Steven Butcher has been bartending his entire adult life — which, at 43, makes him somewhat of an elixir expert. For nearly two decades he’s honed his skills mixing cocktails at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel’s Gate bar.
Butcher arrived in the Netherlands in 2000 from Yorkshire, England, where he spent his university years pulling pints in British bars before heading across the North Sea. Now he calls the quiet seaside village of Sint Maartenszee home, commuting an hour to the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam Schiphol — one of the world’s busiest international airports.
It’s there, in the bustle of The Gate bar, where Butcher serves up martinis and Old-Fashioneds to a majority American clientele. Butcher spoke to Marriott TRAVELER about Amsterdam’s burgeoning craft beer and spirits scene, cocktail trends and one of the area’s best kept coastal secrets.
It's a busy airport. You never know what's going to come through the door. Every day is different — but that's what I like.
You’ve been at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel for more than 17 years. What keeps you there?
It’s a busy airport. There are 50,000 to 60,000 employees working here, and there are so many travelers going through, so it keeps [it] fresh. It’s always a challenge; you never know what’s going to come through the door. Every day is different — but that’s what I like.
It seems a bar inside an airport would have a highly transient clientele. Do you have any regulars?
You’ve got so many new faces coming through, but you’ve also got a small core of regular guests coming once a week, twice a week, over a longer period, and that’s when you build the relationships with them. It’s a nice balance of new people and old faces.
What’s the vibe at The Gate?
It’s in the middle of the hotel at the atrium level right next to the main restaurant. It’s a big, open space. It’s pretty impressive to look at — we just had a refurb, so it’s looking great at the moment. A mix of tables — large tables, high tables, low tables, comfy tables where people can relax. We’ve got a huge big-screen on the wall where we play music videos. We’ve got a great sound system.
Dinnertime and evenings are the main busy period — usually before 8 p.m. we get a rush of people coming in before dinner, and then sometimes it slows down again, and then by 11 p.m. it starts again. We serve until 1 a.m. We’re also doing a lot more food than we used to — we’ve got a nice menu in the bar, as well, so people combine food and drinks. We’ve got a nice wine selection and cocktail list.
What’s your signature drink?
Being a business hotel with a lot of Americans, we concentrate mostly on the classics.
It depends on the season. Being a business hotel [with] a lot of Americans, we concentrate mostly on the classics. They’re very popular — the Old-Fashioned, the martini, the Manhattan.
We also like to be a bit creative and put our own twist on things sometimes; we’re also doing a lot more with gin at the moment. There’s a big gin scene in Amsterdam, so we’re trying to put a good collection of gin drinks on the menu, as well.
I made a beautiful one last autumn. We used a local oaked gin made in Amsterdam [by V2C]; then we mixed it with some apple brandy, some cinnamon, some honey and some apple cider.
It was made for the autumn — a little bit heavier, almost like a liquid apple pie. Brings thoughts of winter, cold nights, grandma — homey kind of drink.
We have another very nice [gin] we use called Bobby’s Dry Gin — it’s also from Holland. We use tonic water, then we put some orange zest, a piece of orange [and] put cloves in it, as well. It gives a nice flavor.
It seems very Dutch inspired. A lot of Dutch desserts have cinnamon, ginger, apples, cloves, sometimes an orange flavor — like Speculoos cookies.
A little bit, yeah — that’s what we’re trying to do a little bit, as well. It’s an international hotel. You walk in, and you could be anywhere in the world, but it’s nice to be able to try to give it a little bit of a Dutch flavor. Let the customers taste a little bit of Holland, if possible.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to use in cocktails?
In the summer we like to use ginger, mint, lime — like a mojito, or something like that, but we put a twist on it. We use good-quality tonics by Fever-Tree to go with the gins that we use.
You see how the gin trade has grown in the last few years; it used to be gin and tonic with a splash of lemon. Now we’re using rosemary, thyme, cucumber, pepper — it’s ever evolving, which is nice.
You mentioned a couple of locally made gins. Is Amsterdam a good place for craft spirits?
It’s getting better at the moment. One of the traditional Dutch drinks is a jenever, a little bit like the precursor to the gin as we know now. In Amsterdam there are a couple of places that are really specializing in making that now.
There are mainly three sorts: There’s a young jenever, which is a clear spirit. Then you have old jenever, which is aged in barrels. Then there’s korenwijn [corn wine] which is the extra-, extra-old jenever.
Then we’ve got the beer, as well.
Other than Heineken, which is an obvious choice, what are some of the best beers?
There’s a small brewery that opened up in Amsterdam a few years ago called Brouwerij, and they’ve been getting really popular. They’re making a lot more varieties of beers than we usually get in Holland; one of them being the IPA. It’s become very popular. [The trend] came over from the States
Then, out on the west coast, there’s a little island called Texel [with a brewery of the same name]; it’s about half an hour sailing from Amsterdam. The last two or three years, you’ve see their products coming onto the mainland. They’ve got some really nice beers.
Any insider information on the cocktail scene beyond the airport?
The hotel is 15 minutes from Amsterdam, so you can there very easily. It’s a small city, so everything is within walking distance once you get there. There’s a couple of bars with great reputations for cocktails. One is Door 74.
Have you got any off-the-beaten-path favorite spots?
If you’re here in the summer and there’s beautiful weather, take the train or the bus out to the beach. We’ve got a beautiful beach, Bloomingdale, not far away, and it’s just full of beach bars.
Not so many of the tourists know about this place — they want to go to the city — but if it’s a beautiful evening, you go to the beach. It’s 15 to 20 minutes away, maybe, and then you’ve got your choice of bars and restaurants with a beautiful view of the sea.
This article was created in partnership with the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel to celebrate the hotel’s 20th anniversary.