Monday, August 12, 2013

A Bar in Amsterdam

In a world, where a tired, overworked and single American woman maxes out a credit card to spend six days in a beautiful, old European city to meet up with a younger, cute European man who makes drinks...

The whole time I was there, I felt like I was starring in a movie version of my life. Was this really happening?

I didn't have the money for the trip at all, but I had the credit. Fuck it. So there I was, in a hotel in Amsterdam at 3am, eating fine dark chocolate and drinking a Sazerac made with one of the rarest ryes in the world (I brought it from my own collection) and an absinthe bitters not yet in the marketplace, sitting on a bed across from Jens (say "Yentz"), this Dresden-based German bartender I'd previously only seen on a computer screen. Four nights and five more days ahead of us and this was how it was starting out? Dang. The rapport was easy and natural, and I could tell in that comfortable and decadent moment with that person I knew so well in some ways but also barely knew, this was all going to be worth it.

And it was. Everything those few days just happened as they needed to, all falling into place. 

I'm no stranger to foreign travel, having grown up in a globe-trotting family. But traveling with my parents never felt like vacation. Our days would be so packed with mandatory activities to museums and other sights that there was barely time to relax and take in the local scenery. Dinner and even lunch was spoken for weeks in advance, no wandering into a cafe to take one's chances, no repeat visits to favorite places that would become our locals far from home. Sorry Mom and Dad, I love you, and appreciate all you've done for me, but going places with you is about as relaxing as algebra homework.

So as an adult, I try to do the opposite of that when I travel on my own. I do some research into where I am going and then just wander when I get there. I tend to avoid the museums and touristy sites or make definite plans or reservations. Most of the time, this has worked out beautifully, and the stories, so to speak, wrote themselves. But as exciting as it is, it's lonely, and for years, due to lack of money, due to being chronically single, I stopped traveling. Except now I didn't have to be alone. Not only did I get to spend six days with Jens, but also two with my dear pal Nick, who came into town from England for a little cameo appearance and a great canal-side dinner.

Jens made arrangements to do a couple of guest-bartending shifts at the most happening cocktail bar in town, Door 74. We spent most of our first evening there getting to know the staff (particularly Timo, Ben and Kevin), and by the time I returned to visit Jens, the bar already felt like home.

He also gave a talk on the Old Fashioned cocktail, introducing his own spins on it. It was fun to see a demonstration on his version which involves lighting a cinnamon stick and releasing its aroma into the glass, which hangs out while the rest of the drink  - with bitter orange jam, bourbon and chocolate bitters - is built then shaken to emulsify the jam. Yes, you purists, a shaken Old Fashioned! This was the drink that first introduced me to Jens when I became his editor back in March, and our comraderie evolved from there. Last March the idea of this drink being made before my eyes in a bar in Amsterdam months later seemed as remote to me as spontaneously growing an extra digit, but there I was!

On down time, we mostly wandered, our only real touristy activities were taking a one hour boat ride along the canals and visiting the maritime museum - Het Scheepvaartmuseum - because we liked the look of it from the boat. The inside was cool and serene, and we enjoyed a lovely lunch out on the deck along the water.

The highlight of our day activities was a personal tour of the House of Bols, which had been arranged through my contacts. There we met the lovely Amber, who took us through the sensory exhibit, then led us into the bar, where Frank made us rounds of cocktails using the range of their spirits. Though they didn't have the necessary ingredients, they did "McGuyver" a Negroni for us out of Genever, rosso vermouth, dry curaƧao and lots of Angostura bitters. Very hospitable bunch! Amber joined me at the bar later to visit Jens with her friend Fernando and we had a blast hanging out.

Incidentally, the bathroom graffiti at the top of the page is from Tales and Spirits, where we spent the last evening of our trip drinking cocktails by Danil Nevsky. Well curated back bar, inventive drinks and lovely, cozy space. Wish we'd had more time there!

But the best bar was our own, Bar 505. My whiskeys, absinthe, absinthe bitters, tonka beans (illegal in the states due to the coumarin content), a bit of fire, chocolate, just us having our own time together. Our own bar in Amsterdam built by two people meeting from opposite sides of the world.

Sometimes, kids, you just have to take risks. I'd give anything to be back there now.