There's a thing about Irish whiskey that makes it very...well, Irish actually and because of that definitely a distinct category within the whisky sphere. It was once much more popular than Scottish whisky and it's doing its best to reclaim the title. Teeling Whiskey is relatively new on the field here, but in less than three years it made sure that it's in the vanguard of this Irish comeback. So 17th of March, have some of this and remember: "everyone's Irish tonight!"
Irish whiskey was the first whiskey we ever tasted and as a young lad we fell madly in love, especially with Tyrconnell whiskey. Irish whiskey is very Irish and by that we mean it’s apart, it’s different, it’s special, fuelled with emotion, both harsh and mellow at the same time. Our favourite Irish philosopher has a great description of what Irish people are often seen as, but definitely are not: “We’re not the twinkly eyed f***ers with a pig under our arm who say they will paint your house, but might steal the ladder! That’s only half true!”
Irish comedian Dylan Moran about the Scottish, English and Irish
That poetry and emotion is what makes Irish people in our mind’s eye. And their soul is in their drink. Now back to Teeling. It’s a very young distillery, only a couple years old, putting itself at the forefront of the Dublin Distillery revival and showing it’s serious about this by bearing a phoenix rising from a flaming potstill in its logo.
We received a bottle of the Teeling, Small Batch Whiskey and at first we didn’t quite know what to think of it, but after a few sips we knew: it’s Irish! It’s different, both harsh and sweet, mellow at the same time. Teeling really toys with your tongue here: rum, whiskey, whiskey, rum, what’s going on here? After close examination of the bottle we quickly understood: it has a 6 months finish on rum barrels. A daring (very Irish) move! But it works, I think, at least for me. Bottled at 46% abv, non chill filtered and finished on rum casks this drink both kicks and kisses you at the same time. It has both vanilla, chocolate and grassy, lemony things in it. We like it, it has a personality. It is the kind of bottle that will be empty the 18th of March.
There were lots of tasteful surprises in the box like chocolate, truffles, marmalade and even Jamaican jerky crisps, but the most amazing was the Irish, whiskey smoked, mineral, sea salt. Guess what was the first thing we did with it? Yes, indeed we put a pinch of it in the whiskey! And it’s f***ing amazing, the purest leprechaun blood you ever tasted!
So, have a Teeling on St. Paddy’s and try to chase the snakes away the morning after!
Another gin, you say? Yes, people don't seem to get enough of it. Which recently lead to the quaint discovery that our blood vaguely tastes of juniper. A fact which largely broadened our Transylvanian fanbase by the way. Read below why you should try Steam Gin.
Steam Gin is the product of a unique cooperation between the Van Damme Distillery, Small Distillery Lede and VDS Distillery. And there is at least one reason why we got interested in this gin, namely, it’s distilled by Van Damme Distillery…
Van Damme is better known for its fantastic genever products, especially Balegemsche Graanjenever 54° – aka: Ol’ Blue One. Further more Van Damme distillery is the only farm distillery left in Belgium. We used to have hundreds, but one law and two world wars later, there’s only one left. What’s so special about a farm distillery you wonder? Well, a farm distillery produces its spirits entirely by itself. So everything, except for the bottle, is made on the farm, beginning with the grain. They have one expression which sounds great in Flemish and much less so in English nevertheless I will enrich you with it: “Van de grond tot in de mond!”, translated this becomes: “From the soil to the mouth!”
So, apart from growing, malting and distilling their own grain they also have on or two other special features. They use open fermentation and next to this barrel stands a huge f***ing steam engine that heats their column! It dates from 1862 and was recently completely disassembled, cleaned, lubricated and put together again. It’s quite an impressive sight and it rolls like a dream! It’s also – like you might have guessed – the origin of the name for this gin.
We especially like the bottle design, which is custom created in Italy and took longer than Caesar to arrive in Belgium apparently. The scorched cork and pewter seal are nice details. We couldn’t fathom, though, the need, reason and meaning of the motto: “we saw taste”. It’s only later, when you turn the bottle around, and read the poem on the back of the label that you see the origin – yet still not the reason – for it. In light of good taste we suggest to dispose of the motto, as well as the poem.
The taste is rather good and well balanced, a nice mixture between flower and spice with distinct juniper and cardamom notes. It works very well in G&T with a grapefruit twist, less suitable for Dry Martinis, but surprisingly superb in Negronis and very nice neat over ice. So get steaming!
And you know what they say, an apple a day... Olivier Jacobs from Jigger's (Ghent) wanted to make a spirit that is honest and responsibly made. A product which he followed from apple to bottle. Distilled by Biercée this results in an eau de vie that is an absolute jewel and there's only 2000 bottles...
Olivier really loves apples and right he is, I mean apples are a big deal. Catholics have built their entire faith around it, Newton discovered gravity, the Greeks went to war for more than ten years because of one apple, we have named cities after it and stuff that takes pictures of you! Apples are good!
After all it is not so surprising that at one moment some people are going to stand up and say: “everybody’s making gin, well to hell with that, I’m going to make an apple eau de vie!”. So one year ago some 40 people started to pluck apples from an orchard in Namur and they did an incredible job, because after some calculation Olivier deduced that they must have used around 40.000 apples to make 1000 litres of apple eau de vie! When he said that, I tried to picture that mount of apples and 40 very tiered people.
The apples are from different varieties, but mostly Belle Fleurs, whence the name. They thought of calling it iApple or Eye Apple, but quickly abandoned the – rather cheesy – idea. So Belle Fleur it is and it’s lovely! We’ve always loved apple schnapps, it reminds of winter, snow and après ski get togethers. And God know’s I have left a rib on every piste in Austria that I visited. Speaking of ribs, Eve in the Garden Of Eden shouldn’t have bit the apple, she should have distilled it and probably ended up with Belle Fleur.
It is neat as well as in cocktails and we tasted two examples of it: a wonderful sour with liquorice syrup and a brilliant thirst quenching long drink with ginger and cider.
So, if you like apples – and who doesn’t- you should definitely try to lay your hands on one of those bottles. Cheers!
Every year Maison Ferrand launches a cocktail book in a different city, this book represents the (cocktail) culture and bartender scene of the country the city is located in. It started 5 years ago in Paris, followed by Berlin, London, Singapore, NYC and now Antwerp, Belgium. The good people of Maison Ferrand immediately spotted how surreal our country is and decided without a single drop of hesitation to adopt the famous painter Rene Magritte as inspiration and leading theme.
'Ceci est un cocktail book." was born. Location: Ben Belman's beautiful bar 'Bijou'.
After introductions Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender of Maison Ferrand took the stage. Well, stage is a big word, we cramped him in a corner where at least 75% of the attendees could see him. I mean this bar was filled to the brim with Belgian bartenders… and some press. A few exceptions give or take, I believe that everybody ever mentioned on this blog was there. The place was vibrant with enthusiasm. Just like Mr. Gabriel, this man was on fire. Not literally of course, but he was the proverbial waterfall of passionate fact- and storytelling, all of it interlaced with brilliant quotes. He started off immediately with: ” A good spirit is like a great book. Not a good book. ‘Good’ is not good enough, it has to be memorable!” Meaning that you need not necessary like the spirit, but it has to leave an impression on you. By that he wasn’t referring to splitting headaches, a hole in your tongue or diabetes, but more something like, you know, worth remembering.
When asked to describe Maison Ferrand, he replied: “We’re one of the oldest cognac houses in the world. The family goes as far back as 1610.” Quickly followed by “We’re also a bunch of misfits who like doing things differently!” How exactly? “By don’t sticking to the guns, as a Master Blender I always wanted to revisit the spirits, approach them from a different angle and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish with our little company.”
Don’t walk the beaten path is basically what they’re doing and I love that. Next there was a tasting of their spirit range and we started off with the 1840 cognac (not a bad start don’t you think?). “I love young cognacs… that are made more than a hundred years ago!” said Mr. Gabriel and we couldn’t agree more. If your spirit needs to retire for several generations in a barrel before it starts to resemble something palatable then there must be something wrong with your distillation method. There’s a lot of spirits these days that taste like a wooden plank dipped into some sort of marmalade or fudge, soulless junk in my opinion. Not so with the 1840 cognac, I loved it, it’s all grapes and standing on rolling green hills with the occasional wild flower under a summer sun, finishing with the distant humming of a single bumblebee. For the record, it is not made in 1840, but it is made in the fashion and style of an 1840 cognac (in this case a Pinet Castillon).
Next up was the Cognac Pierre Ferrand with Banyuls finish. Although not our favourite, again a good example of Maison Ferrand ‘doing things differently’ and you gotta love them for it. For ages people thought it was illegal to store cognac in wine barrels, but Alexandre and some other people started to dig in the past and question this. After extensive research they concluded that: “it is legal, but you better not tell anybody.” That’s exactly why they put “Banyuls Finish” on the label… are you beginning to see why I love these people?
The following bottle was a familiar friend: Dry Orange Curaçao. This is amazing, you have to try this, it’s an absolute wonder potion in cocktails, but also nice to taste neat. Somebody once said when asked to describe it that it tastes like Cointreau only less sweet. That does not nearly begin to describe it! Less sweet, sure, but also the cane sugar is toasted and barrel aged and the liqueur is distilled in the same pot still as the cognacs. Taste and try!
Next up Citadelle Reserve Gin. I always liked the Citadel range, it’s straightforward and delivers the goods as a good gin should. Very unlike some of the neo-gins which are described a lot like shampoos containing strawberries and lychee or lapsang and yuzu. That’s not approaching a spirit from a different angle, that’s running away from it. Actually yuzu is in the recipe of Citadelle Reserve, but you know, it’s done differently! Alexandre said: ” a great gin is not a Caesar’s salad!” And right he is. The Reserve is a ‘yellow gin’ , meaning that it’s aged for a while. In this case exactly the amount of time it would take you to smuggle a barrel out of the port of Dunkirk ( in what we now call France, but used to be Flemish and a real pirate hole too) and bring it to London. Why? Because it happened on a regular basis after 1775.
After that it was the Plantation Jamaica 2002, which is a fine rum, very intense. A real slice of Jamaica. And last, but not least, we tasted the famous Plantation Pineapple Rum: Stiggins’ Fancy. It is a rum created by Alexandre Gabriel and none other than David Wondrich. Pineapple rum was already a thing in the 19th century to such extent even that was mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers where a reverend named Stiggins enjoyed a sip of pineapple rum before and after every sermon so to speak. This spirit is an absolute delight, it’s good in cocktails but we equally enjoy it neat. It is made by infusing the skin of Victoria pineapples for one week in Three Star Plantation Rum and afterwards distill it in the pot still. In the meanwhile they have infused the fruit of the pineapple for three months in the Plantation Original Dark, then they marry the two spirits together into Stiggins’ Fancy. Sheer bliss!
The cocktail book, you ask? Well it’s a booklet of a hundred pages long, filled with beautiful pictures by Evy Ottermans and recipes from about every self respecting cocktail bar and their best bartenders in Belgium. A must have, we believe.
As a conclusion I must say that Maison Ferrand is a house that I could call home. It’s small, cozy, visionary and passionate. It rebels, does things differently, producing a unique vision on spirits and a range with character and history. A toast to you, with this fine Plantation Angels Share. Cheers!
No doubt Sipsmith, as a relatively new gin, has earned its place among the classics and will keep it for a long while. Fairfax, Sam and the well known Jared Brown took their first steps into sip smithing with prudence, which also happens to be the name of their first small copper still. A few steps later, due to high demand "Constance" and "Patience" were installed. Make no mistake "the one with the swan" will survive many other 'new' gins.
Smithing a sip, that’s actually where the name comes from, a distiller that creates a drink like a blacksmith would create a fine blade. I had no idea. I, until recently, believed it honestly was somebody’s surname, you know, a Mister Sipsmith… probably connected to the usual story: being somebody from the 19th Century who made a gin everybody forgot about until some seven years ago, when suddenly somebody – with thunder and lightning – discovered the ancient recipe and considered it his sacred duty to reproduce it even though he himself was an IT consultant from Fordwich and could spell distillate as well as Tatcher could spell empathy.
That’s not what happened here! This about three men who want to prudently, constantly and patiently hammer good drinks into life. And they do know a lot, if not everything, about distilling the finest of spirits. And Sipsmith is a fine spirit indeed.
Sipsmith is a London dry in the truest sense of the word. It’s a very traditional and classic London dry, tasting quite dry with hints of citrus and being distilled in London itself. It’s a well balanced gin with a capital G. You know that lovely dry, herbal tartness with juniper and citrus flavours. This gin is like born to make Dry Martinis with, they’re fabulous! And we happily approve of this, for many of these new “gins” are made solely for the purpose of producing a (dreadful) Gin Tonic. We hardly can call those “gins”. Not Sipsmith, Sipsmith is Gin!
If you ever wondered why there’s a swan’s head in the logo, it’s a reference to the ‘swan neck’ copper still they use. Speaking of old swans, the Queen turned 90 recently and everybody knows Lizzy enjoys a good drink, therefor the three at Sipsmith released a limited edition bottle to honour her, draped in imperial purple and with a little Union Jack upon it. The Queen especially loves the following sensation before lunch:
3cl Sipsmith London Dry
stirred over ice
garnish with lemon wheel
The protocol demands to sip it with a majestical gesture!
And please, remember, be prudent and drink responsibly, because if there’s one thing you’d want to avoid it’s being hammered by a sip-smith!
Last week one of the cocktail competitions we judged was the Saint James Cocktail Competition. Fifteen candidates squared off against each other in the lovely ‘La Tricoterie’ in Brussels in the hope of winning one of the great prizes – amongst them one of the last bottles of Saint James 250 for Belgium.
Saint James Rhum is an underestimated product I believe. It is virtually unknown in Flanders (Belgium) even by people who call themselves rum-lovers and that’s a shame, because it is a wonderful product. Saint James is a typical rhum agricole with a very funky character. The very first incarnation of this rhum was called “guildive”, which actually means “Kill Devil” and that is saying something! Relax, it is much less “hellish” now than its 18th century ancestor, but it still carries the heritage. I had the good fortune to be able to visit the picturesque distillery of Saint James on the beautiful tropical island of Martinique and it was there that I really started to understand what rum is in my opinion.
You really can taste the island in its rum. And that’s no illogical thing to say, considering the wild yeasts and the sugar cane. My impression was that they approach their sugar cane like wine grapes, which is also reflected in their rum range with lots of ‘cuvées’ and ‘millésimes’. It makes more sense to me than some brands who try to approach their “rum” as a whisky, you know: ageing it for decades in a gazillion of different barrels hoping something tasty will come out. Knowing that the ageing process in the Caribbean goes at least twice as fast than it does in Scotland, the number on your bottle needn’t be so big. In fact their unaged ‘Coeur de Chauffe’ is one of the best rums I ever drank, that’s a lot of ‘hogo’ in one bottle.
Back to the competition. It was a very colourful competition, a wide spectrum of skillsets performing on stage (or trying to). I especially recall Michel Van Hecke‘s (Thon Hotel) variation on Ti Punch. I like Ti Punch, especially with a good agricole, it’s fun, it’s simple, it tastes great. But instead of going for the simple, lime, cane syrup and rum combo, Michel enthusiastically veered off course with chamomile and cucumber, amongst other things. My first thoughts when listening to him were: “Oh no, the horror!”, but actually it fitted together quite nicely. It was a very original take on the Ti Punch, quite daring, and he received a well deserved third place in the competition.
Another cocktail I liked a lot was the drink made by Cathy Mutis (Boos Bar). It tasted so different from all the other cocktails (i.e. it wasn’t too sweet and/or drowned in fruit juices), it was refreshing, a little sharp even. There was a strange note that went very well with the Saint James, but I couldn’t immediately lay my finger on it. She had used ‘essence de muscade” from Martinique itself! Ah, rum and nutmeg, always a good combo.
And then the winner, Mr. Filoo About from Vagabond Barrr made us a very yummy Tiki in nice glassware with a beautiful garnish. A Tiki with Tonka syrup and Thai bitters served in a skull, we couldn’t say no to that!
And we close this article with a final remark: next time there is a Saint James competition, please allow the competitors to bring their own home made syrups instead of using commercial ones and make it mandatory to use freshly squeezed fruit juices, instead of commercial ones. Saint James Rhum deserves no less.
Belgians like their bitter they say, I say Belgians like everything. True, we love cacao, coffee, endives, sprouts, hops and others but we're also quite fond of our stew and fries, our waffles, genever, anything really. But what if some crazy Belgians said to each other: "what would happen if we put all the bitter stuff we liked into one bottle"? At Biercée distillery they don't back down from a challenge and said: " we can do that"! The result is a delicious "wolf in sheep's clothing": Biercée Bitter, the first Belgian Amaro.
What’s an Amaro
“Amaro” means bitter in Italian and refers to a certain type of herbal liqueur, namely – you guessed it – a bitter one. Traditionally people drank it after a heavy meal to help digestion. And in Italy where your dinner lasts from 17:00 till 02:00 this can be very helpful sometimes.
Is it vermouth
Well yes and no. Amaro can be made with neutral spirit, brandy or wine. When it is wine based it’s often called amaro vermouth, as is also the case with any (very) bitter tasting vermouth. Also vermouth was often taken before dinner (or between) and amaro after dinner… or between dinners depends on how you look at it of course. This kind of culinary confusion quickly led to some very famous cocktails like the Americano, Negroni and others. Which means that vermouth in combination with an amaro is truly a wonderful thing.
Everybody knows at least one amaro
Yes, Campari, the red temptress. But there are countless others like Fernet Branca, Cynar, Averna, Aperol, Montenegro, Martini Bitter, etc, etc…
Fernet is actually kind of a subspecies of Amaro of which Branca is probably the best known.
The idea must have been something like, look we all like chocolate, coffee and endives let’s try to put it all into one bottle and they kind of nailed it. Apparently Belgian endives were a great inspiration and they really tried to make that work, but had to let go in favour of the fruitiness.
Let’s have a look at it. As always with Biercée the design is awesome, I think. Tall, slender bottle, nice art nouveau logo and a fun “see-through-the-bottle” back print (these are quite popular lately, aren’t they?). There are two different bottles: one has a wolf and the other a doe (a female deer). It’s really very nice, less is more, an elegant bottle, a relaxed bottle as it were.
Let’s have a taste. And here it starts, the aroma is not what I expected, it smells like candy and flowers, you know things you don’t associate with bitter. It makes you think of ‘sweet’. That is also what happens first when you taste it. You taste the red fruit first, raspberries and cassis, quite sweet. And just when you think what the hell is this, it changes. Citrus comes through and makes it more and more bitter and drier. Just what you wanted. The whole experience is a continuous flavour explosion in your mouth with a very long after taste. It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, first deceptively sweet and then bitter and dry.
It works like a dream in Negronis, Americanos or Spritz. You can even drink it neat over ice with an orange zest. Cocktail Nation approved!
Mauritian rum brand New Grove chose Belgium's first and foremost Tikitender Tom Neijens from the Drifter to organise a Tiki cocktail competition at Uncle Babe's Burgerbar in Ghent. The result was great fun with an amazing diversity in drinks! It shows how much you can do with rum. Next to the usual suspects there were also quite a few new faces among the competitors and they did a really great job! Alas, to no avail, because Vitas was on fire (almost literally) and combined a spectaculair drink with a fantastic presentation.
New Grove’s got funk, New Grove’s got soul
The island of Mauritius has produced rum since the 18th century, but the New Grove brand is a relatively young player on the field. Tikitender Tom introduced us to the better part of the New Grove range: the Plantation Rums. It’s a lovely rum, well balanced in sweetness, funkiness and fruitiness. The funkiness comes from the typical Mauritian yeast strain and the relatively long fermentation process. I love the funk, it gives soul to the rum. Next to the rums they also make three liqueurs (honey, vanilla and coffee). And you always fear the worst when you have to try a rum based liqueur, more often than not it practically is a syrup with a hint of herbs. Not in this case! Nicely balanced, not too sweet and good aromas. The vanilla for instance is real and comes from the nearby island of Madagascar. The coffee also is very nice, especially when you have to compare it to Kahlua. New Grove is young and groovy, we’ll be hearing a lot more from this brand soon.
The Tiki competition
The lady and gentlemen from the jury for this lovely event were: Flo Harel and Didier Noel from New Grove, Scotty Schuder from The Dirty Dick, a bar in Paris’ red light district and used to be brothel and our own tikitender Tom Neijens from The Drifter, Ghent.
First up was a new face: Ruben Patoor. Considering the fact that this was his first competition he did very well. He presented a Tiki made of rum, guave and amongst other things a white beer from Ghent.
Ran Van Ongevalle from The Pharmacy, Knokke drew inspiration from his recent trip to South East Asia and made us soup, yes, soup. Based upon Tom Kha Kai, a coconut soup from Thailand. He prepared everything in a mortar which also served as the Tiki mug. He concluded the presentation with a pyrotechnical magic trick, which we failed to capture on photo! Great presentation, good drink!
Bruno Simons from Mixing Tales made us breakfast with coffee liqueur and cream in an atypical tiki cocktail.
Yoerie De Schepper, our youngest candidate from L’Histoire d’O, Ostend gave us a fabulous presentation. We will definitely be seeing this guy again very soon! He puzzled 3/4 of the jury with his explanation as to why he had chosen an aged rum: ” My boss used to tell me that if you want to learn how to ride, you have to do it on an old bike!” Which is an English translation of a Flemish expression that has more to do with popping cherries than it has with riding a bike. His cocktail was named “Revenge of the dodo”.
Frederic Geirnaert from Cafe Theatre, Ghent, presented us an exotic concoction in an elephant’s foot. Another first timer who performed very well.
Vitas Van de Cauter from Uncle Babe’s was on fire and blew everybody away with a fantastic presentation and a fabulous drink. He made a “Mount Murr Punch” named after a volcano on Mauritius. He stated quite clearly that “in Tiki the theory of less is more does not count, in Tiki more is…more”. Also his only reason to name the drink after a volcano was because he wanted to put things on fire and so he did. Loved it!
Sofie Ketels from Sofie’s Living Room, Koksijde told us the story of Paradise Vicky and put her drink in a claw! She caramelised nuts in New Grove rum, yummy! Lovely presentation.
Finally there was Mitchell Martin, another new face with a spectacular drink and a lovely garnish.
Well Vitas won this incredibly fun competition and can spend a week on Mauritius sipping rum! If there’s one thing we remember that is the fact that Tiki cocktails are not just rum and fruit juice and that rum is a very versatile product and fire is fun!
To augur the cocktail and spirit trends for 2016 is more like horoscopes, tarot and disembowelling lamb to check their livers for strange spots. It’s not hard science. So instead we take a look at what we saw in 2015 and what we would like to see in 2016, mixed together with what we could possibly see in the future. Also we’re talking mostly about Belgium here and not the UK or USA.
Cocktail bars are slowly shedding their retro vibe
So less bowties and suspenders walking around in 1930’s speakeasies or 1920’s flapper parties, chique American Bars or Café de Paris. I still love those bars, most of them are great. In my opinion it is exactly the same thing as the old Tiki bars, where they wanted to transport you to a Polynesian island and experience a tropical vacation without leaving town. The speakeasies and retro bars want to transport you back into time and serve you 19th century cocktails in a 1930’s bar. And we enjoy that very much.
It is logical that we took a few steps back into time to relearn what cocktails, hospitality and bartending are, considering the republishing of Jerry Thomas’ recipes and the beginning of the cocktail renaissance. But after these few steps back, we’re ready to lunge forward and actually interesting times are ahead of us to see and observe the new concepts of cocktail bars that are coming. The signs were already there for a while, like for instance the influence of star restaurants which introduced new techniques, products, textures, etc… or pre batched cocktails on tap or the “highballisation” of drinking culture. You name it. One thing remains definite: the future brings new things. Sometimes so fast that we start to wonder whether the greater public will be capable in keeping up. Or will it be reserved for the few who always remain hip & trendy? The question brings us to our next observing.
Less classy, more dive bars
Don’t get me wrong, classy is fun too. It doesn’t necessarily equals stiff and boring. I can really enjoy a classy bar with waiters and bartenders dressed in starched white bowing to you in humble servitude fixing your drink with ice-cold perfection like they were performing a hart surgery. On the other hand I also love the more upbeat bars, where everything is pleasantly chaotic and the bartender looks like a tattooed hermit covered in locusts, preparing your cocktail like an Italian chef would make his personal pasta recipe. As long as the drinks, the service, the atmosphere and the company are good, people will normally enjoy themselves. All the rest depends on moods and preferences.
Interesting to notice is the fact that three of the last bars that opened here in 2015-16 are a distinct move away from the “classy” ones. You got the Dirty Rabbit – former (classy) Josephine’s – a rock n roll cocktailbar, then there are the two side projects of Jigger’s: Pony’s and Ganzerik. Pony’s is a ‘no brand’ cocktailbar with about 8 cocktails on the menu – if I remember correctly – all of them 10€. And Ganzerik is more like a local pub with beer, local food and simple cocktails. It’s on my top to visit list. All three have one thing in common: they scream “cocktails are for everybody”! And they’re absolutely right.
Considering the cocktail renaissance it’s a logical step in my opinion. Before that cocktails were nothing more than spiked lemonades and we needed to convince ourselves and the public that there was more to it than that. That a bartender was more than an underpaid school dropout, but somebody with a particular set of skills and knowledge who can do more than just fix you sickly sweet shit. That bartending is about serving people and making a visit to a bar an entire experience. Actually an entire drinking-culture became reinvented and we brought back from America and the UK: Speakeasies, pre-prohibition bars, bowties, suspenders, tattoos and awesome drinks. Amazing concepts and experiences were created, we still love them all. (cf the first observing above)
Actually the bartenders and cocktailians did their best so hard that it scared some people away (apparently) who thought it was too classy for them or misunderstanding that most of those “bar rules” are written in great fun and mostly mere suggestions. (The bartender is not going to flip a shotgun from under the counter and shoot your head off when you start talking into your cell phone. He might do that in his mind, you see but he’s not going to spit in your drink. If the conversation is a hindrance to other customers he will ask you to continue your phone call on the terrace or something.) Some people got scared that they would misbehave in some way or another. Or think it’s just for the rich people, it’s too expensive (those people prefer to sip on their Malibus, Pisangs and Safaris somewhere else).
I actually remember one person who asked the oft repeated question: “where can I get a good cocktail?”, I answered by naming and describing a well known Belgian cocktail bar whereupon she interrupted me, gasping: “Oh, no! That’s the bar where you have to ring the door and then they put you in the cellar!” I replied: “Well you make it sound horrible, but it’s actually quite enjoyable. They’re the nicest people with the best drinks you can imagine!” Large hazel eyes stared at me in doubt and disbelief. “Am I not underdressed for the place?”, she squeaked. My turn to blink in disbelief at the late twenty-something lady, my eyes snapped 160cm down and back up again. “Look, you don’t have to worry about that at all, nobody has to, actually. You can walk in there sporting a mohawk, 21 different face piercings and a stench-core punk shirt and they will still serve you!”.
And I heard more comments like that on cocktail bars in general. These people are mistaking obviously, but it doesn’t stop the bartender/owner – creative as he/she is – to think about some solution. And the “solution” is simple: create a “normal” dive, beer, people, music bar and serve cocktails too, apply everything you’ve learned about hospitality and tada! I think Attaboy in New York was the first to come up with the idea one or two years ago and now it’s here. Here end the two most important observings, what follows are just a few points you should remember.
Low alcohol cocktails will continue
Yes they will. We’re practically forced to. Considering insane taxations on spirits and the delusional political opinion that when you’ve had 2 ounces of navy strength rum you’ll step into your four-wheeled killing machine and mow down an entire village. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against low alcohol cocktails, I love them, but I just hate the reason why people tremble in fear at high or even normal proof spirits. It’s not their fault though… money is. Anyways, there’s a lot of creative and exquisite low alc cocktails around now, so you can safely drink two or three.
Not another gin
I’m sorry, but I’m good with what’s on the market and frankly there’s so much derivative work that they’re almost making categories for it. Remember how we f***ed up genever?
In regards to gin, I don’t want a vodka that smells like bath salts or potpourri. I don’t want a miscreant distilled from the garbage they even wouldn’t dare to give to cattle mixed up with a dozen disgusting aromatic oils to – literally – cloud the bad base product in the first place. “Here’s shit covered in flowers, thank you for your 40€!”. I want juniper berries and a few other botanicals in a smooth distilled product made from quality grain. But that’s just my opinion… you know, Gin! Not something else. I love the few beer distillations that are going round, but please, stop calling them gin! It’s not. Invent another name, another kind of spirit, maybe?
They call it the new tonic, well f*** you, it isn’t. It’s ginger ale. And it’s good. And more and more companies are creating their own, which is good. But if somebody starts to add flowers or whatever to it to create “that very distinct and unique ginger ale” then please reconsider. Ginger ale is a fantastic product and you can make great cocktails with it.
Mezcal and tequila will keep their steady, slowly rise. There’s a recent book by Kobe Desmet and Isabelle Boons that introduces you to this spirit if you want to know more about it. Mezcal is amazing and a bartenders favourite for over two years now.
This is something I’d like to see in bars in the future. Just a single spirit, a little tweaked up regarding the taste of the customer. I started doing this with genever, stirred a few seconds over ice and served straight up with a lemon twist and a scrape of nutmeg. It’s amazing and you can think of thousands of variations using any spirit you have. It’s well worth a try.
Sometimes you really start wondering, seeing these countless and delicious variations and dedications. Quite a few people go very extreme in this, resulting in the unavoidable remark by someone: “is this still a Negroni?”. The question is, if not, what is then? The answer must be sought in its clouded and disputed origin…
The official recipe as we all know, is equal measures of gin, Campari and red vermouth. And logically, when we want to make a variation on it we start to substitute one of the ingredients for another. starting with the spirit, this resulted quickly in rum Negronis, whisky Negronis, bourbon Negronis, cognac Negronis, genever Negronis and so on. Next we switch Campari for other amaro like Cynar or Averna or others. Finally we can change the vermouth from red to dry, white or even use quinquinas and other stuff. Also measurements can be adapted, bitters can be added, glasses can be rinsed, perfume or smoke can be used, etc, etc…
Actually it is fantastic to see this unbridled, unlimited passionate creativity of bartenders playing around with this famous Italian aperitif cocktail. Recently we had the BeNeLux Negroni Competition organised by Campari and even though the jury contained several very experienced Negroni lovers like Salvatore Calabrese en Mauro Mahjoub, it must have been very difficult reaching a decision on the winner (in this case Sofie Ketels from Sofie’s Living Room, De Panne, Belgium) seeing and tasting all these different and delicious Negroni styles. But what when you encounter a recipe in a book, that contains gin, sherry and Galliano; then you really start to wonder, delicious as it might be, is this still a Negroni? And if not, why then?
We recently had the good fortune to attend a workshop concerning the famous Negroni cocktail. The workshop was given by the great Luca Picchi from Florence, Italy, who wrote a hefty 221 pages about the Negroni, focussing on its origins. We like the book a lot, we read it with pleasure and delight and eventually learned and deduced something that was new for us about the origin of this iconic cocktail.
Most of you already know the origin of the Negroni, featuring the famous Count who gave his name to this delicious red libation. Camillo Negroni probably was indeed the original reason for the creation of the cocktail. There are pictures of him drinking (a Negroni?) at Casoni Café and more importantly there is a letter, dating 1920, from a friend who advises him not to drink more than 20 ‘Negronis’ a day. This letter actually proves that there was a drink in 1920 named after him. Much more interesting is: what’s in it and how did it became to be (the drink, not the letter) in the first place?
‘Americano’ is not just one cocktail
The popular story is that count Camillo, whilst in Florence, walked into Casoni’s and asked Fosco Scarselli, the bartender, to…erm…”spike” his ‘Americano’. Now here the story starts. I always thought the actual Americano cocktail was meant here and only to be told later that it was in fact a Milano-Torino, which was called Americano afterwards (so they say) due to the high popularity with Americans (tourists, businessmen or soldiers you can choose between stories here). In my strictly personal opinion ( I do not claim this to be the absolute truth, it’s just a theory of mine) he did not mean the actual Americano cocktail. Americano just means ‘American style’ and refers to the then rather new fashion of mixing one drink with others. That is what we’ve learned from Luca Picchi.
The drink in this case probably just being vermouth, which was extremely popular in Italy at that time. “American style” meant ‘the way they drank drinks in America’ and the very popular ‘American bars’ in Europe. So it probably has nothing to do with American soldiers after the war – a story which I hear and read frequently. Americano was probably nothing else than saying “cocktail” in Italian. You know, mixed with a spirit or amaro over ice. That information was new for me.
Vermouth as a base
So Camillo probably ordered a simple Italian vermouth (which was extremely popular by then), but had it made American style to strengthen it. The bartender, Fosco Scarselli, chose gin and then Camillo himself chose to add some bitters – Campari most probably – and thus created his signature drink. We deduce this out of an interesting interview with Fosco himself in 1962 about the Negroni. He (Fosco) literally says: “I added a few drops of gin to fortify the drinkand then the count had the habit of adding a few drops of bitters“.
Eventually other guests at Casoni were curious and also ordered an Americano ( meaning, I think, as much as ‘vermouth cocktail’ or just ‘cocktail’ in general), Negroni style. And so the birth of one of the most famous cocktails in history came to be. I think the story is very credible knowing that the count spend more than seven years in the USA in the exact ‘golden age of cocktail making’ before he came back to Florence and ordered his drink. Also, the vermouth back then, was served in small liquor glasses (about 1 or 1,5 oz), which explains the “drops” of gin and bitters and the sentence in the letter that warns him not to drink more than 20 of it each day. Also when you consider his words, he says he adds two things (gin and bitters) to something he didn’t mention. Something so obvious that he needn’t mentioning it and I think that’s vermouth.
And the story of Gaspare Campari who made his famous red amaro “americano” to make it more palatable and trendy for the Milanese high rollers at that time is a different story that eventually converged into the Negroni drink. The theory makes sense, I think, also considering the way Negronis are made today. By which I mean all the variations on it. What really defines a Negroni? Is it the gin? Surely not, it is the first thing they replace by something different. Is it Campari? Although most Negronis are made with it, it can also be made with other bitters and even though chances are high that the first one was made with it, we’ll never know for sure.
So actually it’s two different kinds of Americano coming together: one being gin + vermouth, the other being: amaro + vermouth. Of which the common element is the vermouth. In the end it gives us our answer to the question as to what defines a Negroni. In my opinion it is – very simply like the recipe says – a combination of spirit, vermouth and amaro. May you break this rule and create something else? Sure! Can you call it a Negroni? Well, it’s a free country, so you can call it whatever the hell you want, as long as it tastes good. Because, no matter how many Negroni “families” you create, the real Negroni will always be remembered as equal measures of London Dry, Campari and red vermouth.
Speaking of Negroni families… how about the other count Negroni? You know, General Pascal Olivier de Negroni, which one of them is the real Count? Well, why does one of them have to be fake? It is perfectly possible. A letter written by Pascal mentions a vermouth cocktail which was received well by the other officers. Perfectly possible, although it would be interesting to know more about the ingredients.
In the end it doesn’t really matter who invented the drink, eventually somebody somehow would have come up with gin, Campari and red vermouth. You know, I prefer ‘countless’ Negronis over Count Negroni, any time.