Where to Drink in Amsterdam, According to the World’s Best Bartender
Ryan Chetiyawardana, otherwise known as Mr Lyan, has won 'International Bartender of the Year' two years in a row. I got him to show me around the Dutch capital.
Photo by the author.
Amsterdam is like a kaleidoscope. Viewed from one angle, the city basks in the stench of weed and glow of the red light district, filled with gimmicky shops selling chocolate condoms and bongs shaped like dicks. Look at it another way and you'll find modern art museums and picturesque canals—somewhere your mum would visit and bring home a novelty tulip keyring. Twist the kaleidoscope again and you’ve got the perfect night out with your mates at De School, getting high off not-shit pills and cycling home at 6 AM. Twist, twist, twist, and Amsterdam is different (and great) every time.
The Dutch capital’s food and drink scene, however, isn't quite so diverse and glorious. Some love the weiss beers, the chips and mayo, the endless falafel options, and the Surinamese roti stores. Others critique the food for being largely potato meat mush, fried and served in a bread roll, or for its beers that are about 30 percent foam and way, way too small.
Ryan Chetiyawardana, a British bartender known for his innovative approach to cocktails (including microwaved negronis), has a less binary opinion of Amsterdam’s culinary offerings. Founder of London bars White Lyan, Dandelyan, and Cub, Chetiyawardana is set to open his first bar outside of the UK. Super Lyan, formerly in East London, moves to the Dutch capital this April.
“[Amsterdam’s] politics, the crime, the music, the arts—all of it’s got this progressiveness to it and that felt really attractive,” Chetiyawardana tell me, when I ask him what drew him to the city. “It felt like there was a really youthful movement.”
Amsterdam's size was also a draw. The city has around 850,000 residents, making it easy to pop in and out of bars without travelling very far. People spill happily out onto the street, tiny beers in hand, and moving onto your next drinking destination is as easy as jumping on a bike. Bars are accessible and the vibe is bustling, rather than stressful. Compare this to, say, London—a city of 9 million people—where meeting your mates at a different pub might mean a 40-minute journey, an extreme amount of perseverance, and £2.90 on an Oyster card.
“There’s a really nice sense of community around [drinking],” Chetiyawardana explains. “I think with a smaller more nuclear city, you can have that chance to be a bit more spur of the moment, a bit more reactive, and that's really nice to be able to do.”
He does, however, acknowledge that the Dutch cuisine can be a bit hit and miss. But why has it got such a bad rap? According to Guus Thijssen, chef and founder of a Dutch culinary organisation called Guustronomie, it’s a lot to do with the country’s post-War history, as well as a culture taught never to boast about food (“Just act normal, that’s crazy enough,” is a well-worn Dutch idiom).
“I think one of the misconceptions is that we don't have a food culture in the Netherlands,” says Thijssen. “I think we do have a food culture, it’s just a modest one.”
“In the midst of the last century, World War Two happened and that had a huge impact on our food system,” he continues. “After the War, a lot of people were hungry, which left a big trauma.”
After the War, Thijssen explains, the Dutch focused on sustenance over taste, and learned not to show off about their food, considering it had been so scarce in the past. As a result, traditional Dutch dishes centre around easily sourced produce like potatoes and cabbage, served with meat or vegetables—all of which was mainly boiled or mashed, with little seasoning. However, Holland’s food scene has since benefited from migration from Eritrea and Morocco (to name a few), not to mention influence from the Dutch colonial history in Surinam, meaning ample döner shops and spots selling broodje pom—a bread roll filled with chicken and the Surinamese vegetable pom—for when you’re sick of fried potatoes.
There is, however, an impressive drinking culture in Holland. The country is famous for its beers, as well as spirits like genever—a clear alcohol made with juniper berries. So, on a strangely sunny day in February, Chetiyawardana takes me to visit some of his favourite Dutch bars and restaurants, in order to showcase the food and drink culture he hopes to take inspiration from at the new bar—no matter how humble.
Our first stop is Mediamatic, a waterside restaurant that focuses on locally sourced ingredients, including those grown in an aquaponic greenhouse just outside the restaurant. It was the restaurant’s focus on sustainability that Chetiyawardana admired.
“We've been close to the world of sustainability and conscientious practice for years,” he tells me. “And it's nice to see people like adopting some of those principles, but doing it in a very open way.”
Although Mediamatic could be described as more a restaurant than bar, Chetiyawardana is unfazed by this division.
“I really don't separate what we do from the food world,” he explains, handing me pink whiskey and soda cocktail of his own creation, made with miso and garnished with rosemary. “[Food and drink] has always been very close, we do the same thing and we work with the same suppliers.”
Whiskey cocktail knocked back, it’s time for the next stop on this Dutch bar crawl. In't Aepjen, a historic “brown cafe” founded in the 17th century is our second stop. The bar is reminiscent of an old English pub, with wooden interiors, old memorabilia hanging from the walls, and a slightly surly lone bartender. It’s a departure from the modern aesthetic of Mediamatic, but stands as an example of the traditional Dutch drinking scene. We sit down for a small pint, and snack on bitterballen—breaded and fried potato and meat balls—and a plate of meat and cheese.
What was it about In't Aepjen that Chetiyawardana wanted to recreate in his own venture?
“To me, [the brown cafes] are what bartending is about,” says Chetiyawardana. “You've got somebody who's controlling the room. It's not about [the bartender]. It's not about the product. It's about helping people have a great time. [The bar is] spilling out onto the street, but it doesn't feel like chaos.”
It’s not only the proverbial “vibe” that Chetiyawardana loves, but also the sense of legacy and story within In't Aepjen.
“You go to these brown bars, and they're, like, dripping in history and so 17th century, but they still feel really warm and tavern-like,” he says.
Frankly, anywhere that feeds me large chunks of Dutch cheese with a beer—history or no history—is winning my vote.
Finally, we head to the true test of any drinker: a tasting room and spirit company called Wynand Focking, which produces 70 Dutch liqueurs and genevers. The distillery below the shop was founded in the 17th century, and it’s here that I try a new genever made from Indonesia Pale Ale. Copper distilling equipment takes over much of the basement, as do glass bottles filled with different types of liqueurs. I am handed many glasses of booze.
“[Wynand Focking] shows that you can have tradition, but also at innovate,” says Chetiyawardana. “That IPA genever is one of the best I've tried.”
“It's not about them then totally jettisoning all of that crazy history they've had before,” he continues. “They can say, ‘this is important to us in the history of Dutch booze, but that doesn't mean we can't do something different.’”
After trying the new spirit—which is smooth and herb-y—we move upstairs to the tasting bar to try one of the many liquors produced by Wynand Focking. A bartender tells me to “bend down and suck”—the traditional way of taking the first sip of genever, with your hands behind your back—and I laugh uncomfortably while trying to move swiftly pass these instructions. Already a few drinks in by now, this low-key sexism passes me by, and I have three more glasses. The next one tastes like lemon!
Suitably boozed, and having eaten at least a third of a block of cheese, I deem my Amsterdam booze tour a success. Although this pub crawl hasn’t included the classic British markers of “strawpedo-ing” a WKD and then vomming it up after a kebab, it’s certainly been enjoyable. The history of the brown cafes appeals to my British love for cosy, ancient pubs, and the emerging Amsterdam scene feels ripe with possibility. Also, and most importantly as I reflect on the evening: I’ve had a lot of liquor.
Now, where can I get some chips and mayo?