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The Belgian festival where the fountains flow with gin

Belgium’s annual Jenever festival, held in the town of Hasselt.
Belgium’s annual Jenever festival, held in the town of Hasselt

All hail jenever – the precursor to gin that began the British love affair with juniper-infused hooch when it was brought to England by mercenaries from the Low Countries in the 17th century (hence the term “Dutch courage” for a pre-conflict snifter).

For a blast of jenever pleasure today, head one hour by train east of Brussels to Hasselt, which hosts Belgium’s national jenever festival every October.

Hasselt map

Set in a castle-dotted landscape of lush farm country and orchards near the Dutch border, Hasselt’s status as Belgium’s jenever capital explains the presence of the Nationaal Jenevermuseum, housed in a beautifully restored and still-active 19th-century distillery on Witte Nonnenstraat.

During Jenever Feesten (October 14-15) the bronze fountain on Maastrichterstraat known as Het Borrelmanneke (The Barrel Man) is replumbed to flow with help-yourself jenever instead of water, a jenever tram glides around town, marching bands play as waiters race with laden trays to win their own weight in jenever, and street corner pop-up bars tempt visitors with jenevers from across Flanders.

Koks & Tales, Hasselt, Belgium
Koks & Tales, Hasselt, Belgium. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Pijls

“Around 150 years ago there were 180 jenever distillers in Hasselt,” says barkeeper Rob Biesmans as he makes me a jenever martini at his cosy 1930s-styled cocktail beacon Koks & Tales.

The martini is sublime, and distinctly different from gin versions. That’s down to distillation that uses juniper and malt wine from rye, malted barley and corn, which makes jenever a kind of lovechild of gin and whisky. Ageing up to three years in oak barrels adds further subtleties – though the division of the spirit into “old” and “young” versions refers to the malt wine proportions used (from 15% upward) rather than ageing time.

Koks & Tales.
Koks & Tales. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Pijls

The number of distillers in Hasselt itself has dwindled to single figures today – the most famous is Smeets – but there are still flavoursome depths to Flemish jenever waiting to be tasted at the lovely bar attached to the Jenevermuseum, which can be accessed off its cobbled courtyard without visiting the museum. Though I opt just to try a fine Smeets plus the museum’s own delicious distillation (sold in distinctive semi-circle blue ceramic bottles), the bar also offers tasting flights if you can’t decide from the 130 jenevers lined up behind the bar.

New distillers are invigorating Flanders’ jenever scene today. This year’s festival, for example, will see newcomer Olivier Vanderlinden debut several new jenevers. Elsewhere in the town, jenever-infused sweet treats are sold at artisan chocolatier Boon (inside a former distillery on Paardsdemerstraat) or recharge with a jenever-infused Hasselt coffee at one of the cafe’s around Grote Markt.

THE HASSELT JENEVER FESTIVAL, Belgium
Crowds gather at the festival. Photograph: America Annemie

And Smaaksalon brasserie is a lovely dark-wood panelled dining room within an ornate 18th-century buildingproducing a range of its own jenevers that serve as both ingredients and accompaniment to dishes. Smakelijk and cheers!

This article titled "The Belgian festival where the fountains flow with gin" was written by Norman Miller, for The Guardian on Sunday 8 October 2017 11.00am

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