Malika Saidi is a trainer at the Bols Bartending Academy in Amsterdam. She is energetic and passionate that gives the warmth like a sun being around her. When Kim Choong met her in Bols - The Ultimate Cocktail Challenge 2012 at TwentyOne tables+terrace, she patiently explained about the function of the Academy and how she went from being a physiotherapist to a bartender.
Tell us about the Bols Bartending Academy and what courses it provides.
The Bols Bartending Academy is located at the museum district of Amsterdam and we were open since 2007. We have 12 bar stations for bartenders to work on individually. The stations are fully equipped so that the bartenders can practise their skills fully at their own bar, this is a very unique feature the academy has.
For our professional Bartending courses, there are International Bartending Level 1 and Level 2: Level 1 is a basic course that covers all the basic skills and knowledge that you need to work in any international bar. Then we have level 2, that is an advanced course and that we change very often because it talks about trends, mixology, how to behave in competitions such as body language, drink making techniques, creating your own drinks etc. Being a bartender is more than just knowing how to make drinks nowadays, it is more difficult and very much about personality and how you host your guests. What I am seeing more now is that people are trying to create an experience for the guests, not just drinks anymore. Customers now want bartenders to listen to them, create drinks to soothe them, make them comfortable and special. And then other than bartending, there is the course that prepares you in professional management skills called International Bar Management. This course covers the four standard areas of management such as: Communication, Documentation, Marketing and Finance.
For bartenders who wish to learn more about making drinks and understanding more about product knowledge, there is the Cocktail Introduction Course for classic and modern cocktail making or the seasonal Cocktail Workshop where you learn how to make cocktails matching the season.
How many bartenders can you train a year?
In 2011, we trained 5,500 people! The trained bartenders can also be involved in the bartending network, post up your CV and look for work there; or, employers will look for you through the website.
Is this your first time in Malaysia?
The second time actually, the first was 10 years ago for a holiday.
What is the difference in terms of the bartending scene here compared to Holland?
The bartenders here are enthusiastic and very eager to learn. What I really like is the passion and enthusiasm of the bartenders here, they are super eager to learn and very serious about their jobs and that is very important. Bartending is often seen as a part time job you do while you consider what your 'real' job will be. But it is a profession and it is nice to see young bartenders take it very seriously and see it as a profession as well, not just something you do on the side. It is more difficult than that and underestimated the kind of knowledge that goes into it. Not just the drinks but everything around it.
How long has it been in Amsterdam that bartending is regarded or seen as a profession?
It is quite similar in Amsterdam. We don’t have a long cocktail history like some parts of the US or London for instance. In Holland it is quite young still and it is a growing profession comprises of a small community of passionate bartenders.
What is the history like for bartending in Holland?
The history of Bols can be traced back to the beginning of our spirit production. In Holland, Bols is known for its genever production but we actually started off with producing liqueurs in 1575, which is much better known around the world before genever. We are the oldest distilled spirit brand in the world. We are gearing towards creating awareness among the consumers now so that they can make their own cocktails at home as well.
We notice that Asian like flavoured and brown spirits, which is good for us because Bols Genever is a complex and flavourful product. It is a white spirit but it has a lot of flavour which we think will be very much appreciate in this region. People think that genever is just like gin but it is a different category of spirit of its own. It is much older than gin and is a different style of spirit. It consists of malt wine, which is a grain distillate just like whisky, but it is unaged and distilled to a low alcohol percentage. Juniper berry has to be in there and there is a mix of botanicals. It used to be called “Holland Gin” and was so popular in the 19th century and it was sold at least 6 times more than gin at that time in the US so it used to be one of the main spirits alongside rum, cognac and whisky used in cocktails. Tequila and vodka did not yet exist at that time. Then, The Dry Martini became very popular and for this cocktail London Dry style gin and Dry Vermouth was used. London Dry Gin is lighter in flavour and mixes well with dry vermouth and people preferred this flavour over the bold, complex flavour of genever. Because of this switch in flavour preference, genever lost some of its appeal.
England only started producing gin after genever. It is said that the expression: ‘Dutch courage’ is historically connected with genever. The Dutch and the British fought in the 80 year war and the Dutch were very brave. The English wondered why the Dutch were so brave, then they found out that all Dutch had a hip flask filled with genever and would drink it before going into battle. So English started to learn about the spirit and they liked the flavour. When William of Orange was on the crown in England, they cut off all the French imports and started to promote Dutch economy, that’s when genever came in to England. They started making their own by copying it but they didn’t know how to make malt wine, so they left that out because it was too difficult. And then they just called it “gin” because it was easier to pronounce.
What is the most rewarding experience for being a bartender?
I think it is when you have a dialogue with your guest and create a drink especially for this guest based on the conversation and this guest leaving your bar happy.
Where were you before Bols?
I was with a company called Fabulous Shaker Boys in Amsterdam that trains bartenders. I was trained there and then I worked there for 5 years. They do a lot of cocktails on location and high end events. I have also worked for a few cocktail bars in Amsterdam and in Egypt. I travelled and saw hospitality in different part of the world and ended up at Bols as one of their trainers and Lucas Bols brand ambassador.
What got you into bartending though?
Funny story that is, I was actually a physiotherapist but didn’t like it. So I quit and wanted to do something I really enjoy. My sister owned a bar where we lived, so I was always involved in the bar and one day, I decided that I should go that direction. Then I found a company that specialised in cocktails creation and I thought: “Hey, I can make a living out of this, that’s great!” I took it very seriously and trained, educated myself and read a lot of books, went to seminars and I loved it. This was 8 years ago now.
How are you inspired in making new cocktail creations?
I am normally inspired by food. I love trying new food and cooking. Cocktail making is very similar to cooking but instead it uses alcohol. A lot of flavours you get from desserts for example I find them suitable in drinks as well. Other than that, I also get inspiration from travelling to different countries. I love to experience new flavours through travelling, and of course visiting nice bars.
Throughout your 8 years of bartending career, who have inspired you most in the industry and what are the most important things you have learned from them that still influence you in your career today?
A very important influence on my career has been Misja Vorstermans who worked at the Fabulous Shaker Boys at the time. I was still working as a physiotherapist then and not sure which direction to go. I had a meeting with him at the Fabulous Shaker Boys’ office and his enthusiasm, passion for what he does and professionalism were very inspiring. I decided to take a bartending course for 1 week which he taught and I was convinced I had found my passion. Not long after I quit my job as a physiotherapist and started to work for the Fabulous Shaker Boys. He really made me see bartending as a career option and got me excited to become better, enter bartending competitions and continue to develop myself as a bartender.
Can you speak Egyptian? Out of so many countries, why did you choose to go to Egypt in 2009 and what made you return to Amsterdam?
I don’t speak Egyptian but my father is Moroccan so the culture is fairly similar. The job at Pacha in Egypt was offered to me by a friend who worked as a bar manager there. I decided to return to Holland because the job as trainer for the Bols Bartending Academy became available.
Bartending is still seen as a male oriented profession, what are your thoughts for being a female bartender among your other male colleagues, in terms of experience? Compared to the male bartenders, what are the up and down sides of your position being a woman?
Bartending is still a male oriented profession and I think that is a shame. I think it is very good for the general atmosphere, service and feel of a bar to have a mix of both female and male bartenders. But I do realise bartending is quite a physically tough profession; its long working hours, quite often a lot of lifting involved, dealing with drunk guests etc. But I know a lot of very talented female bartenders with very good insight in flavours, creativity, communication skills and knowledge.
You were the first student to ace the prestigious WSET (Professional Certificate in Spirits) exam with a perfect score, how did you do that? You must have a nose of a hound!
I loved that course! It was so inspiring to spend 3 days learning about spirits from the most influential people in the business, for instance being able to ask Desmond Payne (the Master Distiller of Beefeater) which blend of botanicals he prefers to use in his gin. We tasted a lot of spirits; I studied hard and managed to get a perfect score which I am pretty proud of! I highly recommend anyone interested in spirits to take the course.