If you’re a fan of gin, a visit to the House of Bols in Amsterdam should be on your must-see list. And even if you’re one of those folks who thinks gin tastes like tree sap, the Bols company probably still makes a liquor or two that you’ll find appealing.
The Bols company has an extremely long and interesting history. It all began in 1575, when the Bols family started distilling liqueurs in Amsterdam, using orange, cumin and cardamom for flavourings. But it wasn’t until their grandson, Lucas Bols, became a major shareholder in the East India Trading Company that Bols became a major international brand. Through the East India Trading Company, Bols got first dibs on some of the finest ingredients in the world. Lucas also used the trading company to distribute their liqueurs worldwide.
When you visit the House of Bols and purchase your tickets, you descend down a staircase and begin your self-guided journey through time. The experience is part museum, part advertisement, part interactive experience, and part cocktail bar. First, the museum-y part:
The display contains original Bols bottles, recipe books and other miscellaneous artifacts. Some of it is pretty cool.
Bols also has a history of a unique marketing item, only offered to KLM First Class and World Business Class passengers:
Ok, I’ll never fly First Class, never mind on KLM, but these are really cute!
Once you walk through the museum section, you enter the interactive portion. This is where the fun really begins. This room walks you through the genever-making process, with the actual ingredients in the glass cubes. You can reach in and sniff, but I’d recommend not tasting any of it, I don’t know how often these bins get refreshed! The atomizer bottles contain the spirit essences of the distillate. You can smell how the liqueur changes as the ingredients are added to the genever, athen mature through the ageing process.
Ok, but what is the difference then, between gin and genever? Genever is the predecessor to gin. It was typically made with a high percentage of malt wine, giving it whiskey-like notes. Genever can be made in the Oude (old) or Jonge (young) style, with the Oude style having a higher percentage of malt wine and the Jonge having a lower amount, giving it a lighter flavour and colour. Modern gin is made with a neutral spirit base, giving it a lighter, crisper taste. But both genever and gin still have the botanicals and juniper flavours added as part of the process.
Onto the next portion of the tour; more sensory experiments! Here, you get to test your taste buds. There are flavour strips you slide out of a dispenser, and in one test you plug your nose and try to identify the flavour without your sense of smell playing a role. In the next, you are asked to watch a video of various foods while tasting the flavour strip to see how visual cues can affect your taste receptors.
Then, you turn the corner and see this beautiful rainbow of colour and light awaiting you:
Each atomizer contains a different Bols liqueur. They don’t just make genever! You can atomize your nasal passages to your heart’s content with each liqueur fragrance. Then you have to see how well you’re able to identify each one. The answers are above each bottle. I’m a fragrance fiend, so I just huff this stuff every time we visit. I just wish they made perfumes as well as liqueur.
Then, you reach the pinnacle of the tour, and get to really use your entry ticket in earnest: your ticket has two drink tickets attached, one which is good for two shots of any of their liqueurs, and one for a proper mixed cocktail, using their own ingredients, of course.
First, you have to decide what cocktail you want their bartenders to make for you. They have computer screens set up where you choose from four different flavour quadrants to narrow down the drink options. There really aren’t a lot of choices. But if you decide you don’t like the ingredients in the one you chose, you can change your mind and pick a different drink from the list. The computer then prints out a receipt-like paper with your drink name and recipe on it. Then you take your recipe receipt to the bartender. (The printout makes a nice little souvenir as well. I’ve kept all of ours).
The bartenders are quite skilled, mixing unusual ingredients together with flair and a bit of drama. It’s all part of the full Bols experience. The nicest part is getting to try shots of some of the liqueurs you wouldn’t normally get to try back home. Although we do get maybe a half dozen different Bols liqueurs here in Canada, it’s just a drop in the bucket for what they actually make (over 30!). My favourites are probably the Parfait Amour and the Elderflower flavours.
The House of Bols experience only opened in 2007, but we’ve visited it every time we’ve been to Amsterdam. Although the last time we went, we motored through the museum and headed straight to the mirror bar. But the cocktails offered are updated frequently, and the Mirrorbar alone is worth stopping for. They also have a very nice gift shop, with bar accessories, liqueurs, glasses, t-shirts, recipe books, coasters, etc. The House of Bols is located in the Museumplein across from the Van Gogh Museum.