yellowish in color, 35%-50% alcohol by volume spirit. Genever, to this day, must follow these guidelines, and can only be produced in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Old Tom’s Gin/ever
By the 1600s, trade relations between the British and Dutch were rocky, causing Britain to begin to allow its subjects to distill Geneva at home. This was done in the hope it would discourage the purchasing of the Dutch product. It worked and in turn, largely hurt Holland’s export income. This decision though, led to a hundred years of destructive behavior in Britain. Anyone and everyone was making their own spirits, sometimes using dangerous ingredients, and consuming a lot of it. This homemade version of Geneva would come to be known as Old Tom Gin. In the early 1700s, England put a stop to home distilling, giving rise to distilleries in London, where a taxable and regulated product could be made. This is where Gin or London Gin began its journey, and by the 1830s, Charles Tanqueray, would create the world’s first London Dry Gin, Tanqueray.
London Dry Gin
Through the years of trial and error in England, Hollands Genever had become London Dry Gin. London Dry Gin, though still having a Juniper strong flavor, would be made in a very different way. While still starting with a grain base of barley or rye, as opposed to corn (Bourbon) or agave (Mezcal), London Dry Gin would come to distill their mash in a column still, vs pot still. It is first distilled to a minimum of 70% alcohol by volume, often triple distilled. It is then put in a pot-still with any and all botanicals, all-natural plant material, with juniper being the dominant flavor. Though this style was born in London, it is now made all over Europe and the United States and there is no legality issue depending on where it is made, London Dry Gin can be made anywhere in the world.
There is one other type of Gin made in England, Plymouth Gin, which gets its name from the city its distillery resides in, the beautiful seaside city of Plymouth! This Gin can only be made here, and is quite famous for its Navy Strength of 41.2% ABV, and is amazing in a simple Gimlet, which was originally a cocktail made with lime juice to prevent seasickness for the Navy men.
Eventually, the Gin craze would hit the United States, just in time for prohibition which lasted from 1919 to 1933. During this time, Bath Tub Gin was conjured up, true to its name, in someone’s bathtub. It was made from Moonshine and Juniper extract and was sure to put some hair on your chest. Americans would slowly gain their taste buds back and start making their own versions of gin. The rules for “Gin” are very loose, which gave rise to the New Western or American Style Gin. Though still made with a nod to its predecessors, most contain juniper but not as the main flavor.
So, what’s the difference between Gin and Geneva Today?
Geneva is still made today, much akin to how it was made 400 years ago. That said, the popularity of the drink has slumped and therefore finding a bottle can be quite hard these days.
The key difference between Gin and Genever is that Gin can be distilled from any raw material, while genever must always be made from grains like rye, malted barley and corn. Because of this, gin is often made from the cheapest or most readily available base alcohol, where genever is much more expensive.
There are two main types of Geneva you will come across; Old Genever, and Young Genever. Regardless of young or old a Geneva is different from a gin due to the fact it must be made with grain and it is often sweetened with the addition of sugar.
Old Genever (oude) is the more authentic drink. It must be made from a grain base – in much the same way you would make a whiskey. This could be wheat, corn, rye, or barley. It doesn’t really matter and is often based on the local grain production around the distillery.
Historically, one of the key differences between a genever and a gin would be that gin is always unaged, while genever may be either young (unaged) or old (aged). However now with a growing number of artisan gins that are aged in barrels, that line has blurred. In both cases, those barrel-aged spirits sidle up to whiskey-adjacent territory, tempering bright juniper with warmer vanilla and almond notes, similar to oude-style genevers.
Young Genever (jonge) should also be made from grain as per tradition, however some distillers have started cutting corners using a NGS or ‘neutral spirit’ base (think vodka) that can be industrially produced and bought in by the distillery. In the eyes of puritans this is now a gin, however there are no legal requirements around how these drinks must be made.