In the Netherlands with Bols Genever

Rusty Cerven wins

Bols Around the World Grand Finals

In the Netherlands with BOLS GENEVER

Photos & Article by Virginia Miller

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet

Barrel sampling with Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst

Getting lost amid the canals and museums of Amsterdam is mesmerizing. This May, I took a memorable journey to the Netherlands with legendary Bols Genever, genever (pronounced “jeh-NAY-ver”) being the precursor to gin (read my Amsterdam food/dining recommends and best cocktail havens and dive bars here).

Confusion still exists around genever and I am ever learning more, as with recent revelations about the history of genever in neighboring Belgium. Though the grandfather to gin, genever is a grain-based, malt spirit, sharing similarities with whisk(e)y, yet, like dry gins, distilled with botanicals such as juniper, angelica, coriander, or anise.

Genever’s malty-yet-herbal profile can sometimes be light, as in the case of less-malty, clean jonge (young) genever, or it can be complex, botanical-dominant as with some oude (old) genevers.

When in the Netherlands, there is also corenwijn (corenwyn), or “grain wine”, the maltiest and strongest of the three, beautiful to sip on its own like a good whisk(e)y or brandy. I long for corenwyn to be imported to the States.

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery

Stunning recreation of original Amsterdam distillery room filled with artifacts

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite restaurant/cocktail bar in Amsterdam) to announce the final 12 for Bols Around the World - the final 12 congregate in the stairwell

An intimate party at Tales & Spirits (my favorite Amsterdam restaurant/cocktail bar) announcing the final 12 for Bols Around the World – the 12 congregate in the stairwell

A highlight of my visit was tasting 8 year aged corenwyn out of barrels with Bols Master Distiller Piet van Leijenhorst, a generous, welcoming man who has been with Bols for decades.

Barrels of corenwyn and genever are aged at the huge Bols plant about 30 minutes drive outside of Amsterdam amid lush, green farmland and gouda cheese dairies.

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Antique genever bottles

Though I would have loved to witness stills and distillation production as I have at distilleries around the world, Bols products are not actually distilled in the Netherlands. The liqueurs are distilled in France, the malt wine for the genevers and corenwyn in Belgium. Genever and corenwyn are aged in this location, however, and new recipes are developed in their lab at the plant, including their new jonge (young) genever or 21st Century Recipe, just-unveiled during our visit, with modern, arty label (photo below) and released in Holland.

Exploring aromas of Bols liqueurs in their Amsterdam museum

Experiencing Bols liqueur aromas in their Amsterdam museum

The original Bols distillery opened in Amsterdam in 1575, iconic storefronts of seven separate houses with a rich, vibrant history of distilling, among the oldest in the world. So influential was the Bols family, that Lucas Bols is buried with Rembrandt in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church), a striking church I visited in the heart of the city.

Bols moved to the current plant in 1969 which retains one section of the original distillery storefront from Amsterdam, and an unforgettable room recreated from the original location. The light-filled room (pictured above) is packed with fascinating artifacts like antique genever clay bottles and glassware, distilling equipment, the Bols family Bible from the 1660 (a massive work of art), and a handwritten book on distillation in German from 1572. It was an unreal moment caressing the pages of this book and the family Bible, envisioning the painstaking hours outlining distillation step-by-step, hundreds of years ago.

Sailing

Sailing with Bols & the global bartending finalists

The central event of my trip was the Grand Finale of the Bols Around the World competition, an international, six-month-long competition ending in a TV-worthy showdown at Escape in Amsterdam, complete with a show from world bartending flair champions, all to a crowd of over 1000 people.

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Sailing with Bols Genever to the fishing village of Marken

Granted, it was all a bit flashy compared to what I typically cover. At intimate bars and imaginative restaurant cocktail menus around the world, I seek out artistry, boundary-pushing, well-versed classic technique and, above all, balance. Rarely does this come with a lot of flash – and never are the best drinks of the world crafted in clubs or settings with priorities on music and a “scene”. Nonetheless, it was a privilege to chat with bartenders from Korea to Argentina, learning of what they’re doing in their respective countries and cities.

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

Historic distillery room recreated outside Amsterdam

I spent the week with 25 or so of the final bartenders (chosen from nearly 3000 competitors in 66 countries), narrowed down that week through more levels of competition to the top 12: Rusty Cerven (UK), Ciro de Giorgio (The Netherlands), Mateusz Szuchnik (Poland), Jimmy Barrat (Dubai), Seongha Lee (South Korea), Tom Richter (USA), Gonzalo Cabado (Argentina), Michie Nishida (Japan), Leszek Stachura (Denmark), Alexandru Tudor (Romania), Luuk Gerritsen (Curacao). Hungary’s Fanni Lajkó won Young Talent out of five finalists (from 500) in the 21-and-under category.

The judging panel was a cocktail world “who’s who”, including Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown (Mixellany Limited, England), Hidetsugu Ueno (Bar High Five, Tokyo), Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (Drink Writer, New Orleans), Ago Perrone (Global Brand Ambassador for Galliano/Head Mixologist at Connaught Bar, London).

Bols Yonge Genever, unveiled during my visit

Bols Jonge/21st Century Genever, unveiled during my visit

The finalists made their cocktails in front of judges and the crowd of 1000 plus (no pressure), with the UK’s Rusty Cerven named 2013 Bols Bartending World Champion. His winning drink was William’s Punch, a blend of lemon sherbet, rhubarb juice, Bols Parfait Amour, Bols Genever and champagne, topped with nutmeg and lemon peel, beautifully served in a vintage punch bowl. He won an eight-day trip around the world to four cocktail cities of his choice, and Platinum Bols Ambassadorship, including two all-expenses-paid trips to Amsterdam for bartender training.

The House of Bols museum is a worthwhile visit when in Amsterdam, while the Bartending Academy is sought out by would-be bartenders around the world.