Thursday 9 January 2014

Wynand Fockink

I asked GW for an opening sentence for this post, and received: "Sometimes, life gives you lemons, and sometimes, life gives you unfortunately named bars."

Me: Don't be mean, that was the actual name of one of the men who owned the distillery. 
GW: What? Shut up. That can't be true. 

The poor man's is probably spinning in his grave at all the casual abuse he gets. But going back to GW's statement, as far as the universe thrusting random things at you is concerned, a visit to the Wynand Fockink's eponymous distillery is actually a really great thing to receive. It's literally just off the beaten track, located in the tiny alleyway of Pijlsteeg that's right by Dam Square in the heart of the city. IZV found it on one of the more novel lists Must-Do Things In Amsterdam, and it turned out to be an excellent call. 

Of all the Genever and liqueur distilleries in Amsterdam, it's one of the oldest still in operation, having been founded some time around 1679. It hasn't had the smoothest of histories - after a period of expansion it floundered in the immediate post-war era and the building was at one point taken over by squatters - but today the distillery is back up and running thanks to efforts put in from the 90s on, and is now producing quality Genevers and fruit liqueurs. The first day I reached Amsterdam, I called them up only to find that it was the one day of the year they were closed, so we planned to go the very next day. The distillery was undergoing renovation works so we couldn't go on the tour, but the time we spent in the attached proeflokaal (Tasting Room) and shop was more than enough for us to thoroughly fall in love with the place. 

After the almost aggressive sleekness and modernity of the House of Bols, stepping into Wynand Fockink felt like going back to a simpler time. There's a homely and rustic air to the place, thanks perhaps to its collection of vintage Genever bottles, and the deliberate choice to furnish it in 17th century style. The low bar counter was well worn and freshly stained with liqueur marks, which under the dim yellow lights looked like erratic brush strokes. 

GW & I were the first of our company in, and we sidled up to the end of the bar right by the display of traditional tulip glasses to wait our turn. During that time, we covertly (Or so we would like to think) observed the rest of the patrons, to better get an idea of what we were in for. The rest of the bar didn't disappoint. 

The Dutch called the tulip glasses used for Genevers 'slurpurtje', and as you can imagine, the drinking ritual involves an initial big slurp out of the glass. The glasses are filled just beyond the brim, and the water tension creates a nice round meniscus. As tradition dictates, you have to bend over and take a sip from the bulge before you pick up the rest of the glass. Just touching the glass when it's just been filled will pretty much guarantee that the liquid will get dislodged onto the table beneath, and with the wasting of alcohol considered a sin, it's much safer for the state of your eternal soul to do things the proper way. Also, the people behind the bar tend to purse their lips in disapproval if you pick your glass up first and end up spilling your drink everywhere. 

Our first evening, we were very ably assisted by Robert, who ran us through the long list of fruitbrandewijnen (Fruit brandies) they had on offer. After helping us narrow down our preferences with a couple of simple questions (Genevers or fruit? Sweet or tart and fresh? How sour?), GW and I started our evening with the fresh raspberry and the fresh cranberry fruit brandies respectively. Once the rest finally joined us and we got settled in (Comfortably commandeering half the bar between the five of us), we got a bit more adventurous with our choices, allowing Robert to mix up some drinks for us to try. With our tab running, we tried the chilled Limoncello spiced with Ginger liqueur, as well as the house specialty Boswandeling (Secret of the Forest), which combined their young Genever with Herb Bitters and Orange liqueur. 

Genever's had apparently been unfortunately saddled with the label of 'stodgy' in the 20th century, but its fortunes are slowly reviving as people are beginning to reappreciate the drink. Of the lot of us, IZV's the only real whiskey person, so she tried their Three Year Old Malt Genever on its own and found it pleasingly like scotch. I tried their beer, which is generally served as part of the Kopstooje (Little Head Butt) ritual, where sips of Genever are chased by beer. Didn't do the mixing, which seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I slowly nursed my Skuumkoppe, a deep brown wheat craft beer from the Netherlands whose name quite romantically means the foam on the waves of a dark sea. 

We liked our first evening at Wynand Fockink so much that we went back right after lunch on our last day to pick up a few drinks and a couple of bottles for the road. Robert was nowhere to be found, but the rest of the team helped us pick up where we'd left off, and suggest a few new drinks for us to try. We'd had almost all the fresh berry liqueurs the day before, and had a good idea where they stood on the sweet-sour spectrum, so according on our request they helped us mix up the tart Cranberry liqueur with a small measure of the sweet Raspberry one that took enough of the edge off the bitter sourness to make for a very dangerously drinkable concoction.  

Wynand Fockink is the sort of place that's easy to find enjoyment in. A few drinks into our first evening, we were introduced to the fresh Apple liqueur, which sent all of us into paroxysms of joy. Among ourselves, we decided it really ought to be called Party Apple Juice, and the mental tag stuck so well that when we went back the next night, our new name slipped out automatically and we had to clarify what we wanted to order. We tried to rally other people to our cause though, explaining to one of the men standing in the corner of the bar why we'd given it the name. Perhaps very excitedly exclaiming "It tastes exactly like apple juice! Only it makes you want to party!" wasn't a terribly sophisticated thing to do, but in my defence I didn't realize that the American tourist we'd been speaking to was Richard Snyder, whose articles I still have on my laptop from my International Relations classes, until after we'd left the tasting room and looked at the card he'd passed to IZV. 

Back to our experience with the Party Apple Juice, our bartender from the second evening, whose name we didn't manage to get alas, made the terribly inspired decision to run us through an entire series of apple-related drinks so we could develop a fuller appreciation for all of them. We got samplers of their Apple Liqueur Party Apple Juice, the Apple Pie Liqueur, the apple-based Christmas Special, and a full sized mixed drink which she said was their Spicy Apple Pie. Tasting them one after the other, we were able to tease out exactly what we liked and disliked about each one. The Apple Pie liqueur remained a little too cloying for our tastes and the Christmas Special was a bit too heavy on the herbal bitters, but Party Apple Juice continued to be much loved, and we found a new firm favourite in the Spicy Apple Pie. 

Each bottle of the fruit liqueurs was retailing in their small store for €16.50, and BA and I had the difficult task of picking one each to bring back to London. My heart gravitated almost immediately towards the Party Apple Juice, while BA dithered between the Raspberry and Cranberry liqueurs. Eventually he chose Cranberry, which tasted more complex, and we brought our bottles to the till. The both of us were expecting the cashier to use the old-timey cash register, and were fairly disappointed to find that it was only there to serve a decorative purpose. 

The distillery remained locked up, but we'd drunk so much that we got a poke wink nudge to have a peek in one of the windows, to get a glimpse of the gleaming vats and machines within. It had been magical, and made even more so because the staff paid me so many compliments on my shoes and my bag. (They really know how to flatter a girl) I told The Smelly Vagabond all about Wynand Fockink when I found that he was going to Amsterdam the week after, and he loved it as well. He brought a bottle and a couple of tulip glasses back too, so one of these days we're going to have people round to his place or mine and introduce them to the joys of Dutch fruit liqueurs. 

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