If you’re a fan of gin, a visit to the House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience 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 liqueur or two that you’ll find appealing.
Gin vs. Genever
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. The Dutch government and European Union created an official AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) for genever in 2008. So, by law, genever can only be made in Holland or Belgium, and a few locations in France and Germany.
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.
The History of the House of Bols
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.
Getting our Tickets
We’ve been to the House of Bols many times over the years. We’ve made it a habit of visiting every time we’re in Amsterdam, and the experience has changed somewhat as they’ve renovated and added more advanced exhibits. Some changes we like, some we don’t.
Since the House of Bols is a self-guided experience, it comes with an audio guide as part of the admission price. You just aim the audio guide at these signs around the rooms to play the audio in each section.
On this most recent visit, 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, my husband 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.
On our previous visit a year before, we had mentioned to the cashier that we visit the House of Bols whenever we’re in the city. She told us that 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.
This was a complaint I’d had for years. 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. So you can imagine how SUPER psyched I was about this new bit of information.
Unfortunately, when we brought our old tickets this time, the cashier told us there was no option to opt out of paying full price. So I don’t know if they’re only good for a short time, or whether they decided to no longer offer that option. But the museum had some new bits we hadn’t seen before anyway, so we were ok with paying full price.
The Museum Exhibits
After you 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.
Bols also has a history of a unique marketing item, only offered to KLM First Class and World Business Class passengers – collectible Delft Blue ceramic houses filled with genever.
The Interactive Exhibits
Once you walk through the museum section, you enter the interactive portion. This is where the fun really begins.
When I walked around the corner, I expected to see the same sensory bar that disappointed me 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 visited again in 2016, though, they’d removed the mirrors, 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. This experiment demonstrated how your sense of smell plays an important role in what you taste. But that’s all gone now. 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. There are footprints on the floor so you know where to stand:
Inside, a recorded voice asked me to stand still while it mapped my face. Pinpoints of light moved back and forth across my reflection in the mirror. Then, the voice gave a short introduction to the experience of drinking, and asked whether one’s experience could change depending on other factors, such as light, sound, etc.
The voice then 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.)
In a way I sort of miss the old-school flavour tab counter. At least they posted clear instructions and expectations. You pulled a flavour strip out of a dispenser, and in one test you plugged your nose and tried to identify the flavour without your sense of smell playing a role. In the next step, you watched a video of various foods while tasting the flavour strip to see how visual cues can affect your taste receptors.
I didn’t really understand 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 I don’t mean it to be. The rooms were cool, and I actually wish the lights and vibration lasted a bit longer than they do. (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.
Once you turn the corner, you’ll see a beautiful rainbow of liqueur bottles awaiting you. Each atomizer bottle 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.
The Distillation Room walks you through the actual genever making process. You can watch videos, sniff ingredients, and see how each step actually works.
The next room contains many of the ingredients needed for the genever process. Here, you get to sniff, touch and play a bit. You’ll find everything from dried orange peels to star anise, and even some atomizers to spritz the air with different alcohol-soaked herbs and additives.
Note the 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 through the maturation process.
I love the new wall display too. So many pretty colours and flavours:
The Mirror Bar
At the end of the tour, you climb up a flight of stairs to reach our favourite part of the experience: the Mirror Bar! Yayyyyy!
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 profiles to narrow down the drink options. 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).
So, 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. Mark 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!
The bartenders are fun to watch, as they mix 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.
Something else we noticed is that they permanently lowered the price of additional cocktails to €6. 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:
Make Your Own Cocktails
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 “make your own” cocktail list isn’t very extensive, 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.
Something I would love to see in the future, is a way to “bypass” the self-guided tour and just head straight to the Mirror Bar. Right now, you have to walk through the entire museum to reach the bar at the end. The tour is great for newcomers or those that don’t visit the House of Bols often. But for us, we tend to just whip through this part now. This visit was an exception because of the new elements added. But for repeated visits, it’s really all about the bar and trying the newest cocktails.
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!
Getting To the House of Bols
Address: Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
Hours of Operation:
Open daily from 13:00 till 18:30.
On Friday and Saturday till 21:00.
Cocktail and genever experience € 16. The price includes one cocktail. You must be 18 years of age or older to enter.