Jenever in The Hague
“You don’t like maatjes? Well, have another shot of jenever and try it.”
This, according to Fleur Kruyt, is the way to get maatjes, or Dutch soused herring, into your diet.
I’m at Van Kleef, The Hague’s oldest—and only—surviving distillery, to learn about jenever. Originally founded in 1842 by Lambertus Theodorus van Kleef, the distillery is now a museum in the heart of a largely residential area. Kruyt, our knowledgeable guide on this occasion, has been sharing her insight into this esoteric spirit.
So far, we’ve established that jenever is a distilled grain spirit flavored with juniper berries. There’s a distinction between the young and old that has nothing to do with age but, after a couple of shots, I’ve become pretty confused about the precise definitions. However, I’m quite certain that it’s the young ones we are slamming back.
Don’t judge me. Having cycled all the way over from Scheveningen in the gentle waning sun, I’m well within my rights to enjoy a sun-downer or two. So what if I’m already on my third shot and haven’t even seen the stills yet?
I slouch further into my seat, sheltered by a leafy canopy, and pick at the maatjes. Alright, maybe it’s time to start sipping the spirit in a more restrained fashion.
Swallowing the jenever more slowly, I taste it for the first time. The warmth of the alcohol comes first, followed by the tell-tale juniper notes and, finally, a lingering sweetness. The juniper isn’t as strong as in gin and it’s quite nice, even without tonic and lemon. The maatjes become almost palatable.
“Jenever was very popular in The Netherlands,” continues Kruyt, “and The Hague was particularly important for distilling in the early days. Van Kleef has been here since the beginning. In fact, we have the first number in the telephone directory.”
At this, Kruyt holds up a framed plaque of a page from the old telephone directory. Next to the words Van Kleef, as Kruyt promised, was the number one in Roman numerals.
Actually, the nearby city of Schiedam was perhaps better known for its jenever. At one time, it was reported to have had over 200 distilleries and gained the title of Jeneverstadt, or Jenever City. It’s still home to De Kuyper and Nolet, which produces Ketel One vodka. The Hague has only Van Kleef now. But either way, it was the Dutch who introduced jenever to the UK, which later morphed into the juniper-dominant gin.
“Ok! Let’s go inside,” announces Kruyt suddenly, as if sensing that the crowd is drooping. “I’ll show you the still first. And then we’ll taste.”
I vaguely recall seeing a wall of spirits and liqueurs on the way in. For a moment, I pondered over whether there are rules about cycling under the influence but then shrugged. I emptied my shot glass and followed Kruyt into the museum. My clouded mind held onto one thought—you learn best by tasting.