cruising part two – the bars

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I’m spoiled. No question. I live in Waitsburg, home of the best bar in Washington, perhaps in the world. When I want a cocktail, I go four blocks down the street to jimgermanbar, and I know I’m going to a happy place.

So my cocktail world is a tiny one, circumscribed by my alliance to the home team, and severely limited by my devotion to wine tasting and the requirements of a wine critic’s life. Enter the cruise ship experience!

On board the Nieuw Amsterdam were no fewer than 11 bars, plus the liquor-dispensing capabilities of more than a half dozen restaurants. Let’s be honest – you’re at sea (most days we didn’t hit land) with nothing to do except indulge. I got the exercise out of the way right off the bat. First thing in the morning – pre-coffee – I was at the gym doing the bike workout. By 7:30 I was done, thirsty, and thinking about the day’s activities.

Well, it was certainly imperative that I explore the on board bar scene, and I’m pleased to report I dedicated myself to exactly that. The ship’s bars opened up as early as 11:30 and at least a few stayed open until midnight or later. They all drew from essentially the same menu.

There were a half dozen or so specialty cocktails, a drink of the day, and a generous list of spirits (by category) at each station. The bartenders were competent and the drinks were not expensive – usually $5 - $7. Over the course of the week, I tried a great variety – daiquiris, martinis, margaritas, rum drinks, bourbon drinks, coffee drinks, and more. I studied the contents of the back bar, looking for both familiar and unknown labels.

The usual suspects were there – gins from Gordon to Bombay; bourbons from Jack Daniels to Knob Creek; Grey Goose vodka and Captain Morgan rum and so on. But the bottles stopped short of where the real interest starts – the more limited, distinctive, small production, craft distillers. The bars did better with beers, offering up to a dozen options including Beck’s, Heineken and Grolsch (a favorite!). All at very fair prices.

Yesterday I wrote about the value of orienting/exploring your ship thoroughly right at the start. When I ventured into the bar at the Tamarind – somewhat hidden in the middle of Deck 11 – I found an interesting lineup of sake. Granted, not Japanese sake, which would have been optimal. But respectable efforts from Oregon’s Momokawa. The bartender offered both sake cocktails (one is pictured above) and sake straight up, and the room was truly gorgeous and blessedly quiet. From a business standpoint, maybe too quiet. But for me, it provided a rare opportunity to be surrounded by luxury in a totally private setting.

On the same deck (always shoot for the highest deck is my new mantra) is the Explorations Café, and here, along with your lattes and cappuccinos, could be found a lively assortment of coffee drinks. This is what I turned to mid-afternoon, prior to the evening’s wines, and just about the time a shot of caffeine and a bit of alcohol would provide exactly the right stimulation to get on toward dinner.

Were I in charge of the bars, I’d make a few adjustments. Bring in at least one genuine craft distillery product in each spirits category. Cut down on the sugary cocktails and move more into classics. Get more creative with aperitifs and digestifs. If there was a grappa, or amaro on board, I couldn’t find it.

But what I did find was that the cost of drinking reasonably well was incredibly modest – it was hard to spend $100 on cocktails during the entire week. And for those who wish to drink more and spend less, there was decent booze for sale in the duty free shops on board and on shore, so you could mix your own, as strong as you wished, for a lot less.

If you’re on a cruise, unless you are unable to drink for health reasons, the bar culture is not only prevalent, it’s almost essential. It’s what you do to relax, to meet people, and to put a soft frame around the Big Picture. Hey – you’re not going to be driving, so why not enjoy yourself?!

Tomorrow – a look at the entertainment, and a chat with my friend the ventriloquist.

HAL

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