I had visited Amsterdam three times before I finally had my Dutch epiphany. In a café seemingly stuck in time, one sufficiently ancient and nicotine-stained to have earned the popular sobriquet "brown bar," I participated in a ritual almost as old as the Netherlands itself. Facing a glass brimming to overflowing with intoxicating liquor, arms pinioned to my sides, I bent forward and slurped loudly, sucking back enough liquid that the remainder might be sipped normally without spillage.
I was drinking genever, an elixir that sits flavour-wise somewhere between whisky and gin, and despite what the makers of a certain green bottled lager might have you believe, it, and not beer, is the true drink of the Dutch people. Drinking it with locals, therefore, is by far the best way to appreciate and understand Dutch culture.Before attempting to navigate the vagaries of the city's genever bars, however, it's first wise to study up on what you will be drinking. Fortunately, the Lucas Bols company has you covered on that front with their House of Bols.
Although best known for its fruit liqueurs, Bols has been distilling genever for centuries, with its Jonge Genever standing still as the bestselling spirit in the Netherlands. The company's "Cocktail and Genever Experience" is conveniently located across the street from the Van Gogh Museum on Amsterdam's Museumplein.
Open every day but Tuesday, the House of Bols offers a self-guided journey through the long development of the spirit – one that British troops fighting in Holland grew to know as "Dutch courage" and eventually brought home to evolve into gin. You hear of genever's start as a medicine and growth into a modern-day tipple, more like whisky in its Oude (old formula) version, and closer to gin in its Jonge (more modern) incarnation. History lessons being only so compelling, however, the tour also winds through a series of interactive sensory experiences – such as the room lined with colourful atomizers spraying fine mists of variously flavoured liqueurs – before finally ending up (where else?) in a bar.
An expertly mixed cocktail is included in the price of admission, with extra drinks available on Friday nights for a modest €5 ($7) each. By the time you leave, you should feel educated, perhaps slightly tipsy and almost certainly hungry, since the main flavouring in genever, juniper, is a recognized appetite stimulant.
Time, then, to jump on the tram toward the centre of town, your destination being the Café Hoppe.
Founded in 1670 as a distillery and tasting room, Hoppe now spreads across two buildings, with the original part in No. 18 and the newer section, scarcely more than a century old, in No. 20. The house genever, distilled for the bar by Bols, serves as a flavourful foil to the classic Dutch bar snack of bitterballen, small meat croquettes served with mustard for dipping, tasting much better than they sound.
You will be served the house genever in the traditional fashion, as I was during my epiphany, poured to above the lip of a small curved and footed glass known as a "pony." Lean forward and slurp, rather than attempting to raise the overflowing vessel, and you will quickly demonstrate your genever savvy, and almost certainly spark a conversation with a regular seated nearby.
To virtually guarantee a chat with some locals, however, you need visit a bar patronized almost exclusively by residents. Try Proeflokaal de Ooievaar. Located metres from both the train station and the Red Light District, de Ooievaar was set up as a tasting room, or proeflokaal, for the A. van Wees Distillery, which may be why it still stands as one of the smallest bars in the city.
Its tiny size makes it hard to wade through the ranks of fellow customers to reach the bar, so here genever is poured in oversize glasses so that no "bend and slurp" is necessary. A small glass of the house beer to accompany your genever, however, is certainly de rigueur.
Complete your genever education by straying down a narrow alley off the Dam Square to Wynand Fockink, a distillery and bar in the very heart of the city.
Because of an old law preventing distilleries from having tasting rooms, Wynand Fockink operates as a stand-alone bar rather than a part of the distillery housed right beside it, but the effect is still that of a "house tap" for the wide range of spirits crafted on-site. Shelves behind the bar literally sag under the weight of a multitude of bottles, the natures of which the bartender will cheerfully guide you through, even when swamped with customers.
Grab a glass of the Roggen, or rye-based, genever – by now, leaning in to slurp as if it's second nature – and stand back to watch the tourists discover what you already know: That what you are sipping is more than just a spirit, it is the soul of the land.
Leroy Aznam, 28, is an Amsterdam native and fashion editor for Men's Health Netherlands.
"I really am a tourist guide when relatives of mine visit from Indonesia, and when it comes to having drinks, I always take them to a handful of places. Momo [Hobbemastraat 1, momo-amsterdam.nl]is a very chic hot spot with a pretty cool location right in the shopping area. It's mainly a restaurant, but the front bar area is always hopping. Not far away, Bo Cinq [Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 53-59, www.bo5.nl]is a nice lounge with a relaxing vibe, great food and drinks and nice people. Door 74 [Reguliersdwarsstraat 74, door-74.com]is hidden on one of the most popular streets in Amsterdam, but has the best cocktails in town. Just don't forget to make reservations first. And Vesper Bar [Vinkenstraat 57, vesperbar.nl]is a cozy little place with an artistic vibe where all sorts of creative types hang out. Try the Bols Genever Collins – it's great."
IF YOU GO
House of Bols, Paulus Potterstraat 14; 011-31-20 570 8575; www.houseofbols.com
Café Hoppe, Spui 18 – 20, 011-31-20-420-4420; cafehoppe.com
Proeflokaal de Ooievaar, Sint Olofspoort 1; 011-31-20-420-8004; proeflokaaldeooievaar.nl
Wynand Fockink, Pijlsteeg 31 & 43; 011-31-20-639-2695; wynand-fockink.nl