One of the most unexpected and interesting stops during our summer travels to Europe was to the House of Bols Museum in Amsterdam.
Deterred by the two-hour wait to get into the Van Gogh Museum, we stepped across the street and walked right in at the House of Bols Cocktail and Genever Experience. It’s basically an educational and historic look at liqueurs and spirits, culminating with a cocktail tasting.
Bols is best known in the U.S. for its many flavored liqueurs. In fact, you might even have a bottle of Bols schnapps or liqueur tucked at the back of your liquor cabinet right now.
Lucas Bols founded the world’s oldest spirit brand in Amsterdam in 1575. Today it is one of the oldest still-operating Dutch companies. Operation of the family-owned company was passed from generation to generation, and in the 17th century, the Bols grandson took over. He became a major stakeholder in the East India Trading Company, which gave him access to herbs and spices, from which he created some 300 liqueur recipes.
In 1664 Bols started producing genever, which became the company’s claim to fame in Europe. A distilled liquor made from rye, corn and wheat and blended with juniper and other botanicals, the spirit was modified over the years and eventually became one of the primary liquors used by U.S. bartenders in the 1800s, but seemingly disappeared during and after Prohibition.
Because of the juniper berries and even its name, I assumed that genever was basically a variation of gin. Not true. By itself, it has a very smooth malty flavor of whisky, although definitely not as full in flavor as bourbon. It tasted nothing like gin. The barrel-aged (six years) genever was very smooth and flavorful, minus the hot finish that is characteristic of many distilled liquors. As a base liquor for cocktails, Bols claims that genever has the mixing versatility of vodka. The proper way to drink genever is to fill a tulip glass to the very brim – almost overflowing – and then slurp it from the glass on the table.
Holland’s top spirit still today, genever is making a limited reappearance in the United States. I’ve seen the original version in stores and online, but the barrel-aged versions are harder to find. Moreover, I’ve not seen any differentiated by the number of years it was aged. Fortunately, the six-year aged genever was available for purchase at the House of Bols. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it since we’ve returned.
Still, Bols’ biggest market identity is its liqueurs. The company makes more than 35 different flavors today, and the House of Bols tour offered the opportunity to see, smell, touch and taste the ingredients that go into making the different liqueurs – from vanilla beans and cocoa beans, to peaches and cherries, to coconut and melon. Pretty much every flavor you can imagine is available in liqueur form. There is a room where all are displayed in unmarked bottles with a perfume atomizer. The challenge is to identify each scent.
The final stage of the House of Bols tour brings the opportunity to taste several liqueurs and sample a cocktail mixed with genever and various liqueurs.
The House of Bols may not rival Amsterdam’s museums honoring Van Gogh or Rembrandt and the great Dutch masters, but we still saw an original Rembrandt painting and learned a few things we didn’t know about Dutch culture.