Politics, Gin, and War Nearly Killed Belgian Genever

The American experiment with prohibition needs no introduction. But Belgium’s far more discreet effort to sit its population on the wagon is widely unknown, despite almost destroying the genever industry.

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Jan 15 2015, 10:53pm

Booze rarely has it easy. From health warnings to tax levies to social stigma, there's always someone trying to sober us up.

Even in countries built on the back of liquor, killjoys, bureaucrats, and politicians have poured away gallons of booze and millions in tax money, yet failed to rid their countries of drunks. The UK's gin craze of the 1700s led to an all-out war on "mother's ruin," as the spirit is still nicknamed. Prohibition in the US, of course, needs no introduction. By comparison, Belgium's own, far more discreet effort to sit its population on the wagon is widely unknown, despite almost destroying the genever (or jenever) industry—a treasured spirit with a 500-year history of production.

"In terms of genever, there's a huge difference between Belgium and the Netherlands. If you asked a Dutch person about genever, they may say, 'Yeah, it's our national spirit.' Talk to a Belgian, and they'll just change the conversation to discuss their beer heritage," explains Belgian expat Veronique Beittel. She's the author of Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle and the owner of Flemish Lion LLC, a US-based importer of the drink. For the last four years, Beittel has advocated her chosen tipple to a niche market.

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Men pose with distilling equipment at the Kortrijk warehouse, 1933.

Belgium's spirits ban, known as the Vandervelde Act, began at roughly the same time as Prohibition in America. "Only ours lasted much longer—66 years," Beittel points out. "In the Netherlands, that didn't happen. Before that, we were all wasted. There's an old phrase—Blue Monday—which refers to the fact workers used to show up with crazy hangovers after binging all weekend. My grandfather once told me that when he bought his first car he demanded one that was not made on a Monday. That's how ingrained it was in the culture. Health concerns, and the government's plan to introduce an eight-hour working day, led to worries that workers would have more time for bars, and so prohibition was introduced."

But unlike America's blanket ban on all alcohol, Belgium only banned the sale of spirits in bars and public places. You could still buy a stiff drink, including genever, from liquor stores, but the new laws dictated a minimum purchase of two bottles at a time. The subtle plan was to price the poor out, resulting in a dramatic fall in consumption. Circa 1899, the average Beligian drank 9.5 litres of alcohol per year; by 1919, the rate dropped to between one and two litres. And the impact wasn't just domestic.

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Genever moonshining equipment, 1936.

Genever had been part of American society ever since immigrants from the Netherlands—including regions that would become Belgian after the country became independent in 1830—arrived to found New Amsterdam (now New York) during the 1600s. Prior to American Prohibition, five times more genever was imported into the country than gin; but thanks to the complex distilling process, things quickly changed once the laws were amended.

"Everyone started making spirits in their bathtubs, and gin was a lot easier to produce," Beittel says. "It's also horrible-tasting, and that helped promote the cocktail movement, even though documentation is now being dug up by mixologists to prove that many of the traditional cocktails were originally made with genever. By the end of US prohibition, people were so used to making their drinks with gin they continued [to do so], and genever was pretty much forgotten."

It's important to remember that Europe was still recovering from World War I at the time. "If you think about Belgium in 1914, the Germans took everyone's copper pots—used to make genever—for the production of shell casings. That almost wiped out the entire industry. At [the distillery] Diep9, the founder was shot to death because he refused to give up his copper pots. His wife continued in defiance of the Germans, which is crazy really."

Because domestic production was so deeply scarred by violence and oppressive policies, Belgium had little interest in starting to export genever to the US again. Few things will ever come between a man or woman and their drink, though; and during the six decades in which genever was technically unobtainable for the masses, those masses remained defiant as a bootleg market emerged.

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An illegal distillery in 1980.

"Illegal genever production began on a small scale," says Davy Jacobs, curator of the National Jenever Museum in Hasselt, Belgium. "Common people started to make spirits from their own cooking pots at home. After the law was passed in 1919 restricting alcohol to liquor shops, organised crime took hold. Mobsters set up larger distilleries—often in cow sheds—hiring labourers to work in hiding. Some were even entirely underground. When the police discovered these activities, it was the labourers that were caught and arrested. The crime bosses vanished."

Jacobs notes that during the 1960s and 70s this was particularly common around the border region between Belgium and the Netherlands. "Some of those distilleries producing for the black market are still in business, legally, today," he says. "And some of the biggest legal distilleries of that era were involved in illegal activities—playing the regulatory system by producing more than they declared, or engaging in other activities, such as counterfeiting. But I'd rather not mention any names."

In Jacobs's telling, early 20th-century Belgium more closely resembled Capone's Chicago than a picturesque Flemish village. Stark contrasts aside, the whole story is fascinating because it suggests that, even in the face of devastating conflict and authoritarian political interference, it's impossible to kill something off that has been integral to daily life for so long.

As support continues for laws and systems that don't regulate but restrict a multitude of substances inherently linked to cultural pastimes, that's a notion the world would do well to remember.

Photos courtesy of Tersluiks Alcoholsmokkel en sluikstokerij in de Lage Landen, edited by Genever Museum, Hasselt (Belgium), published by Snoeck Publishers, Heule (Belgium), 2012.