Welcome to the largest whisky bar in Holland. Since 1971, Whisky Café L&B has specialized in rare alcoholic beverages that tickle your nose and warm your belly. When veteran bar tender, Léon Elshoff, took over as owner in 1984, L&B sold about 80 whiskies, already making it the number one whisky establishment in the Netherlands. For decades, they have honored a tradition to offer new and unique tastes. It was even the first bar where you could buy a Duvel beer. L&B now sell and offer tastings of over 1600 whiskies. And that selection continues to grow.
In the 80s, Elshoff tells us, whisky was not widely available in the Netherlands. You could only get blended whisky (single malt mixed with grain whisky). Soon after Elshoff took over as manager and owner, new whiskies arrived on the shelves, and single malts gained in popularity. The assortment became bigger and better. Now, you can find just about any kind of whisky you are looking for. According to Elshoff, while other spirits such as vodka and rum have shown losses over the last few years, whisky has actually gained in revenue and popularity.
L&B is one of those brown cafés that help tourists understand the meaning of the Dutch word “gezellig.” Nestled on a side street off of Leidseplein, it’s not one of those noisy, touristy bars, where the music is too loud to hear your friends. Here, they cater to just about everyone: the young and old, tourist or local, and a decent population of expats. The staff offers specialized recommendations and can educate you on exactly what you’re drinking; most of them are dedicated students of drink who have worked at the café for 4 or 5 years. Prepare to talk shop if you’re a connoisseur.
Loek Fransen got involved with L&B about 12 years ago when they started doing private tastings for serious connoisseurs. He’s another expert in whisky and a member of an elite whisky society in Scotland. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you might catch a whisky tasting underway. About 5 years ago, L&B started hosting Whisky Weekends and this year the cozy establishment, which holds about 70 or 80 people, will host its 5th annual event. Attracting whisky aficionados from all over Europe and elsewhere, the 2013 event promises to be bigger and better than ever. For €35 you get to taste a lot of whisky – a lot of expensive whisky that you might otherwise be too shy to sample.
The bar itself has a history. Before it was the largest whisky bar in Holland, L&B was a grocery store and a bike shop, with the stairwell in the middle separating the two stores. In the early 70s, it was initially in the business of specialty beers, some whiskies, and snacks. Elshoff intimated that many customers think the 70s style is retro. “It’s not retro,” Elshoff laughed, “it’s typical 70s.” Well, not the dust, he admitted, “The dust is from the 80s.”
In keeping with the L&B’s tradition of bringing people together, Elshoff claims he has witnessed about 40 married couples that met for the first time at his bar. He also met his wife at the bar. It comes down to atmosphere. Where good friends and good drink are the destination. There’s no loud music, no guard at the door. It’s open from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. (weekends till 4 a.m.), just like a brown café should be.
But let’s not forget about the 1600 different whiskies. What kind of whisky would L&B recommend? Before giving advice, the staff uses a sliding scale to gauge a customer’s particular preference. According to Elshoff, “Most customers know what they want to drink…We have 1600 whiskies, but you have many flavors of whisky. But a lot of people do not know anything about whisky. So, we ask on a scale from 0 to 10, what kind of flavor would you like: nice, sweet, easy or more a mature, more pronounced taste?”
Come into the bar and you get to know the history of whisky too. Elshoff reminds us that there are two different types of whisky. Grain whisky and malt whisky. Malt whisky is made from barley in one distillery and matured in oak casks for at least 3 years. Most are 10 to 12-years-old. Grain whisky, made from corn (e.g. Jack Daniels) or some other cereal such as rye (e.g. Canadian Club), in its pure form is an industrial alcohol and it’s not made to drink. It’s actually made to mix with single malt whisky, resulting in a blended whisky such as Jack Daniels, Canadian Club, Chivas Regal, and Johnny Walker. Pay attention to the age statement. Prices go up according to how old the malt whisky is and what proportion it is to the grain whisky.
When you think of where whisky comes from, you might think Scotland, which has hundreds of distilleries but there are even distilleries right here in the Netherlands (4 in fact). In truth, you can make whisky just about anywhere as long as you have water, grain, yeast, and oak barrels. Color and flavor comes from the wood of the barrel. Cherry barrels are sometimes used instead of oak to add a sweeter flavor. We were surprised to learn from Elshoff and Fransen that in Europe, Italy tops the list for most whisky consumed per capita, followed by France, Spain, and Greece. Although 92% of all whisky is blended, the single malt 12-year-old Glenfiddich sells over 9 million liters per year.
So what’s the absolute rarest whisky in the world, you might ask? According to Fransen, the most expensive bottle in the world is probably the 1926 Dalmore Single Malt Scotch. Bottled in 2011, the 85-year-old whisky apparently sells for €250.000 a bottle. At L&B, however, the rarest bottle you will find is a 1967 Balvanie, bottled in 2000, right before its alcohol content threatened to go below the mandatory 40%. You can taste it for a mere €240 per glass. Only 11 bottles left in the world give it a market price of £17.000 a bottle.
Can you actually save whisky once you open it? Fransen declares certainly not. “You don’t save whisky. Because if you walk out the door and a taxi driver pulls up while you look the other way, somebody else is going to drink that bottle and not you. So, take it while you can. Enjoy life because drinking a nice whisky—its an emotion—it has to do with the mood you’re in.” We here at AmsterDO agree. Proost!
Whisky Café L&B
Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 82, 1017 RD AMSTERDAM