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Spirited Encounters in The Netherlands

Elyse Glickman

If you are traveling to Amsterdam for business or inspiration, put two of the city's topmost beverage-centric tourist attractions on your to-do list.

Amsterdam abounds with craft beer bars and several five-star hotels with ambitious and edgy food and beverage programs. As beer and spirits have long been a powerful draw for travelers, it is not surprising that two Chicagoans, Andrew Moskos and Jon "Pep" Rosenfeld, who originally came as tourists, jumped into the act with Boom Chicago and the Chicago Social Club, which celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. While they are fans of many of the boutique brews produced in town, they give Heineken credit for using its clout as a brand to help the Boom Chicago brand endure.

The Heineken Experience, meanwhile, is a Branding 101 college course at its most extreme and dynamic. The impressive tour of Heineken's Amsterdam facility in many ways starts when you get a look at the line stretching around the block. The visitors represent many of the 178 countries where Heineken is available. However, the mega-brand also reflects its more intimate and personal side. Case in point is Heineken's involvement with clubs like Boom Chicago, reflecting the brand's continued efforts to connect with small businesses. 
The Heineken Brewery, home of The Heineken Experience.

Rosenfeld with Heineken support.

"One issue we faced with opening a separate Boom Chicago theater on Rozengracht (from the original Leidseplein Square location) was that we want people to drink during the show, but we don't want waitresses moving around during the performances, which was a problem we had in our old space" said Rosenfeld. "We sell people a bucket of Heinekens on ice for their group, which provides them fresh, cold beers to enjoy during the show as well as a social way to make new friends. It is an update on the pitcher of beer concept."  

Back at the Heineken Experience, the visitor is propelled into a Universal Studios-meets-Disneyland maze of gee-whizzery. Along with a quaint re-creation of a vintage brewery space, the tour also features a 3-D ride where visitors "become" a bottle of beer, live horses, an arcade where they can create their own digital postcards and videos and samples of the beer at its freshest.

While it goes without saying that craft beers have taken flight on both sides of the Atlantic in the last decade, Heineken is one of the big brands credited as a bridge that enabled consumers to cross from mass-produced brands to imports and artisanal brews. While Heineken is unquestionably a juggernaut, the two-hour tour manages to bring a certain intimacy to some of their advertising and on-premise promotion appealing to the ever-expanding craft beer audience.
Heineken messaging.

Some beverage buyers or bar owners may experience sensory overload. However, the tour is an exemplary representation of highly targeted on-premise promotion at its most ambitious. If a beverage professional goes about exploring the tour room by room, he or she is bound to find inspiration in the way Heineken's branding is adapted for different cultures, age groups and demographics. One room is even focused on the way Heineken is updating its production and distribution practices to be more "green," showing it has its finger on the pulse of the modern environmental movement.

Given that the Amsterdam "vibe" is steeped in the fine arts, and two of the most beloved institutions are poised for re-opening (The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum), the geographic location of The House of Bols & Genever Experience adjacent to Museumplein (Museum Square) is strategic.

However, they go a step further by promoting themselves with the same modern art irreverence that one may see across the street at the Stedelijk Museum.

At press time, a cheeky banner draped on the building declared, "We're not the Van Gogh Museum, but WE are open." Though the museum will be open and the banner gone by the time you read this, one thing that will remain is the fact that this tour is devoted to the art of the cocktail. For the casual visitor, The House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience goes beyond telling its centuries-old story with an aroma testing station and touch screen computers where you enter information about your favorite flavor profile and receive a cocktail and a printed recipe that matches your mood.  

The House of Bols.

The center, however, is designed as much for the beverage professional as it is for the spirits consumer, as the building also houses The Bols Bartending academy. While the building won a major interior design award in 2010, it should be noted that some of the most beautiful rooms in the building are only seen and used by bartenders enrolled in the academy. 

Bols training area.

Yuri van Berkel, Manager of the Lucas Bols House of Bols and Bols Bartending Academy, of course, refers to it the "most advanced bartending school in the world." It is certainly glamorous and well appointed, with twelve fully equipped bar workstations. Along with the tools of the trade, students will also find the complete Bols portfolio (which in addition to Bols Genever also includes Damrak Gin, Galiano
and the ever-growing paint box that is Bols flavored liqueurs).

Though the tour gives a new, refined meaning to the concept of a "funhouse," van Berkel points out that the school is serious about providing students a solid foundation for their bartending careers.

"The basic course, International Bartending Level One, is four intensive days where you learn all the basics about bartending," he explains. "While you learn the techniques of bartending, you also learn speed and efficiency. At the end of the four day classes, there is a comprehensive exam to test your knowledge, not just about crafting cocktails, but about different spirits categories such as cognac, whisky, tequila, gin, rum, beer and even coffee. We also have tastings to teach bartenders how to recognize flavor profiles. On one day, we offer a whisky tasting, and on another, gin and genever. For more advanced students, we offer a bar management course focused on business theory required to maintain a successful bar."

Van Berkel stresses that as this is a serious and legitimate training academy, the experience is not just a large industry promotion for their own brands and portfolio, especially with tastings involved. However, if there is a group of bartenders from the U.S. who want to learn specifically about genever, or want to learn how to make tiki cocktails, the academy will custom tailor a course about those subjects. They also offer consulting, and train Dutch bartenders who want to learn how to make cocktails for a menu specific to a particular bar, hotel or restaurant. Americans selected to be brand ambassadors for Bols or Damrak, meanwhile, come to be trained by their own team of "Dutch masters." 
Bols genever in historic and comtemporary bottles.

"We learn a lot about the success of our brands overseas from the people who train with us," says van Berkel. "For the professionals and for casual visitors, the experience as is interactive, as much as it is historic and scientific, which is why it is good for professionals to do the tour, even if they are not attending the academy. Bartenders will impress customers with elements of Bols' back story, which dates back to 1664."

Bols' marketing savvy and ability to connect with different audiences is as enduring as the House of Bols itself. Visitors will find a display room of collectable KLM Miniatures Blue Delft houses made for first class passengers, as well as an original work from Rembrandt, who donated it to the company because he was a genever fan. Visitors will also learn about such traditions slurping genever from a tulip glass from Bols Genever's master distiller, and pairing genever straight with raw herring. Pros doing the tour will spot many familiar faces on the wall of fame, including New York City-based mixologist and Bols U.S. rep Tal Nadari.

While it is no big secret that with 38 flavors, Lucas Bols has surpassed Baskin-Robbins in terms of flavor profiles, I was one of the first American beverage writers to sample its new Yogurt Liqueur, which was set to bow stateside this month. Neat or in a cocktail, it was a delicious privilege. Underscoring an increasingly sophisticated global cocktail scene, von Berkel informs me, "Yogurt is best selling flavor in Holland, even though it was originally developed for the Asian market."

Speaking of sophisticated cocktail scenes, the aforementioned five-star hotels are some of the best places to see how Bols and other Dutch brands are put to work. When in town, be sure to check into -- or at least check out -- the following hotels and restaurants, which have creations as evocative as anything you will find inside the buildings making up the Museumplein:

Bridges/ The Grand Amsterdam Sofitel Legend

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, 1012 EX Amsterdam

Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht Hotel
Prinsengracht 587, Amsterdam

Tunes/The Conservatorium Hotel

Van Baerlestraat 27, Amsterdam

Izakaya/The Sir Albert Amsterdam
Albert Cuypstraat 2-6, 1072 CT, Amsterdam

&Sahmoud Restaurant
Oosterdokskade 5, Amsterdam

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