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ShapeShape News

Jenever is hip again

What's life like on the other side of the bar? In “On the other side” we speak with a bartender, barmaid or someone else who provides liquid in the glasses. This time Felix Huisken from Café Singelier.
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He is a master pourer, beer sommelier, barista and liquorist. And all that in his own pub and recognized jenever café Café Singelier in the Helpman district in Groningen. Felix Huisken (48) about the advance of the old jenever and the plague of the young jenever. "The young one destroyed everything."

He had no idea that the title of Master Pourer - the highest title a bartender can achieve - existed until Felix met a Master Pourer in 2009. Nine years later, and after just as many years of studying ('the coffee alone took a year'), one of the cafe walls is full of diplomas and Huisken also has his Meesterschenkers diploma in his pocket. Which means he has specialized knowledge of beer, wine, spirits, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks such as tea and coffee; something he could not have imagined as a Pedagogy student. Although some parenting skills in the cafe come in handy. Because there always comes a time when someone still wants to apply for that damned Hazes.

Huisken: 'Then I say: hey, friend, he is also one of my personal favourites; at home I turn that man on the assembly line, but here I really don't make anyone happy.' His generous smile betrays the charm and wisdom with which Huisken practices his profession. His favorite drink: jenever. Least favorite: wine.

What's wrong with wine?
'Ah. I don't think it's wine. You have to make port from wine, or distill it into a nice brandy.'

Or just bet everything on jenever.
'Yes. There is a task there: we have to tap into a new, hip generation. Of the old generation that is touching the young, there are only a few left. It is still the most sold spirit in the country, although the percentage is shrinking by a few percent every year. Nowadays, everything that is not young, wants to go again. The young one destroyed everything.'

'It was a race to the bottom. Producers were mainly concerned with the question of who could produce the drink cheapest. And they've been secretive about what was in it and how it was made. In doing so, they have gone horribly wrong. With whiskey they said: we let everything mature in wood, let it lie for at least three years, we tell you what's in it and you can come and have a look. Fortunately, the entire cocktail scene has now embraced gin. Jenever is becoming hip again.' 

How does that happen?
'There is a lot of initiative from the big cities, where new distilleries have sprung up in recent years. Jenever festivals are organized all over the country. Plus: jenever is the new gin; where cocktails used to be mixed with gin, that is now jenever. This also removes the old-fashioned image of it. The great thing is: jenever is not inferior to whiskey in terms of quality. And the price is much nicer.'

As a liquorist – a specialist in the field of domestic and foreign spirits and liqueurs – and Master Pourer, Huisken is a jenever ambassador who acts out of both love and knowledge. And that has not gone unnoticed. The so-called Genever Society, founded in 1995 to 'focus attention on Dutch spirits in a positive way', crowned Café Singelier in March 2013 as a recognized jenever café. The society has been defunct for several years now, but De Singelier is anything but. Huisken serves more than fifty different jenevers from the Netherlands and Belgium; from heavy, lobed woody to very light, bouncy with unexpected spices. Since this year, all beers have also been linked to a matching jenever, the so-called perfectly serves. In other words, the headbutt of the past served in contemporary combinations, on a wooden board with a bowl of peanuts.

Fancy a Belgian heavy blond Sloeber? Then drink one Hooghoudt Huiskens advises Oude Jenever to age for 3 years. Do you prefer a stout, such as the Hel & Verdoemenis from De Molen brewery from Bodegraven? Then, according to the bartender, it's a good idea to have a Sculte Twente bearing Korenwijn to be ordered.

Why beer and jenever go so well together? 'They are both grain products,' says Huisken. And as a rule: don't mix your grains with grapes. Jenever is actually distilled beer, but minus the hops. Although there are of course exceptions to that.'

You have a boundless knowledge of all kinds of liquor. What do you do with that, as a Master Giver?
'I advise clients and colleagues, conduct tastings, that sort of thing. People like to hear the story behind the drink. There is nothing easier than putting a battery of drinks on the shelf and not knowing anything about it. But the story is becoming increasingly important, also in restaurants. That makes this more of a real profession. There is also a lot of lobbying in the café world. That naturally also attracts the public that wants to know more about what they are drinking.'

Bar hanging with the bartender as storyteller.
'Yes. That's what I like best too. Let people taste something they don't know and share my knowledge. That I ladies between the ages of 20 and 30 a wood bearing korenwijn cross and that they then order a second one. Nowadays there is also a lot of choice, which is nice.'

Can we expect home-brewed Huiskenjenever in the future?
'Well, I do have plans for my own distillery, I have also followed a course for that. I went to Hasselt every Tuesday for a year. The intention is that in the not too long time, when the permits have been obtained, it will happen here: in the smoking area and a new section to be built. Yes… If I'm not careful, I'm about to roll into my pension here.'

Felix Huisken
Felix Huisken was born in De Lutte in Twente, the son of a nurse and a customs declarant. His grandfather ran the bakery/restaurant De Poppe, on the border with Germany. His younger brother has a snack bar in Huisken's native village, his older brother is a physics engineer. As a student, Huisken settled in a student house in the Oosterhaven, right next to the building that now houses the Harbor Café. At the time, the pub was called the JoDiBar 2, after owners Joop and Dineke who also had a bar in Corpus den Hoorn, a neighborhood in Groningen. Huisken worked behind the bar for a number of years, under the supervision of medical student Johan de Jager who dropped out. In 1999 he took over the operation of Café Singelier, in 2008 he bought the building. Huiskens lives with girlfriend Ingrid and their children Luna (14) and Tyger (12) in Helpman.

Café Singelier
A pub has been located in the building of Café Singelier at Coendersweg 44 in Groningen since 1977, before that it was a liquor store. Over the years, both the neighborhood and the pub have undergone quite a metamorphosis. Huisken: 'My predecessor did a fairly thorough cleaning; the name of the café changed from the Coendersbar to Café Singelier and said goodbye to the old clientele, as it is so beautifully called. The range has also been adjusted. If you start serving nicer products, a certain category of guests will automatically drop out.' After Huisken took possession of the property in 2008, a difficult time began. The credit crisis and the smoking ban almost killed him. Partly thanks to the advice of Martien Evers of Café Jos in Nijmegen, which did not change into a snack bar in the turbulent 80s against the tide, Huisken invested in training and the quality of its range of drinks. He is now writing black numbers.

Text: Lieke van den Krommenacker
Image: Nienke Maat