Stuart Forster interviews Sebastiaan van Bokkel, the maker of Bobby’s Gin in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Sebastiaan van Bokkel, the creator of Bobby’s Schiedam Dry Gin, pours a neat sample of his product into a shot glass. “Sip on it and try and chew on it,” he encourages, as a way of maximising the experience of the flavours.
Rotterdam’s Fenix Food Factory
We’re sitting around a table in Rotterdam’s Fenix Food Factory, based in a former dockside warehouse in the city’s once notorious Katendrecht district. The area is known locally as De Kaap.
During World War Two Germany’s military hierarchy barred its soldiers from visiting De Kaap. They feared the troops would be corrupted by the many prostitutes then working the area.
Times have changed. There’s no longer a stiletto in sight. The wares on sale are now locally produced, craft food and drink products.
Launching Bobby’s Dry Gin
Van Bokkel launched Bobby’s Dry Gin on 12 February 2014. It took two years of experimentation before the premium gin was ready to be launched commercially.
“My grandfather was named Jacobus, which is a typical Dutch name, even though he was from the Maluku Islands. His generation had a lot of Dutch names, due to the colonies of the Netherlands in Indonesia. But my grandmother used to call him Bob or Bobby,” explains Sebastiaan, about the origins of his gin’s name.
“First off, I wanted to make a jenever. Jenever is a typical Dutch alcohol and comes from Schiedam, which is ten minutes’ drive from here in Rotterdam. It is the jenever capital of the world,” he says in his laid-back manner.
An authentic Dutch drink
“I wanted to make something that was really authentic and Dutch. My grandfather used to love jenever, he used to drink it a lot. He drank Oude Bols, which comes in stone bottles, but he had a funny habit; he used to put his jenever in his own bottle, which he infused with herbs that were used in Indonesian cuisine, herbs like cloves, lemongrass, pepper and coriander. What he basically did was make his own gin,” explains Sebastiaan.
“Gin is based on jenever. He made a bathtub gin, as you call it in gin terminology. He didn’t know it, he just liked his jenever more when it was infused with herbs to give it more flavour. I called my mam and said, ‘Mam, I’m going to make a jenever because it’s a cool product and it reminds me of my grandfather’…We figured out what he put in his bottle and made it,” he adds.
Ingredients of Bobby’s Dry Gin
Eight ingredients are used to give Bobby’s Dry Gin its flavour. They are juniper, lemongrass, cloves, cubeb pepper, fennel, cinnamon, coriander and rosehips.
The result is an aromatic, almost perfume-like drink. It has overtones of lemongrass, cloves and pepper.
Unusually for gin, it’s drinkable neat. It’s maker recommends serving his gin with a slice of orange, two or three cloves and a splash of tonic.
“We made a distilled gin, which meant that every botanical we use is distilled separately, so we could say we wanted more cloves or lemongrass,” explains Sebastiaan.
Then he reveals that jenever has been in his life for as long as he can remember. “The funny thing was, the empty jenever bottles that my grandfather had, they were never tossed out. My grandmother held on to everything. The empty bottles were used for many purposes. First she boiled tap water, then let it cool down and filled the empty jenever bottles with tap water. As grandchildren, when we drank water, we always drank it from jenever bottles,” he says smiling and recalling his childhood.
Jenever or gin
Jenever is traditionally a Dutch product. The British adopted the spirit as their own. Gin was famously mixed with tonic and sipped on the verandas of clubs and bungalows throughout the once expansive British Empire.
So what is the key difference between jenever and gin?
“Typical London Dry Gin has to be based on juniper, coriander and grain alcohol. Actually, the only thing that makes gin different from jenever is the re-distillation, which adds coriander,” answers Sebastian.
The aroma and flavour of Bobby’s Dry Gin is distinctive and meets with approval from the people around me. Given that the clock has not yet struck eleven in the morning, that’s particularly impressive.
Travel to Rotterdam
Rotterdam is 27 minutes from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol by the direct Intercity train service.
One of the stores where you can purchase Bobby’s Dry Gin is Barrelproof (Hoogstraat 49a, Rotterdam), which market’s itself as ‘the world’s smallest cocktail boutique.’
Try a gin and tonic with fast food at Tante Nel (Pannekoekstraat 53, Rotterdam).
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, was named Travel Writer of the Decade at the Netherlands’ Press Awards of 2020. Stuart studied on exchange at the University of Leiden and has written about Rotterdam for CNN Travel.
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Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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A version of this post was first published on Go Eat Do on 23 October 2014.