Getting lost amid the canals and museums of Amsterdam is mesmerizing. As with many cities of the world, Amsterdam is experiencing a food revival with new restaurants, markets and bars cropping up everywhere (read my food/dining recommends here).
In terms of “craft” cocktails or the cocktail renaissance of the past decade plus, one does not find even close to the wealth of artisanal cocktail preparation and knowledge here as they do in London, New York or San Francisco. But a vibrant handful of bars (you can count them) are leading the way for a greater renaissance. Local pioneers like The Fabulous Shaker Boys have been educating palates for over a decade, a necessary role given that the majority of Amsterdam bars still lean towards the sweet/dated side.
It was a memorable journey visiting Amsterdam with Bols Genever, the legendary genever (Dutch precursor to gin) with original distillery dating back to 1575 (more on my visit with Bols next issue). Along with tasting aged genever out of barrels with Bols Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst, sailing on a beautiful boat with Bols to the charming fishing village of Marken was a highlight of my trip.
My favorite Amsterdam restaurant is also my top cocktail bar (more about the food here). Tales & Spirits is magically inviting, exuding a spirit akin to a Parisian Belle Époque cafe under dripping chandeliers. Modern inventiveness meets comfort on their top notch food menu, while the best cocktails are off-menu, crafted to your tastes.
They make good use of genever in drinks like All Things Nice, a tall refresher of Bols Genever, cinnamon spice tea syrup, fresh apple and lemon juices. I appreciated the subtle bitter/citrus/sweet of a gin we can’t get in the states but sampled here: Filliers Dry Gin 28 from Belgium.
Tales is the kind of place one leaves basked in a warm glow from a communal vibe and gourmet flavors competitive with upscale restaurants. The best element is the private upstairs lounge which is invite-only. Being there for a party with Bols Around the World bartender finalists, I lingered in the intimate, retro living room, a space that feels like a cocktail geek’s chic apartment. Vintage furniture is artfully arranged while wall cabinets are lined with rare vintage glassware, books, and paraphernalia… a drink lover’s dream. I was ready to move in.
This unmarked, corner bar is elegant yet laid back, unassuming and beautifully Old School with Victoriana wallpaper and artful menu of sections themed by The Explorer, The Captain, and other literary/thematic characters.
HPS’ cocktail presentation is the most artful and complex I found in Amsterdam. Hailing from Miami, Florida, Guillermo Gonzalez is passionate about craft spirits and hones his drinks with flair that occasionally impressed more visually and conceptually than in the taste (as with a black, silky Coal Miner’s Daughter: Georgia Moon Moonshine, mint, chili peppers, charcoal syrup), while other cocktails coalesce into a winning whole, like a Thai Basil Smash (gin, cucumber, Thai basil, lime).
Combinations are inspired, the type of profiles I’d love to see more of everywhere, like a snow pea-infused gin, intermingling with artichoke-infused dry vermouth and a brilliant Fine Mustard Liqueur from Germany. The green-savory-mustard qualities of this off-menu creation so wowed me, I’d deem it a favorite drink all year after visiting over 20 cities/10 countries.
HPS is one of Amsterdam’s best bars, an unpretentious shrine to “the cocktail”.
Despite the oddly clubby decor and crowd (being in Amsterdam’s prime gay district explains the fleshly photography and decadent chandeliers), Dvars serves some of the best-crafted cocktails in the city, thanks to Owner/Operator Andrew Nicholls, whose experience in Berlin and beyond informs his well-honed technique and warm hospitality. Skip past the vodka-fruit heavy menu and move towards the more interesting drinks listed or chat with a bartender about possibilities.
Visiting twice, one visit was on Cinco de Mayo. I was missing the usual festive celebrations in my home state of California, when a bartender (who had no idea I was from San Francisco) convinced me of Dvars’ saavy by offering a Tommy’s Margarita in honor of the holiday. My favorite drink was the Kentucky Samba, a vibrant, aromatic mix of bourbon, lemon sherbet, absinthe and toasted cinnamon topped with a half of a passion fruit set on fire. Another standout was the Cognac-based Temptress, a cocktail enlivened with a pineapple shrub (vinegar-based), grenadine, Peychaud’s bitters, and a “pouch” of spiced caramel powder to pour in to the drink.
Though playing out the somewhat “tired” password-at-an-unmarked-door-speakeasy theme long passé in cities like NY or SF, Door 74 has been Amsterdam’s most raved about “craft” cocktail bar since it opened in 2009, leading the way for the other such bars in the city. Though I weary of the door attitude, inconvenience and hassle of passwords and reservations (particularly as someone who visits bars the world over with extremely tight time frames in which to pack in multiple places), Door 74 crafts worthwhile cocktails. The menu changes, the spirits selection is strong, and in the dim, dark space, best tastes happen with the most incongruent-sounding drinks.
Take for instance a combination of bell pepper and dark chocolate, a shimmering, gold-flecked drink of cardamom and chili-laced genever, lightened with rose soda, garnished with a sliver of bell pepper and chunk of dark chocolate. It’s a green, earthy, bright mix that unfolds with each sip…. and is blessedly original.
Simpler but still gratifying is Parrot Yacht Club, a Tiki-esque blend of Bols de Drie Papegaaien, Cointreau, velvet falernum and lime.
Wynand Fockink is fun to say… it’s also an atmospheric, tiny, standing room-only bar dating back to 1679, with a distilling room and beakers in the back. In the many bars I’ve visited the world over, there’s nothing quite like it. It’s distinctly Dutch and a must-experience for taste (and history) lovers when in Amsterdam.
An board lists housemade spirits by the pour or bottle, from lush bitter/herbal or fruit liqueurs (how I love a tart-fresh cherry or abrikoos/apricot made from Czech apricots!) to unusual spelt or rye-based genevers.
Other fascinating pours included Drie Maal Drie (three times three), the title of an old Dutch nursery rhyme, a twice-distilled red and white wine liqueur infused with bitter almonds and Malaga orange peel tincture, rather like a clear brandy. Bitter and herbaceous, Half & Half is a liqueur dating back to 1842. The recipe came about by a mistake when orange and bitter liqueurs were mixed by an assistant, but became a house favorite, redolent of cinnamon, clove, and anise seed.
Amsterdam boasts a number of unforgettable dive bars, intimate, historical spots bursting with character, and in the case of Cafe de Dokter, dust. The dust has never been cleaned on bric-a-brac lining the walls of this dim haven enhanced by mellow jazz tunes and a laid back bartender.
The bar was founded by a surgeon in 1798 (hence the name), has been run by the same family for generations, and is wonderfully creepy with old clocks, birdcages,ventriloquist doll, even a hanging doctor’s bag. It’s about all the atmosphere, not the drinks (hence the “dive” label), so a good pour of whisky is the ideal way to go. Cafe de Dokter is another unparalleled bar you won’t find the like of anywhere else in the world.
Tasting from cask genevers with Drie Fleschjes’ owner Joop in this charming 1650 tavern lined with genever barrels was one of my memorable afternoon respites in Amsterdam. Old stoneware liqueur and genever jugs line the back bar, while the relaxed, cozy space and chatty owner encourage lingering.
Here’s to sipping corenwijn and beer under Dutch and Charleston, South Carolina, flags (Charleston is their sister city and a place Joop has close relationships with).
This truly kickass beer bar (so popular over the years that there are now three locations) is charmingly shabby, stocking plenty of Belgian and Dutch (and beyond) beers, pleasantly sipped to a heavy metal soundtrack (including plenty of ACDC!) played at a reasonable volume. It manages to feel like cozy, rainy-day pub and hardcore beer bar simultaneously.
A contemplative kitty sitting under a neon beer sign was perfection – an image fit for a book or film.