Spirits

Coming to America as an Imported Spirits Brand

Genever brand de Borgen leaps across the pond, finding hurdles along the way

Bottles of Genever in an image
Photo courtesy of De Borgen Distillery.

Fourth-generation Dutch distiller de Borgen is betting that genever will see a stateside revival. While millions of gallons of genever—a slightly sweet, ginlike spirit—once arrived on American shores, that flow ebbed as London-style dry gin grew in popularity in the years before Prohibition. But now a critical mass of Dutch brands is selling genever in the U.S., including Bols, Boomsma, and Rutte. And some American distillers are getting in on Dutch-style gins too, including Anchor, Aviation, Oregon Spirit, and Wigle.

Genever’s past success in the U.S. and its current potential for growth among cocktail enthusiasts both played into the equation prompting de Borgen to attempt its introduction into the American market this fall, according to Sander Meijerink, the export manager for de Borgen, which is owned by Hooghoudt, a 129-year-old distillery in the northern Netherlands that’s one of the country’s main genever producers. “It’s not so much that we’re bringing in a new spirit,” says Meijerink. “We’re bringing genever back to the U.S.” De Borgen products are set to begin selling by October in select cities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Illinois, and Texas.

But the road to market penetration for a category—to say nothing of a single brand—can be long and painfully slow, according to Dave Schmier, the founder and president of Proof and Wood Ventures—and de Borgen’s American importer. “I hate to draw parallels because there are so many differences, but if you look at mezcal 20 years ago, it was [considered] tequila’s nasty cousin and there was no category,” he says. “It took people appreciating what it was and taking the time to understand what’s special about it.”

For a brand to enter the American market, there’s no shortage of hurdles to overcome in a process that could take months or even years. To sell an imported spirit, a company must procure permits from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB); obtain formula approvals; meet mandatory labeling requirements for distilled spirits, according to the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) and get Certificate of Label Approvals (COLAs); register with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and file a Prior Notice with the FDA before importing the product; complete brand registrations at the state level; comply with regulations in the individual state(s) and locales where the brand will be sold so that, when the product arrives, it will be approved for release by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol; and pay U.S. federal excise taxes and duties. That all comes before the final hurdles—gaining distribution and a professional and consumer foothold in a crowded spirits marketplace.

Setting the Stage

Genever is the Dutch national spirit—and has been for the past 400 years. It accounts for 40 percent of total spirit consumption in the Netherlands, according to Meijerink. He emphasizes that gin was born out of genever. “DNA-wise, they’re 85 percent the same,” he says. “But genever has a different flavor profile. It’s like gin on the one hand and whiskey on the other.”

The base malt spirit for all three of de Borgen’s genevers is made with a mash of wheat, rye, and corn. In addition to juniper berries, de Borgen’s products contain botanicals such as hops, gentian root, chamomile, star anise, sweet woodruff, fennel, coriander, caraway seed, angelica root, and horace root.

There are three basic styles of genever, each reflecting a key turning point in the history of the spirit:

  • Malt / Korenwijn: The original 16th-century style is full-bodied with a rich woody and spicy profile. It’s distilled in copper stills and aged in oloroso sherry casks. It’s often sipped neat, but Meijerink says “it also works miracles in a Negroni.”
  • Old-Style / Oude: This malt spirit is combined with juniper distillate and triple-distilled in copper based on 17th- and 18th-century distillation techniques. It’s smooth with hints of juniper berry and delicate spice and wood notes. Meijerink claims it’s the go-to for making martinis.
  • New-Style / Jonge: This style of genever is based on 19th-century distillation techniques. The variety of botanicals yields a clean, crisp, and fresh ginlike genever with juniper, citrus, orange blossom, and anise notes, and only a hint of malt. It’s ideal in any gin cocktail.

In its homeland, genever is often sipped neat, but in the States, it has historically been used in cocktails. During the early days of American cocktail culture, in the 19th century, genever was a widely used base spirit and appeared in numerous recipes by bartending forefathers Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson. In those days, it often showed up in ingredients lists as “Holland gin,” a term that was commonly used to distinguish the original Dutch spirit from the drier English style of gin that came after it. By that time, genever had already seen a couple of centuries of significant commercial success in Holland, as well as in England and other parts of Europe.

“In the mid-19th century, the Dutch were exporting somewhere around 2.7 million liters of genever annually to New York alone,” says Meijerink. But by the end of the 19th century the demand for the London-style dry style of gin was on the rise in the U.S. That, says Meijerink, in combination with the fallout from two World Wars—and Prohibition in between—caused genever “to slip away from the American spirits scene.”

Getting TTB Approval

Genever’s history in America hasn’t made its reintroduction to the U.S. market any easier. The TTB doesn’t recognize genever as an official spirit classification, so receiving TTB approval to bring the spirit back to America has turned out to be as challenging as introducing an entirely new spirit.

Meijerink believes there is historical value—and a business opportunity—in returning genever to the U.S. “But there’s a lot of red tape,” he says, explaining that the only choices for classifying genever with the TTB are “to run it as a gin or a whiskey, which it isn’t, or to list it as a Distilled Spirits Specialty, which is a catchall phrase for anything that doesn’t fall into a specific available category.” De Borgen chose the latter. As far as regulations go, Meijerink explains that there are two basic steps: The first is to get the actual liquid approved, and the second is to get the labeling approved. That may sound simple, but, he says, “it was far from straightforward.”

To receive approval for a liquid, a brand must provide detailed information about the spirit, including its ingredients, flavorings, and any colorings, and the process used to create the spirit. “We produce all of our flavors ourselves, using raw base herbs, spices, and botanicals,” Meijerink says. “We dry and then process them through distillation extraction.”

Meijerink explains that if a brand produces all the flavors itself, the component ingredients and the processes used to make them must be described with precision, or they may not meet FDA standards for approval. “The more you’re doing yourself—and our products are fairly complex with regard to the flavors we are using—the more it tends to create room for discussion with the [TTB reviewer].”

To make the obtaining of formula and label approvals from the TTB as seamless as possible, Meijerink worked with the American Spirits Exchange Limited (ASE), a company that assists wine and spirits brands in navigating TTB compliance requirements, to get approvals for de Borgen’s three genever products—New-Style, Old-Style, and Malt. “Genever’s lack of an official classification with the TTB resulted in a few more speed bumps in initially getting set up,” says Melissa Rantz, a permitting manager at ASE, “but this should not give brand owners pause in bringing it to the U.S. market.”

In Europe, genever is a geographically protected product. It can be produced in the Netherlands, Belgium, and in certain regions of France and Germany. Meijerink would like to “see it take its rightful place in America as a spirits category of its own, rather than having it as part of a catchall category with a lot of other exotic stuff.”

Label approval for an imported Distilled Spirits Specialty typically involves getting waiver approvals, shipment and customs clearance for the product, lab analysis, and formula approval prior to submission. Barring any problems, ASE’s Rantz says it can take anywhere from two to three months. For de Borgen, however, the process took an additional six months. The reason? Rantz cites trade name concerns at the state and federal level; in addition, there was a need to reformulate and resubmit formulas and make corrections to the labels.

“We had some initial rejections from the TTB regarding the use of ‘genever’ as a fanciful name,” Rantz says, adding that the approval process is a subjective one. “Evaluators at the TTB can classify genever under multiple categories during formula approval, [such as] Distilled Spirits Specialty, Gin, Other Distilled Gin.” Subjectivity comes into play during label approval as well, she says. “One reviewer may reject ‘genever’ as a fanciful name, citing that it is the class or type of spirit even though it does not hold an official classification with the TTB.”

Based on his own experience, Meijerink advises anyone wanting to export spirits to the U.S. to start the process “as soon as you can, because it always takes longer than you expect.” He also recommends seeking help from an individual or organization experienced with the TTB application.

Rantz also advises brands to be as detail oriented as possible in TTB applications, particularly when listing ingredients and methods of manufacture for the product formula. She encourages brands to spell-check labels, to make sure all required information can be easily found and read, and to include an English translation if there is any foreign language on the label.

Building the Market

Now that de Borgen has cleared the legal hurdles and procured importer and distributor representation in key markets, the next step is trade education, Meijerink says. Recently, he has been traveling to meet with influential bartenders in de Borgen’s target launch markets. “We are talking to a lot of industry professionals, leading [genever] workshops, and bringing bartenders to the distillery for a ‘genever journey’ that takes them all the way through the [production] process,” he says. “The primary goal is to get the professional bar scene to start using it again as a base spirit to create their beautiful cocktails.”

Schmier, of importer Proof and Wood, says that without a doubt the bartending community will be key to de Borgen’s success. The authenticity and heritage of genever, he says, as well as de Borgen’s long history as a family business, will also help. “The big thing is patience,” Schmier adds. “The company really seems to understand that it’s going to be a long road. They have a good understanding of where the category is now and how to make it accessible to new consumers.”

Rantz adds that part of the appeal of bringing de Borgen on as an ASE client in the first place was Meijerink’s zeal in wanting to share a lesser-known traditional spirit like genever. “We have seen passion like that translate positively to every step in the three-tier system in this industry, all the way to the modern consumer,” she says. “Having a chance to help de Borgen grow is not only an honor, it allows for [genever] to be poured into the glasses of people who are looking for a standout spirit from a great brand.”

Jen Laskey is a wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer based in New York City. She is a contributing writer and editor at SevenFifty Daily, the wine and spirits columnist for SNOW magazine, an associate judge for the IWSC, and a WSET-certified advanced somm and Diploma candidate.

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