Nicola Brady talks about her vodka tasting trip to Amsterdam during the wonderful King’s Day festivities
As I savour the long, silky finish of my citrusy scented tipple, I think this could be the earliest hour of the day that a sip of vodka has passed my lips. It may always be five o’clock somewhere, but surely sinking a shot at 9.30am is pushing the limits of acceptability? In my defence, I’m in Amsterdam to experience King’s Day (think Paddy’s Day with boat parties) and enjoy a vodka tasting session and distillery tour courtesy of Dennis Tamse, ambassador for the Dutch Nolet Distillery and an expert in all things vodka.
Before this trip, my knowledge of vodka could be summarised as follows: one shot of the spirit contains around 70 calories, and it’s made from potatoes. Of course, one of those facts isn’t actually correct, I learn at my first blind tasting; at least not when it comes to Ketel One, the Nolet Distillary vodka that’s just warmed the back of my throat. It’s distilled from 100 per cent wheat, so apparently, the potato years are behind us – it seems I’m already the dunce in the room! And this is confirmed as my fellow tasters identify with ease the most obscure tasting notes of each drink, from black pepper to citrus zest and honey. I, on the other hand, could really only distinguish brash from smooth. Some of the brands had an almost chemical kick to them, whereas others offered an earthy, clean tone.
As this is my first time in Amsterdam, I spend the afternoon cruising the famous Dutch waterways on a “Hoop op Behoud” pleasure cruiser. The waterways are filled with groups of friends crowding into boats of varying sizes … and quality – one is, I’m fairly certain, a raft made from tyres – in celebration of the country’s national holiday. Stereos blast as loudly as the law will allow (one of the neighbouring boats is hit with a police fine), while explosions of smoke and orange confetti periodically burst through the air to rapturous applause. I enjoy the festivities from the roof of the boat as we pass beneath one pretty bridge after another. Occasionally, we go under a bridge so low that I can reach up and trail a hand along its underbelly. There’s a barman on my boat, which is a far swankier affair than its neighbours’. He’s steadily mixing up batches of Moscow Mules – Citroen vodka, fistfuls of mint, ginger beer and lime, which taste like nectar in the wavering sunshine.
Like Dublin, the cocktail scene has exploded in Amsterdam over the past few years. The tiny streets are dotted with funky little joints serving up inventive, punchy snifters, which we explore on our “bar safari” the following evening. Our first stop is Door 74 (door-74.com), a “secret” speakeasy, which we circle several times before finding the entrance. Inside, booths swathed in sumptuous fabrics are swarmed with the hip and the thirsty, testing the skills of the expert bartenders while swigging the daily cocktail. Next is the tiny Vesper bar (vesperbar.nl) in the centre of the Jordaan district, and named after James Bond’s signature Vesper Martini, which you’ll find on the extensive cocktail menu. I ask the mixologist to recommend a cocktail and I’m duly rewarded with the most incredible citrusy concoction of gin and ginger.
This is a trick touted by Bob Nolet, 11th generation of the Nolet Distillery – when you don’t know what to drink, ask a bartender what he or she makes best. It’s how he discovered his favourite tipple, the Tomatini, created by a bartender in Dubai called Jimmy Barrett de Cecco. You muddle one fresh tomato with 15ml white balsamic vinegar, 50ml Ketel One vodka, 10ml sugar syrup, 15ml lemon juice, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. What you’re left with is a translucent, flavourful cocktail, or summer in a glass.
The Nolet family has been making spirits since 1691 from their distillery in Schiedam (openforpublictours), about an hour outside of Amsterdam. The bones of the distillery may have changed since then (it’s now an über- slick and stylish space, housed partly in a windmill), but the essence of production has not. Distillation takes place partly in coal-fired copper pot stills, and every 20 minutes throughout the eight- hour incubation, the fire is stoked and monitored in a steamy process that invokes images of engines on an ocean liner. Each morning, either Bob or his father, Carl, sit in a tasting room to sample each batch, and nothing leaves the distillery without the approval of a member of the family.
A Bloody Mary-making workshop feels like a fitting finale to my trip. A cornucopia of ingredients is laid before me – freshly squeezed tomato, beetroot, carrot and celery juices, an array of spices, fruits and, of course, vodka. When I begin to mix my own drink, I adopt the “anything goes” approach, and sling whatever is in reach into my jar. Elegant it is not, but it does the trick. The steadying tang of tomato juice, salt and spice work their magic as they mix with the kick of vodka, bringing me back to life. I may not have the expertise of my hosts, but I do know a good drink when I see one.
Discover a few tips to be tasting Vodka the right way:
- Put the bottle in the freezer for a couple of hours. Vodka should be frozen to bring the liquor to it’s proper consistency and flavour
- Pour a shot into a clear tumbler. Let the vodka warm up just slightly by holding the glass in your hand.
- Vodka is best served with breads, potato dishes, salty plates and fish. This will help round out your sensations of the vodka.
BY Nicola Brady