I confess: it’s my second spring here, and I’ve still never done an official tulip outing. The closest I’ve come to celebrating the annual Dutch ritual is seeing fleeting snapshots of tulip farms I pass while I’m on the train. I catch them in a blurry whiz of vibrant colors, but seeing them this way, rather than not at all, makes me feel slightly less dishonest when I tell people back home that the tulips here live up to their reputation. I don’t want to shatter anyone’s idyllic illusion of me peddling blissfully through blindingly sunny fields. But the reality is that I get lazy and noncommittal about all-day outings when it still feels like we’re in the peak of sweater season. If the tulips expect me to gambol merrily in their splendor, they should at least have the courtesy of sticking around until later in the spring.
Which is why I recommend another Dutch tradition that’s uniquely weather-proof: jenever at the Van Kleef Museum. At once a museum that offers informally guided tasting tours, artisanal liquor shop and private venue, it’s a hidden gem of Den Haag history and the sole remaining Dutch gin distillery in a city that once boasted 14.
Jenever (also spelled genever and sometimes referred to as Dutch gin), is the precursor to English gin. Distinguished by its juniper berry flavor, it was originally popular for its perceived medicinal value but eventually, as you might have guessed, became popular as a drink. In fact, according to one of Van Kleef’s owners, Fleur Kruyt, jenever-based drinks made up nearly 80% of the concoctions in the first published cocktail recipe book dating back to the 1860s.
I’m actually not an English gin fan myself, but I was surprised to discover just how different jenever is and the range of flavors in it. The original oude (old) jenever dates back to the 16th century. It’s surprisingly smooth and its light touch of aromatic flavors make it best appreciated on its own. When aged in wood, it bears a close resemblance to whiskey. The recipe changed in the post-World War I era of limited resources and the prohibition era of limited transparency of alcohol consumption. As a result, a change in distilling techniques gave rise to the more neutral-tasting jonge (young) jenever. Less pure and potent (though still carrying the signature taste of juniper), jonge jenever is more popular as a base drink.
Van Kleef was founded in 1842 and was at one point the third largest distillery in the country. In addition to jenever, it boasts a spectacular wall of local liquors (ranging in flavors that include lemon, walnut, speculaas, and chocolate, to name just a very few), all based on traditional recipes that make unique and fitting gifts. One standout is bruidstranen (bride’s tears), a chai-tasting blend of cardamom, cinammon and ginger and flecked with gorgeous bits of gold symbolizing the bittersweet time of leaving the family nest.
The relaxed tours are often helmed by Fleur, who will generously prod you to sample more. She also recounts Van Kleef lore with a friendly wink in her eye, like she’s heard it straight from the walls. And you believe her when she hints that serious political deals routinely go down in the Van Kleef cellar. While guided through the craft of production and distilling techniques, you’ll see antique relics of earlier distillery days and also slices of Den Haag history. Tucked away in one shelf is the city’s very first telephone book (or leaflet, really, since it’s just a page), when telephones were rare enough to be the ultimate social status symbol. The Van Kleef number at the time (simply dial “1”) is a reminder of just how central the distillery was to everyday life. And now you can still enjoy it at home or on site at the museum (with some home-cured snacks to boot).
So while I don’t know when I will ever make it out to see the tulips, at least I know to pack some jenever for the train ride.
Van Kleef Museum
Lange Beestenmarkt 109
2512 ED Den Haag
Tel: 070 345 2273
Photos by Avideh