It’s standing room only at Wynand Fockink, a jenever tasting bar and distillery near Dam Square in Amsterdam. The bartender places three tulip-shaped cordial glasses on the wooden bar and fills them to the top with jenever, the Netherlands’ national spirit. As my son reaches for his glass, his dad and I say, “No!” in unison. Jasper looks startled.
“You have to lean down and sip it first,” Peter says. It’s traditional to fill the glass until there’s a head on it, he explains. Not like a foamy beer head, this one swells up above the rim of the glass, like an upside down bowl, so you have to lean over and take a good slurp to avoid spilling it.
Post-slurps, the three of us take our drinks outside to the adjoining alley, where a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings is relaxing after work, drinking beer and jenever (ye-nay-ver). Peter and I are spending a few days here in Amsterdam, our favorite city in the world, visiting Jasper, our middle son, who lives here. We have totally lucked out, and the weather today is sublime: sunny and warm—quite a change from a couple days ago when we arrived to gray skies, hail, sleet, and a cold wind.
Often when we visit the Netherlands, we end up visiting family and friends north of Amsterdam. This time we have chosen to stay in the city, and we can’t wait to revisit favorite haunts and discover hidden treasures. Like any big city, Amsterdam is full of surprises, and during our springtime visit, the biggest surprise of all is the fabulous weather!
I’m actually here to write a story for another magazine about jenever, which gets its name from the Dutch word jeneverbessen, or juniper berries, a key ingredient. In addition to the berries, which add a distinctive pine flavor to jenever, other ingredients include herbs, grain alcohol, and malt wine—a whiskey-like spirit made from mash. Jenever’s cousin, gin, invented later, contains just grain alcohol and botanicals and lacks the malty flavor found in jenever.
Wijnand Fockink is Amsterdam’s oldest distillery, we find out during a tour with Joyce, one of the distillers. It’s been producing jenever and liqueur since 1679, as well as flavor components—think orange and anise flavorings. “The heart of the product is coming from here,” says Joyce and points to the vats—or pot stills—where distillates are cooking. In the next room, two young women fill and hand-label bottles—up to 350 per day, available for purchase in the tasting room. Today Wijnand Fockink is owned by Lucas Bols and stays in operation as an homage to heritage, says Joyce.
Another afternoon we enjoy a delicious jenever tasting paired with food at the Blauwe Parade near Dam Square. This historic bar is where Heineken beer was first brewed in 1864. Overhead a tableau of original Delft Blue tiles (c. 1900) shows a parade of children and symbolizes the city’s historical triumphs. Our congenial bartender, Johan, explains that the jenevers (and the beer) they sell are all made in Amsterdam.
Jenever comes in many varieties, but most can be classified as jonge (young) or oude (old), which describes its method of preparation as opposed to its age. Typically, oude jenever is maltier, slightly sweet, and light gold in color. It’s always served chilled and sipped straight. Jonge jenever is clear, less malty, good in cocktails, and often paired with beer—known as a “kopstoot” or blow to the head. My favorite is Taainagal jenever produced by Van Wees with herbaceous notes.
Jenever pairs really well with food. Johan presents us with bite-sized pieces of a smoked mackerel and cream cheese roll, Iberico ham, paté, and my favorite, bitterballen, a croquette-like snack served with mustard.
We’re staying at Die Port van Cleve, a comfortable, affordable hotel in the heart of Amsterdam adjacent to the Blauwe Parade. That evening we dine in the hotel restaurant, Maximiliaan, known for its tradition of serving numbered steaks. It started in 1870 as a system for waiters to keep track of steaks, and the numbering system stuck. Since then they’ve served millions! Each steak comes with a colorful numbered card. Mine was number 5,807,777.
Riding bikes in Amsterdam is the best way to enjoy the city, and rates are affordable: $10-12 per day. We rent from a friendly shop called Discount Bikes near Dam Square. After getting our bikes, Peter and I explore some of our favorite neighborhoods and then head to Vondel Park, Amsterdam’s green oasis, where we have a picnic. We still can’t believe how beautiful the weather is. Later when Jasper gets off work, we meet in the park, which is packed with young people, barbecuing, playing Frisbee, and relishing the warm, sunny weather. In Amsterdam you never know when the clouds will return, so you have to make hay when the sun shines!
I’m a hotel junkie and love staying in different hotels even if it means hopscotching around town. After a couple nights at Die Port van Cleve, we check in to Hotel De Hallen in Amsterdam’s Oude West neighborhood. It’s housed in a former train depot dating from 1902, and its décor is industrial chic balanced by a playful collection of contemporary art. We love the vibe as well as our spacious corner room with super-comfy beds.
We dine at the hotel restaurant, Remise 47, and the food is over the top. We try the chef’s asparagus-themed tasting menu. Peter starts with mustard soup topped with house-smoked salmon and white asparagus foam. It’s superb. I love my decadent white asparagus soup topped with Dutch cheese. For our entrées, I try the lamb filet served with a mousseline and beautiful green asparagus, and Peter opts for chicken with a Guinesss femme bon sauce accompanied by roasted asparagus and potatoes. Dessert is a simple combination of marinated rhubarb and strawberries with ice cream. This springtime feast is a fine example of taking advantage of the season’s bounty.
Amsterdam’s food scene is quite cosmopolitan. Another evening we dine at Jansz, a cozy restaurant adjacent to the Hotel Pulitzer. Seated by a window at an elegant marble-topped table overlooking a canal, we watch the street scene and the long mellow evening unfold as we sip cocktails. We order from the menu, and the server offers to choose the wines to match our courses. Perfect. Our leisurely dinner stretches for more than two hours, and it’s another springtime feast: Burrata with heirloom tomatoes, tuna tartare, Dover sole Meuniere, and more lamb, this time with curry-spiced yogurt sauce sprinkled with chocolate. Yum. For dessert we choose a cheese plate that features an array of international cheeses. A glass of port is the ideal accompaniment.
Indonesian restaurants abound in Amsterdam since Indonesia was once a Dutch colony, so we decide to enjoy a traditional rice table, comprised of multiple dishes—served with rice, of course! Puri Mas, a well-known Indonesian restaurant near the Leidseplein, has been recommended, and we are not disappointed. Starting with the chicken curry soup, proceeding through chicken, beef, and veggie dishes, and ending up with a lovely fruit compote served with ice cream, we are satisfied—and full—at meal’s end.
After a couple nights in Hotel De Hallen, we head over to one of Amsterdam’s top hotels, Conservatorium Hotel. “It’s where all the rock stars stay,” a Dutch friend gushed. It makes sense that musicians are attracted to the property, which was once a music conservatory. Every weekend students play classical music in the hotel lobby, an expansive atrium with a designer vibe. The lobby lounge attracts locals, and some say it’s “the living room of Amsterdam.”
A popular room at Conservatorium is the “I love Amsterdam” suite. Huge beams criss-cross the ceiling, and stairs connect the bedroom with a living room upstairs and a dreamy bathroom on the third floor. Press a button, climb a few more stairs, and emerge on a rooftop terrace, where 360° views of Amsterdam await. Recline on your chaise lounge, sip a jenever and tonic, and marvel at the panorama.
FLOATING IN THE SEA
Downstairs in the hotel’s spa, Akasha Wellbeing Centre, I enjoy a gentle yoga class and two spa treatments while Peter chills in our spacious room. During the Relaxing Hammam, I lie down on a slab of stone as a warm mist envelops me. My therapist uses a rabbit hair glove to exfoliate my skin, followed by a wet scrub, and rinse. Next she applies frothy bubbles—sensuous and silky—from my head to my toes. After a rinse, a hydrating massage leaves my skin feeling smooth and buttery.
I also experience my first Watsu at Akasha, an in-the-water treatment during which the therapist moves my body around while cradling me like a baby. When I finally relax and let go, I feel like a starfish floating in the sea. Ahhh, spa!
Later we stop in Tunes Bar, the hotel’s trendy gathering spot known for its sleek transparent bar and signature G & T’s. Sander, the bartender, makes us a cocktail with jonge jenever, elderflower tonic, and an orange slice. Wow. It’s perfect for spring! At Taiko, Conservatorium’s contemporary Asian restaurant, Peter and I indulge in the chef’s omakase menu, which is a work of culinary—and visual—art. The menu features North Sea sashimi and tiger prawns—and the watermelon sashimi is a must-try!
Conservatorium Hotel is located in the perfect neighborhood for shopping and sightseeing. It’s two blocks from Amsterdam’s fashionable shopping district and a stone’s throw from the Rijksmuseum, where you’ll find many of Rembrandt’s masterpieces. Also close by is the Van Gogh Museum, housing the largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s work. Fridays the Van Gogh Museum is open late, an ideal spot to enjoy art, drinks, and socializing.
One other tourist attraction in the area is the House of Bols, dedicated to the historic Lucas Bols brand of distilled spirits. You can learn about the process of making jenever and other Bols brands during the self-guided tour, which features a film and interactive displays. House of Bols also offers cocktail classes and bartender training sessions. After our tour, Peter and I end up in the Mirror Bar, where Mervin, our bartender, creates a cocktail for each of us based on ingredients we like. My cocktail has jenever, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, and simple syrup. It’s a sweet-sour delight. Peter’s has rum, corenwijn (another Dutch spirit made by Bols), bitters, and coconut liqueur. He loves it.
FLOWERS IN BLOOM
One day we head out of town to visit a castle south of Amsterdam called Kasteel De Haar. Surrounded by a moat, this brick medieval fortress conjures up images of knights in shining armor and fair maidens in need of rescuing. The current castle was built on the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, but fell into disrepair in the 18th and 19th centuries. Architect Pierre Cuypers, who designed the Rijksmuseum, was hired to restore and rebuild De Haar for Baron Etienne van Zuylen. In 1912 after a 20-year renovation, Kasteel De Haar was completed and became one of Europe’s most iconic residences.
Today the castle is the largest in the Netherlands and popular among visitors. The current baron and baroness and their family reside in the castle every September. For a month Kasteel De Haar comes alive with lavish house parties attended by prominent international guests. Famous guests over the years have included Coco Chanel, Maria Callas, Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, Yves Saint Laurent, Joan Collins, and Brigitte Bardot. The castle interiors are rich with marble, art, tapestries, sculptures, and an overall feeling of luxury that somehow seems at odds with the practical-minded Dutch.
Outside walking paths thread among gorgeous gardens that surround the castle, so Peter and I stroll around, taking photos of flowers in bloom, picturesque bridges, and of course the castle. Sadly cloudy, cool weather has returned, bringing a fine drizzle, but we don’t mind. Even on a bad-weather day, I’m thrilled to be visiting Amsterdam and environs. After all, Peter and I met in Amsterdam many moons ago, so returning to visit is like taking a time machine back to when we were young and courting. To celebrate our past, present, and future, we stop for a kiss on a magical bridge and take a selfie so we will never forget the moment.
Visit iamsterdam.com/en/visiting for tourist information. Check out the I amsterdam City Card, a convenient and affordable way to experience Amsterdam. Visit world-class museums, take a canal cruise, and sample local delicacies. All for free—or with a significant discount! The City Card also gives you unlimited access to Amsterdam’s public transport system for 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours. Visit iamsterdam.com/en/i-am/i-amsterdam-city-card