In August 2014, after months learning bits and pieces from bartenders, I realised I wanted to know more and learn faster. At the same time I was planning a weekend to Amsterdam with some friends and, while searching for activities there, I found out about the Bols Bartending Academy. I knew Bols products already and that they had a museum but I had no clue they actually had a school. I checked the courses they had on offer and decided to book the 4 day Advanced Bartending course the following November. It didn’t call for previous bartending experience and I would learn not only how to make popular cocktails but how to prepare them efficiently at professional speed, while getting basic knowledge about spirits. Once my registration was complete, the school sent me a list of about 40 recipes to learn before the course, as well as practical information about Amsterdam (hotels, restaurants and, of course, bars).
At first I didn’t tell my bartender friends as I felt a bit silly going to an actual bartending school when I had no experience whatsoever. However the closer the course got, the more excited I became – even more so after doing a cocktail masterclass at the House of Bols during my weekend away with my friends in September- and I finally let it slip.
Now to the course!
Bols Bartending Academy is located on the first floor of the House of Bols. My eyes litterally popped out of my head when I entered the training and teaching room. It comprises 12 fully functional, shiny as new, bar stations. Each is stocked with real alcohol and all the requisite equipment to prepare cocktails. Two serve as a teaching station. Thanks to the mirrored ceiling above them participants can watch the instructor’s every move and not miss a thing.
The participants group was a nice mix of students, part-time or full-time bartenders, a former spirit distributor and an amateur, namely me. After a short introduction during which we given a textbook and the week’s programme (see pictures), each participant took a station and started setting his or her bar with the barware provided. Once the stations were all ready it was time to learn and practice!
Each morning, we would start with free pouring practice (pouring straight from the bottle into the mixing glass or shaker without using a jigger) with measures ranging from 1/4 oz to 2 oz. The trick is to follow a regular count of 4 for 1 oz in your head. I have to admit I struggled with it a lot. I tried tapping with my foot and following the rhythm of a song in my head but it wasn’t easy. I totally understood why Malika, our instructor, and the textbook were adamant about the necessity for bartenders to practice their counts before each shift! In the second part of the morning we would learn about the history and production processes of the main spirit categories used in bars (fortified wines, liqueurs, vodka, genever, gin, rum, agave distillates and whisky) while tasting them to appreciate the difference things ingredients or even the aging process bring to the taste of a spirit. A visit of the Lucas Bols distillery was organised during which one of the distillers gave us some explanation about the production of Bols genevers and liquors. After that we made a quick stop to the tasting tavern of Wynand Fockink, another distillery right next door. There we learned a bit about their products and got to taste one of their 70 liquors! On the first morning of the course, there were also two sessions about alcohol awareness and the rules a professional bartender should follow to provide the best and most responsible service, notably when dealing with difficult guests.
In the afternoon we would move on to practice. On the first day we learned about the basic techniques to prepare drinks: building, stirring, shaking, rolling, blending. We exercised these techniques by making the cocktails on our recipe sheet. As the aim of the course is to build confidence and ability to work in a bar, speedround sessions were organised to help us improve our speed and efficiency as well as our capacity to take multiple orders at the same time and prepare them in the right order. Although these were simulation exercises, we practiced with real ingredients. And that’s a really good thing! While it’s good to repeat the gestures, there is only one way to know if you’re doing them well: by tasting the end result. Once we were done with our cocktails we would sample them by dipping a straw inside (not getting drunk there!). A small sample but rich in information! From it you could immediately tell if your drink was rightly made, that is: were the flavours correctly balanced? was the drink diluted just the right way or was it over-diluted (which meant the drink was rather weak) or under-diluted (which made for a strong drink)?
Balance and dilution are the fundamental principles of mixology, along with synergy. An afternoon session was dedicated to this subject, at the end of which we each created our “signature cocktail”.
On the final afternoon we took practical exams in freepouring and speedrounds and theory exams where we were interrogated on the recipes we’d been practicing all week and our spirits knowledge.
The course finished with a celebratory shot of Bols Genever drank the Dutch way, i.e head bowed over a tulip glass for the first sip (no hands allowed!) and with a glass of beer on the side! Then we all went to the House of Bols for a last cocktail in its mirrored bar.
Would I recommend Bols’ Advanced Bartending course? Definitely! While the week literally flew by and five days was too short a period of time for me to really master freepouring and feel confident enough to work behind a bar it was an amazing experience! The school was fantastic. I had the impression of working in a real bar and we had great equipment at our disposal (every tool shining new, real liquors and spirits, proper glassware). The theory lessons were very informative and the speedrounds were a good introduction to bartending. I also liked the fact that the number of participants was limited (the course can host a maximum of twelve people as there are only twelve stations). It meant that Malika, the instructor, and Tyrone, her assistant, had time to answer our questions and help each of us in turn with precious advice on technique. Both were super friendly, open and passionate about their trade which made them great instructors for the course. Finally, there was a great vibe within the group. So all in all I really enjoyed the Bols Bartending Academy and its course, well, courses really. Indeed I was so impressed and satisfied with the Advanced Course that I returned a few months later for the next level’s course, the Master Bartender!