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WHEN A GUEST at the subterranean Bar Mokum in Amsterdam’s De Pijp neighborhood asks to taste their first-ever sip of genever, proprietor Leroy Soumokil presents them with no fewer than four tasting glasses of the centuries-old malted grain-based spirit rife with juniper. The precursor to gin, with deep roots in the Netherlands (as well as Belgium and parts of France and Germany), genever, Soumokil explains, cannot be represented by just one offering: “There is a spectrum of styles. Some are more like a lightly spiced vodka, others an aged whiskey. I want them to discover the category, then we can make a drink with what they like best.”
Since opening Bar Mokum in the fall of 2019, Soumokil has put his customers’ desires at the forefront of the enterprise — whether they crave a transporting off-menu mai tai or a brief history lesson on Dutch spirits to accompany their Negroni. He explains, “I felt like I could add something to people’s cocktail experiences. So why not build a bar and give them my vision of hospitality?”
His instinct was correct. Bar Mokum’s appeal transcends finely wrought libations, a given considering Soumokil’s pedigree. The former Diageo Dutch World Class Bartender of the Year has been ensconced in the food and beverage industry since he was just 14, fueled by childhood glimpses of the captivating array of bottles in his father’s locked liquor cabinet. Most recently, he worked at the bar and hospitality training institute, ISAAC Academy, consulting for and leading teachings at myriad bars. But he also spent plenty of time bartending at other Amsterdam establishments, including nearly three years at the esteemed Door 74. “I liked moving around to feel the different energy at each place and take in as much as I could,” Soumokil recalls.
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He was entranced by hospitality as a kid, buoyed by the nurturing Sunday feasts starring soto ayam (a version of chicken soup) and wajik (a sticky rice snack) that his Indonesian grandmother prepared. “I was always looking at what she was making, and that created an interest,” he recalls. Caring for others comes naturally to Soumokil, a conversationalist who genuinely engages with his patrons and puts them at ease. Despite the grim early days of the pandemic that hit shortly after its debut, Bar Mokum persisted, with Soumokil behind the bar seven days a week, by himself, for a long spell. Now, on the weekends, Soumokil’s drinks and conviviality draw a line of fans waiting to descend the steep stairs into the warmly lit lair.
Located below an outpost of the fashionable Moak Pancakes, Bar Mokum is a love letter to Amsterdam. Mokum — a Yiddish term for “safe haven” that has since become a general nickname for the city — references the influx of Jews who began immigrating to the Dutch capital in the late sixteenth century. Against a backdrop resembling a city street, with faux storefronts punctuated by brick walls and a vibrant Heineken sign (one of the Netherlands’ most famous imports), visitors choose from a small but balanced bar menu that prominently showcases Dutch products. In the background, a playlist features the likes of Anderson .Paak and L.A.B.
Cocktails are organized into three sections: refreshing, easy-to-drink tipples; ones that skew sweet; and those with a bitter profile. One might begin, for example, with an uplifting gin and tonic–style Ginnegapper with local Damrak gin, elderflower, cucumber, celery, and Thomas Henry tonic water before springing for the Juffrouw Wijdmond. Reminiscent of a fruity caipiroska — a vodka twist on the caipirinha — it brings together Bols Jonge Graangenever with bright bursts of strawberry, lemon, and vanilla. The bold Graftak, an old-fashioned variation that melds Bols Barrel Aged Genever with PX sherry, Talisker 10 Year Single Malt Scotch, and chocolate bitters, is a spirit-forward nightcap bolstered by a theatrically smoky flourish.
One of the most important lessons Soumokil has absorbed over the years is to keep cocktail options simple, highlighting relatable yet intriguing ingredients. Many of the bar’s regulars order classics that aren’t on the list, or rely on Soumokil’s expertise to spontaneously whip up something suited to their mood — maybe a spin on the Clover Club cocktail, heightened by Nordés Gin from Spain. “Its hibiscus notes light up the raspberry,” Soumokil points out. Or perhaps Soumokil will tailor a whiskey sour to their preferences. Do they want “something mellow like Maker’s Mark, or with a bit more of a punch like Bulleit? Let us be the gateway to this nice world of flavors,” he elaborates.
Boozy new arrivals find their way into Bar Mokum every week, such as the Pink Grapefruit & Rose rum from nearby distillery Spirited Union. Soumokil and his team experiment with them, expanding their recipe repertoire by the day. “I never stop learning,” says Soumokil.
Originally from New York, Alia Akkam is a writer living in Budapest who covers design, drinks, food, and travel. Her book on hotel bars, published in 2020, will be followed up by one on gin cocktails this year.
Arndt is an interior and food photographer who doesn’t mind when people jump into the frame or the camera starts moving. He started his career at an early age as a fashion photographer. After some successful years he found his true passion and switched fields. He is based in Berlin and Palma de Mallorca and loves to travel the world.
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