So…I think this is now my third post on the House of Bols in Amsterdam. This isn’t due to my short memory. It’s because every time my husband and I visit the House of Bols lately, they’ve added something new.
Last time we visited in October 2016, I had mixed feelings about a few of their recent renovations, but felt they had added some interesting new elements as well. But I wasn’t expecting to see even more changes so soon since our last visit.
First off, when we walked in, we caught the tail end of the cashier/greeter giving a new spiel to the customers ahead of us. She was handing them small vials containing a red liquid and telling them to follow the directions when they got to that portion of the tour. Ooooh something new right out of the gate!
Once the other couple left, Mark went straight to asking about the vials without so much as a how-do-you-do. “What’s the deal with the vial?” he asked.
“That’s new since we were here last,” I added, by way of explanation. This was probably our sixth visit to the House of Bols Cocktail and Genever Experience over the years. It wasn’t our first drunken rodeo.
She handed us each a vial from the collection of about 20 that were on the counter in front of her. They all appeared to have the same reddish liquid inside. “You take the vial downstairs, and when you get to a set of three doors, enter one with a green light. Follow the directions once you’re inside.”
Whoa, this had a whole “Alice in Wonderland” vibe to it.
Since we had mentioned to her that we’d just been here a few months ago, she also offered an extremely valuable piece of information. “if you’ve been here before, you don’t need to pay the full entry price next time. Just keep your tickets and bring them with you and the entry will be €5 instead of €16.00.”
Oh wow, it’s as though she had read my mind. This was a complaint I had in my last blog post. There seemed to be no option to “skip the line” as it were, and go straight to the mirror bar if you’d been here before. Which, I’ll be honest, we’d never even inquired about until now. We’d just assumed that the price was the price no matter how many times you visited. Whether this is a new policy or not, we don’t know. But I’m SUPER psyched about it, because it’s a tradition for us to always visit the House of Bols when we’re in Amsterdam, even if it’s just for one night.
Anyhoo, the first two rooms were same-same since last time; the display of distillery paraphernalia, the collectible Delft Blue ceramic houses filled with genever, handed out by KLM to their World Business Class passengers, etc.
When I walked around the corner, I expected to see the same sensory bar that I’d been disappointed with on our last visit. Back in the day, it was covered in mirrors and had descriptions of flavours like “umami” painted on the wall. It was fun, in an 80’s Vegas sort of way. When we came in 2016, though, the mirrors were gone, and the counter was sparse and bare. This used to be where you would take a flavour tab from a mirrored box, hold your nose and pop the tab in your mouth. It was designed to show you how the sense of smell plays an important role in what you taste. But now, all of that is gone entirely. In its place, are three mysterious doors:
And a warning:
I backed up into the safety and bright lights of the KLM Delft Blue ceramic house room. I dug into my purse and pulled out the vial the greeter had handed to us at the entrance:
Then, I went back into the dark hallway and approached one of the doors with a glowing green light:
The room was dark, except for a mirror with a halo light around it on the wall in front of me. On the floor, were footprints where you’re meant to stand:
Inside, a voice instructed me to drink from the vial. I opened it and took a swig. What happened next was a psychedelic sound, sensation and light show that seriously had me clinging to the carpeted walls, hanging on for dear life. The floor beneath me vibrated with such intensity that I thought it would knock me over. Lights and shapes danced over my face in the mirror, and it felt like my face was getting bigger, or the mirror was moving closer? It was all over in a few seconds, but I stumbled out, unsure of what, exactly, I had just experienced.
Mark was waiting for me in the next room. “How was it?” he asked. “My mouth feels weird,” I said. “Like, the roof of my mouth is tingling. A lot.” He said his felt the same, but to him it almost felt like an allergic reaction. (It wasn’t; that’s just one of the sensations he experiences when he does have an allergic reaction.) Mark also said that when he went into the room, it told him to hold still while it mapped his face. “Mine never did that,” I said. I wondered if the experience depended on which room you entered, or where you stood, or if the instructions were random, etc. Would I have had a different experience if I’d gone into room #1 or #3 instead of #2?
In a way I sort of miss the old-school flavour tab counter. At least the instructions and expectations were clear. (Hold your nose and put a flavour tab on your tongue, then try and guess the flavour. It demonstrated how your sense of taste is compromised when your sense of smell isn’t involved.) But there wasn’t really an explanation of what the “art of flavour” rooms were meant to mimic or teach. Maybe there isn’t any point, other than to make the roof of your mouth feel funny for several minutes afterward.
And I know this sounds like a criticism, but it’s not meant to be. The rooms were cool, and I actually wish the lights and vibration lasted a bit longer than they did. (Even though they had me clutching the walls like a drunkard within milliseconds.) Oooh, imagine if they had these rooms available after a few cocktails in the mirror bar! Actually, on second thought, probably a bad idea.
Ideally, while these “art of flavour” rooms, and the vial of liqueur, (I won’t spoil what flavour they used) are a cool, high-tech addition, I wish they had room for both this experience and the older-style sensory bar. They express different concepts about flavour and your senses. Still though, next time we go, I’m totally going in one of those rooms again, but I’ll try a different one to see if the experience is the same each time or not.
The next few rooms were the same as before, and really, they’re perfect the way they are. Which took us to our favourite part of the experience: the mirror bar! Yayyyyy!
We went to the computers to make our cocktail selections:
But wait, what’s this? Something new? Make your own? They never had this before!!
For the first round, Mark and I decided to stick with having a skilled bartender make the drinks for us. He ordered the “Teddy Pear”. I’ve already forgotten what I’d ordered, as I’ve lost the little recipe receipt that I printed. I know it had genever in it though!
Something else we noticed is that the price of additional cocktails has been permanently lowered to €5. This makes up for the fact that the ticket price no longer includes two liqueur shots. They also have a new fancy-dancy token dispenser:
We purchased our additional tokens, and this time, decided to try the “make your own” option. We headed back to the cocktail generator computer. The cocktails for the “make your own” option are limited, though. Instead of 20+ choices, there were maybe a half dozen to pick from. Which is fine actually, since you’re probably only going to do this once or twice per visit anyway.
We printed our recipes and headed to the new “make your own” bar.
This area used to have an additional genever display. They’ve really maximized their space for the better!
A bartender from the mirror bar (actually, the same one who’d made our cocktails) came over to help us. He walked us through each step to make the cocktails we’d both chosen from the cocktail generator. He had us slicing up citrus fruit, measuring out liqueurs and teaching us how to properly shake a cocktail shaker.
It ended up taking way longer to make our own drinks than it did to have the bartenders make them for us! We really enjoyed this new element to the House of Bols. I think my only suggestion would be to have the bartenders give a few hints/tips along the way about making cocktails in general. But once you have their attention at the “make your own” bar, I’m sure they’d be more than happy to answer any cocktail questions you have.
Once we finished our cocktails, we headed to the House of Bols shop. It’s great for high quality barware and finding all of the liqueurs they make. But something was missing. Where were all the cool metal bar signs with vintage House of Bols ads? Where were the House of Bols t-shirts? All they had was the barware and liqueurs. We loved their self-branded items. Maybe they weren’t big sellers, but we have a few of the metal signs and my husband has one of their t-shirts, which is one of his favourites. I hope they consider bringing some of these souvenir items back into the shop in the future.
Overall, we really enjoyed the latest developments in the House of Bols Cocktail and Genever Experience. Next time, I’m thinking we’ll go one step further and try their Individual Cocktail Workshop!