Having originated in the Netherlands and Belgium, genever spread in popularity after members of the Royal Navy garnered a taste for “Dutch courage” when England fought alongside the Netherlands in the Thirty Years’ War. Whereas gin earned a reputation for being of poor quality, genever—the original recipes for which recall the complexity of whiskey more so than they do modern-day gin—held its standing as a more carefully produced, better-tasting product for nearly two centuries. In all likelihood, the “gins” that barman Jerry Thomas calls for in his 19th-century bartenders guides were, in fact, genever, as the era’s importers were bringing in considerably more of it than they were English gin.
Then, in the 1880s, vermouth gained popularity as a valuable tool in the American bartender’s arsenal, paving the way for lighter, brighter cocktails—ideal for gin, and less so for genever. A decade later, the introduction and subsequent boom of the dry Martini further established gin as the country’s preferred juniper spirit. And, though scientific advances in distillation saw a lighter style of genever (known as jonge) emerge, it, along with the darker, maltier style (oude), never regained traction in the market.
The eruption of World War I didn’t help matters. Both Belgium and the Netherlands—countries in which genever had long been considered the national spirit—would fall under German occupation, and, with the subsequent shortage of malt, the jonge style would become the standard out of necessity. Following the war, in 1919—the same year that the United States instituted Prohibition—Belgium enacted a ban on hard liquor, further sealing the spirit’s 20th-century fate.