In 2007, when he first started bartending in his native Amsterdam at the now shuttered Herrie, Remco Babay remembers, “There were only two or three bars that made decent drinks.” Now, with lairs like Tales & Spirits and Vesper as well as Babay’s own Porem crafting sought-after cocktails, the drinks landscape in a city long equated with Heineken-hoisting tourists is fast becoming more sophisticated.
Porem is slang for “face”—”only true Amsterdammers use this kind of word in our daily lives,” says Babay, who worked at acclaimed bars Door 74 and Feijoa before opening Porem in the Red Light District. He also had a stint as an ambassador for a vodka brand, an enlightening experience that proved he didn’t want his future to be a corporate one. Instead, he plotted his own welcoming speakeasy-like den adorned with hanging lightbulbs and framed photos of local celebrities and landmarks inside the stylish Asian restaurant Geisha. Here, guests drink Clover Clubs and nosh on spicy tuna rolls in either the hushed backroom or the basement, where the lively bar holds court. “Our way of bartending can be a bit loud. Bars should be fun, and fun entails a bit of talk and lots of laughter,” says Babay. “So whenever you’re sitting upstairs, you can still see down, but you will hear very little sound coming from there.”
Despite warnings that opening in the midst of summer’s barrage of food- and music-fueled festivals wasn’t the best time to launch Porem, self-confessed “stubborn guy” Babay went ahead with his plans. He saw the slow period as a good time for the staff to gel and slowly acquaint locals with the imaginative roster of cocktails.
His approach has worked. Along with beloved classics like the Corpse Reviver and Tommy’s Margarita, Porem revelers clamor for originals, which are cleverly grouped into three categories named for Dutch personalities, including footballer Johan Cruyff (“swift and light-footed”), radio and TV star Ivo Niehe (“drinks that know they’re good and are not afraid to tell you”) and folk singer André Hazes (“deep, meaningful and multilayered drinks”). The Java Mule, an Indonesian riff on the Dark and Stormy with Batavia Arrack, spiced falernum and lime ginger beer is among the hits, as is the Whistleblower, a smoky Negroni with mezcal. In anticipation of sultrier evenings ahead, Babay’s unveiling a spring/summer menu that is even more experimental. “The Dutch crowd needs to be teased into something new,” he says, and so scotch will be melded with Oloroso sherry, turmeric honey, lemon juice and bitters, and grilled pineapple Pisco will be paired with lime, vanilla/pimento cordial, shiso bitters and an egg white.
As Amsterdam continues to morph into a more cosmopolitan city, Babay feels it’s slowly starting to lose its true identity. Porem certainly helps cement Amsterdam’s growing reputation for well-wrought drinks, but Babay’s vision for the bar is greater. “The thing I thought Amsterdam was missing is the vibe and banter you’ll find in our traditional brown bars, where you drink beer and shots of genever and people constantly make jokes, most of the time at the cost of fellow imbibers. Amsterdam humor is quick, offensive and vivid. It’s almost as if we don’t make fun of you, we don’t care about you,” he says. “The key word in my bar is gezellig, which is hard to translate, because it means fun, nice, cozy and warm at the same time. When you visit Porem, I promise you all of this combined with classy drinks.” That, and the knowledge there’s beef yakitori to accompany the mandatory sipping, is just the incentive needed to descend and grab a stool.