Jenever Museum re-opens to celebrate the past and present of staple Hasselt drink
The Jenever Museum in Hasselt steps into the 21st century with an overhaul that both honours its storied history and looks ahead to the future
Not your grandfather’s museum
One thing that hasn’t changed is the tasting room, one of the highlights of any visit to the Jenever Museum and the last stop on the visitor’s route. The traditional jenevercafe looks the same, with row upon row of bottles lined up behind the polished wooden bar. Your admission ticket still includes a glass of jenever from the museum’s own selection. Even the €6 admission price is the same.
What’s new is that visitors can now go directly to the cafe, located off the central courtyard at the heart of the former distillery and enjoy a borrel without having to buy a ticket to the museum. The large, wooden carriage doors that used to remain closed now stand wide open, allowing visitors to wander into the courtyard, buy a few glasses of jenever in the cafe and even preview the museum’s attractions in a brightly painted niche with information in four languages.
Throwing open the doors and encouraging visitors to peek inside is not just clever marketing. It demonstrates the museum’s new emphasis on tourism. The museum wants to attract not only museum-goers, liquor aficionados and history buffs but also the casual visitor who may just want to taste a jenever for the first time or enjoy a cold drink in the courtyard.
For those who do venture inside, the museum has updated its presentation for the 21st century, with interactive videos, audio recordings and touchscreens replacing the static, text-based exhibits of old. There are videos about the production process, vintage TV commercials, recordings of anti-alcohol songs and interactive games. In one room, giant maps let you zoom in and find the names and locations of former, extant and working jenever distilleries throughout the Low Countries.
A jenever hub
Much like Cognac and Champagne, jenever (also spelled genever) is a regional product with protected status in Europe. It’s a distilled spirit common to Belgium, the Netherlands, French Flanders and a small area in eastern Germany.
Sometimes called “Dutch gin,” it is traditionally flavoured with juniper berries (jeneverbessen in Dutch). These days, commercial, sweet jenevers come in a wide range of fruit, cream and candy flavours, while “old” and “grain” jenevers stick to the traditional formulas.
Jenever is and remains incredibly important to Hasselt's economic history
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Hasselt was a major centre of jenever production, with no fewer than 30 distilleries by the end of the 19th century. The Jenever Museum is vested in a former distillery in the city centre, and a 19th-century jenever installation is still used to produce the museum’s own spirits.
The former ox barn, grain mill, farmhouse and distilling rooms are now used as exhibition space, with the original architectural features beautifully restored and incorporated into the overall design.
The redesigned interior has more space to display items from the museum’s collection, including historic distilling equipment, scientific instruments, jenever bottles and glasses and advertising paraphernalia.
Previously, only a dozen or so vintage advertising posters were on display. In the revamped museum, vertical, sliding steel frames allow 48 of these original artworks to be seen – although the visitor now has to pull each double-sided frame out and slide it back into place, making the museum’s interactivity not just digital, but also physical.
Another way in which the museum gets physical is through the use of electronic dummies that show the effects of alcohol on the human body and brain and encourage people to consume responsibly. The touchscreen works like a game where visitors keep adding to the number of jenevers consumed, while a video screen shows real people experiencing the effects of inebriation and a plastic dummy lights up to show where the effects are felt.
The old museum had one interactive feature that was quite memorable, which has luckily been retained and updated. In the Jenever Academy, a palette of natural flavouring agents is on display along with glass beakers of their aromatic essence. By squeezing on a rubber ball attached to a glass pipe, you can release the scent of the distillate (pictured). The 20-odd flavours include cinnamon, chocolate, liquorice, lavender, sage and cardamom.
All over Flanders, people associate the Jenever Museum with Hasselt
Video displays in the Jenever Academy also explain the best way to pour, drink and appreciate jenever. By the time visitors exit the room, they’re ready for the last stop on their tour: the tasting room. More than 130 jenevers are served at the bar here. Visitors also have the option of trying one of several “discovery rounds”, each one containing a selection of four jenevers.
The museum’s makeover also extends to its new logo, house style and promotional materials. A cleaner logo and bright, modern colours show the museum shaking off its old image as a stuffy historical site and seeking to attract a younger and more varied audience.
In another telling sign, the museum’s new brochure and website feature a smoky-eyed young woman holding a flaming jenever bottle.
Even the museum’s name has changed. Formerly the National Jenever Museum, it’s now known simply as the Jenever Museum. On the one hand, the name change signals a greater emphasis on the museum’s local importance. “All over Flanders, people associate the Jenever Museum with Hasselt,” says museum chair Patrick Reygel. For mayor Hilde Claes, jenever and the city are inextricably tied. “Jenever is and remains incredibly important to the economic history of Hasselt,” she says.
On the other hand, the new name points to a recognition of the museum’s wider significance to the jenever-producing regions of Europe including France, the Netherlands and Germany. The museum wants to position itself as an international resource for the study and preservation of jenever’s history, culture and folklore.
The new Jenever Museum is certainly worth a visit, even if you’ve visited in the past. There’s a lot more to see, learn and experience, and there’s always another jenever to try.
Photo: Marco Mertens/ Jenever Museum