Category Archives: Cocktailbar

Lounges, cafés en cocktailbars in België.

Campari soon opens new piazza of pleasure in Antwerp: Gaspare La Piazza Dell’Aperitivo

We were invited into an old courtyard right in the centre of medieval Antwerp where Campari will open a new bar on May 5th called: Gaspare La Piazza Dell’Aperitivo. The moment we set foot in it, we fell in love with it. Tucked away from the commercial chaos of the city and her typical traffic infarct this courtyard offers the ultimate sensory experience of a relaxing aperitivo time.

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And they take this quite literally, sensory experience, we mean. Professor Doctor Malaika Brengman from Brussels University VUB, was asked to turn the courtyard into a real Italian piazza of pleasure. So every flower, plant, colour, texture, sounds or scent you might experience is especially there to relax and re-energize you, all in Italian style.

Famous bartenders and Campari Ambassadors Jan Van Ongevalle and his daughter Hannah Van Ongevalle from The Pharmacy, Knokke, designed two Campari cocktails especially for Gaspare Bar and apart from that you can of course enjoy what is now definitely this summer’s drink: the Negroni and a refreshing Campari Tonic.

Also aperitivo is nothing without food, so antipasti will be plentiful!  There will even be a shop where you can buy everything you need to aperitivo at your own place.

One more thing, when you’re in that courtyard sipping your Negroni, imagine that maybe – just maybe – 400 years ago the famous owner of this place might have sat at a table on that very same spot, discussing art and paintings with some Italian visitors…

Open from May 5th until June 30th, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Doors open from 16:00h till 22:00h.

Reyndersstraat 6, Antwerp Belgium

Ciao!

 

 

The Torino Temple of aperitivo returns to Belgium with a spectacular lineup of Negronis

Last year in Ghent, Martini's Caffè Torino was a happy discovery for many visitors. The Italian style aperitivo bar focussed uniquely on Martini's recent re-interpretation of vermouth accompanied by succulent side dishes. In short, a place where you inevitably lost track of all time, aperitivo all night long! This year, 30th of March until the 24th of April, Torino lands in Antwerp transformed into a total Negroni bar with a dozen different style Negronis. Torino's opening night features none other than Naren Young from Dante NYC (voted one of the 50st best bars in the world) behind the bar.

Ever tried Martini’s Rubino and Ambrato vermouth? You should, they’re great. Ever tried a Negroni made with one of them? You should, they’re great! If Negroni is your thing you should definitely visit Caffè Torino – the first Belgian Negroni Bar – this April in Antwerp, here’s why:

Caffè Torino - Martini - Gent, Belgium - 28/06/2016
Well, she’s not the (only) reason, but it helps doesn’t it? 😉

Negroni around the world

‘Play with time’ is one of Torino’s mottos and they take this quite literally. They asked 6 famous bartenders to produce their signature Negroni for the menu of Torino. 6 Famous bartenders from 6 different countries…6 different time zones even. Get the gist?

Including Naren Young from New York, you will be able to choose a Negroni from Chili, Bologna, Indonesia, Dubai or Singapore. I can’t wait to try a Negroni Singapori! It sounds delicious. The Negroni, of course, is a very versatile cocktail. So much, actually that we’ve asked ourselves before what really does make a Negroni, a Negroni? At the very least we’re expecting a lot of diversity. Now, apart from these great international Negroni twisters, there’s also part of our Belgian pride, happy to conjure the Count’s favourite libation.

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Pretty sure this is Bologna! 😉 Daniele Dalla Pola serving his Bolognesi. Beware people, at first the people from Bologna conquered the world with spaghetti, now with Negroni!

Belgian Negroni of The Future

Since Torino lands in Antwerp, they have asked 4 Belgian bartenders to come up with their interpretation of “the future Negroni”. So each week the menu will feature one Belgian special made by: Charly Lebrun (Bistro Des Anges), Didier Van den Broeck (Dogma), Jurgen Lijcops (Bar Burbure) or Manuel Wouters (SIPS). I’m always very curious about “future” interpretations considering how much so many classics have changed over time. Indeed, as far as my opinion is concerned the current recipe we use today for a Negroni is definitely not the recipe from the 1920’s. So trying to project today’s recipe into the future is definitely not easy. Then again it’s always fun to see the bartender’s creativity gone wild.

There’s food and it’s Italian!

Now this should be self explanatory. It’s food and it’s Italian. If you don’t like Italian food there must be something wrong with you, really, you fell down the stairs and can’t chew properly anymore or something. You took on a hobby of fire eating and torched your tongue or it was removed by terrorists during your annual holiday in Aleppo. Italian food is great and if it only resembles a tiny bit of last year’s food, it will be delicious! Pulpo for the win!! Food is provided for by Francesco & Julia, two well known ‘Italo-Antwerpians‘!

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The battle was fierce, but in the end she won! Pulpo, Caprese with filled tomatoes and I think chestnut and mushroom cream on toasted ciabatta. This was absolutely delicious!

1600

That’s basically the only thing you should remember. It’s the opening hour of the bar, 16:00hrs. The adres is 2 Sint-Antoniusstraat, Antwerp. We’ll be there at the opening night, if you want to meet me, I’ll be the guy with 7 different Negronis and a plate full of pulpo in front of him, tasting and tasting and tasting and tasting… 😉 Yummy!

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If you’re lucky you might get an invitation like this.

Negroni Wars

On a sidenote and for those interested, we notice a possible upcoming Negroni War here. In the red corner you have Gruppo Campari, being the first brand claiming the Negroni as their own and in the blue corner you now have Bacardi-Martini deducing (somehow correctly) that if an amaro can claim a cocktail, so can the vermouth in it! Please people, let personal taste prevail, so do we and nobody stops you from being a diplomat and make your Negroni with Rubino and Campari!

Practical information

Caffè Torino

Sint-Antoniusstraat 2, Antwerp

Thursday 30th of March – Sunday 23rd of April

Open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 16:00

Including Shopping Sunday (2nd of April)

Ciao and cheers!

 

Bijou Bar (Antwerp), timeless perfection

Bijou, a diamond in the rough? No, it's definitely well cut and polished! A hidden jewel then? No, not really hidden, just rather modest. This bar created by cocktailian veteran, Ben Belmans and the bearded ginger sultan of drinks, Dieter Van Roy is a sparkling stone amongst pebbles! Even so that - not entirely unexpected - it won a Venuez Hospitality Award for Best Belgian Cocktailbar, within one year of its own existence.

As a young dad I can assure you that a babyless evening out feels like a million holidays. So after finishing off several bottles of milk we dropped our beloved baby daughter into the care of her grandmother, promising not to be late again to pick her up, etc, etc…

We set course for Antwerp and putting the pedal to the metal we arrived there without major traffic incidents (apparently that only happens when we have to take the baby to the doctor). Upon arrival in the big city, the adrenaline started to kick in, not a word was spoken, tension filled the cockpit, four eyes locked on both sides of the road, the 1000 yard stare, like a soldier in a trench. We were trying to find a parking spot and as we all know finding a parking spot in Antwerp is “damnation without relief”. It all comes down to luck, so we came prepared: I had put three horseshoes in the glove compartment, two rabbit’s feet on the rearview mirror, we were chewing four-leaf clover whilst throwing salt over our shoulder and before departure I had kicked a goblin in the nut sack, just to be sure.

And lo! A parking spot! After checking GPS, no more than 10 yards from the Bar itself, how lucky can you get (on a Saturday night in the City)? In gratitude I slaughtered a black hen, singing blessings to the entire Babylonian pantheon.

We were on a tight schedule: less than two hours for the bar and then off to the restaurant where we had booked a table (booking tables on a Saturday in Antwerp is “damnation without much hope for relief”). My wife inquired on the proximity and exact location of the bar, I decidedly pointed my finger at two lamps, a billboard and a glass door with a logo, “there it is”. As I said it’s not hidden, but very modest. You could just walk past it and never know you’ve passed the doorstep of Bijou.  It kind of fits the personality of the bar, I think. Bijou is like the mysterious femme fatale, seductive but taciturn or the tall, dark stranger burning a match to light your cigarette.

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Look at these beautiful titular fixings! Sheer libations bliss! And the crisps are quite nice too.

We entered and made our way to the bar through a corridor lined with seats and tables, empty now, all occupied within three hours from my visit. I always try to visit bars early in the evening, you know within one or two hours after opening. It’s a special atmosphere, like greeting somebody at the breakfast table or watching a person waking up. You can discover a lot of the bar’s personality at that moment and it’s much easier to have a chat with the bartender.

At the far end of the corridor was the bar. The rather dark room bathed in a golden light, as if a fireplace was burning. And with the cold outside that was a welcome sight. We were welcomed with smiles and polite gestures towards a table. Our coats were taken and we were offered a glass of water. Then there was the menu and with it came a large circular card.

The menu is filled with classics and a few personal inventions like the Lazy Red Cheeks – which actually has become a classic a long while ago – and the Geraldine amongst others. What struck me immediately is that there is a large list of bottle-aged cocktails. Now we all know the small hype a while ago to barrel age everything, which was nice for some cocktails, but in many cases unnecessary or even uncalled for. I remember some very nice barrel-aged Negronis. But bottle-aged is rather uncommon and in these quantities unseen before. One also wonders: how does it taste, what difference does it make?

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The bottle aged El Presidente and Geraldine.

We decided to ask the bearded drinks wizard who joined us at the table. He answered us that besides the taste, there were several other reasons to go for bottle ageing. Taste wise the cocktail becomes very smooth and has a rounder, more intense taste. Apart from that, it is bottled months ago so you can serve cocktails extremely quick. That’s why there’s two huge freezers besides the backbar. They’re filled with glasses that already have iceballs in them, so basically you just take out a glass, open a bottle of cocktail, pour in the requested quantity, give it a little stir, garnish on top et voila! And finally, in the not too distant future, they think of selling the bottled cocktails commercially.

Sounds like a plan to me. Now we were curious about the taste of course. There was Cuban music playing and since Castro had passed away recently my wife decided to go for the El Presidente. I chose the Geraldine, from the description this looked amazing: Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Sherry, Amaro Montenegro and other ingredients. Perfect for me. The drinks arrived in no time, really immediately. And frankly, they’re excellent! Super smooth, like silk almost. Great and enduring rich taste.

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Dieter Van Roy, conjuring a custom drink for your favourite author, based on Vida Mezcal.

I had to ask Dieter: ” don’t you really become quite bored when you pour everything from one bottle?”

“No, not really. We’re not limited to our menu and can make custom cocktails for our guests too, depending on their likes and taste. So in the quieter moments you can see me shaking and stirring quite often.”

“So, it’s actually the best of both worlds. When it’s busy you can serve extremely fast and when it’s quiet you can freewheel all that you want?”

“Basically, yes.”

“What’s with the circular menu card?”

“It’s actually our range of exclusive spirits and wines. As you can see they are sold by the centilitre. This way you can taste a very exclusive whisky, bourbon or rum for example, without burning a hole in your wallet.”

“Or instead of a regular sized one, you can go for several smaller samples.”

“Indeed.”

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See the colour of the light? Now imagine it’s freezing outside and this bearded spirits sorcerer is making you a hot buttered rum.

There’s also a separate  ‘fumoir’ where you can enjoy the finest cigars and they do serve a delicious platter of finger food!

As a final remark about Ben Belmans and Dieter Van Roy’s Bijou Bar – and it summarises everything actually: we didn’t want to leave! It’s cosy, comfortable and timeless, plus the drinks are near to perfection and so is the hospitality!

Four and a half skulls out of five, well done Bijou! Cheers!

Maison Ferrand & The Launch Of The Belgian Cocktail Book

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.

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Mr. Alexandre Gabriel, Master Blender and Owner of Maison ferrand. This man is very high spirited!

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).

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Tasting in progres

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.

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After the tasting all the bartenders jumped behind the bar and made their cocktail from the book. Here from left to right: Ben Belmans (Bijou), Olivier Jacobs (Jigger’s), Vitas Van de Cauter (Uncle Babe’s)

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!

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Bruno Simons (Mixing Tales) and Ran Van Ongevalle (The Pharmacy).

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!

 

 

 

Trends and tipular fixings for 2016

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.

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So, less of this, although these people rock!!!

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.

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The Ganzerik, cocktails for everybody (and craft beer and food and good service and happiness and …).

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.

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The “future” and cocktails beautiful pictures, featuring Pony’s by Jiggers Ghent.

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?

Ginger ale

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.

Agave drinks

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.

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Easy written and complete information on your favourite agave spirits

Single serves

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.

What really makes a Negroni, a Negroni?

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…

photographs by Bart D'Hooge Nullam Microwaveum

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?

Lucca Picchi serving a Negroni to two eagerly grabbing hands
Lucca Picchi serving a Negroni to two eagerly grabbing hands

Luca Picchi

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.

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Campari Sodas at Camparino in Milano

A letter

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?

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Camparino

‘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.

A fantastic Negroni variation in MAG bar in Milano the rim of the glass has been garnished with cacao powder
A fantastic Negroni variation in MAG bar in Milano the rim of the glass has been garnished with cacao powder

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 drink and then the count had the habit of adding a few drops of bitters“.

MAG bar @ Milano
MAG bar @ Milano

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.

Campari ‘Americano’

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.

2 Americano’s

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.

Luca Picchi's Coffee Negroni
Luca Picchi’s Coffee Negroni

Negroni families

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.

Negroni Sbagliato @ Bar Basso where it was invented and made by the son of the inventor. These glasses were huge! More like vases.
Negroni Sbagliato @ Bar Basso where it was invented and made by the son of the inventor. These glasses were huge! More like vases.

Countless Negronis

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.

Cheers!

 

Chambers of The Curious – a hot new Hendrick’s bar in the heart of Brussels

Located in the beautiful ‘La Pharmacie Anglaise’ and decorated by Max Colombie of ‘Oscar And The Wolf’ Hendrick’s ‘Chambers of The Curious’ really aced its Pythonesque revelry of ‘The Weird’. Also seeing that team behind the bar gives us clear evidence that the big train of Brussels Mixology is slowly starting to roll.

The place is absolutely beautiful, inside and outside. The building is actually a 19th century neo-gothique pharmacy designed by famous architect Paul Saintenoy for a famous Belgian pharmacist who sold chocolate as a medecine (he is now better known for his cooky factory that still bears his name: Delacre). If Mr Delacre would be able to see what has become of his fabulous pharmacy, he wouldn’t mind at all! The outside of the building looks like it was ripped out of a Disney movie, complete with a woman living on the upper floor who likes to chat with mirrors. The inside is warm, cosy and f***ing crowded if you arrive on a Friday night at 21hrs.

There's stairs an' rooms everywhere
There’s stairs an’ rooms everywhere

There’s an unusual labyrinthine feeling about the place, there’s always another door leading to another stairs leading to another room. An unusual experience especially since every room seems to be filled with a mixture of objects which obviously must have belonged to Mary Shelly, Terry Gilliam or an extraordinary successful cucumber producer. Some of the rooms had weird experiments going on… “Should I like to be tested?” “No, sir, thank you! I’ll try my luck at the bar!”

You set off looking for the lavatory and they send you to this...sorry mate, thought you said the laboratory
You set off looking for the lavatory and they send you to this…sorry mate, thought you said the laboratory

The bar is obviously located in the former pharmacy’s shop, complete with wooden cabinets and balcony. Behind the stick were two familiar faces, good bartenders, who both competed in the Belgian World Class Competition: Alexis Mosselmans and Ennio Campanaro. Energy, enthusiasm and 100% passion for the Craft. They form such a dynamic duo that I hereby baptise them “The Sultans of Sling” (sling is not a typo, but a type of cocktail if you were wondering). It is good to see the Brussels Cocktailbar Scene flowering and producing specimens like Alexis and Ennio. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more and more cocktailbars very soon in Brussels.

Alexis Mosselmans, original photo by Laetitia Bica.
Alexis Mosselmans, original photo by Laetitia Bica.
Ennio Campanaro, together they're the "Sultans of Sling"
Ennio Campanaro, together they’re the “Sultans of Sling”

Do go and visit, you have the chance until the end of October. It is located at Coudenberg 66, Brussels, a stone’s throw away from the Central Station. If you want to have yourself tested make an appointment.

Hendrick's -Chambers Of The Curious - La Pharmacie Anglaise, Brussels, Belgium
Hendrick’s -Chambers Of The Curious – La Pharmacie Anglaise, Brussels, Belgium
Hendrick's -Chambers Of The Curious - La Pharmacie Anglaise, Brussels, Belgium
Hendrick’s -Chambers Of The Curious – La Pharmacie Anglaise, Brussels, Belgium

Hendricks-COTC-BXL0577_Marc Mathieux Hendrick's_0825

Cheers!

Flemish Food Bash is World’s Best Restaurant & Cocktailbar, but only for 1 day.

Ever dined in a 25 star restaurant? No? Well, neither have I, but if you're free on the 5th of July 2015, you can! A grand total of 40 chefs, together good for 25 Michelin stars and no less then 20 bartenders from the top 50 best bars in the world will gather at Oostduinkerke Beach in Belgium and seduce you with what is probably the most sensual food & booze orgy on the globe.

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It says Flemish Food Bash, but it’s not only Flander’s finest you will meet. Actually it’s quite the international crowd. An impressive global line up which turns this event in a must visit for anybody who can chew. Apart from star chefs and top bartenders, there’s also baristas, butchers, bakers and beers galore to fulfil every “burgundian” fantasy you’ve ever had.

They're from everywhere, even Greenland if you please!
They’re from everywhere, even Greenland if you please!

Let’s have a look at the bartenders:

Jigger’s, Belgium

The Pharmacy, Belgium

Marian Beke from The Nightjar, UK

Erik Lorincz from The Savoy, UK

Steve Okhuysen, Old Fashioned, Belgium

Sofie Ketels, Belgium

Didier Van den Broeck, Dogma, Belgium

Maxim Kilian, The Parlour, Germany

Roman Milostivy, Chainaya, Russia

Paul Morel, Belgium

Rémy Savage, Little Red Door, France

Gegam Kazarian, Kazaris Project, Spain

Steve Schneider, Employees Only, USA

Jurgen Nobels, Belgium (winner of Diageo World Class Belgium 2015)

Laura Schacht, Hiding In Plain Sight, Netherlands

Zoltan Nagy, Boutiq’Bar, Hungary

Gobo Hansen, Ruby, Denmark

Julia Momose, Green River, USA

Massimo Stronati, The Doping Club, Italy

Matthew Bax, Trink Tank, Austria

Check out that list, quite impressive isn’t it! And if you don’t know them then come down and meet them, because you should (especially if you’re into cocktails).

Prices for the food or a cocktail are ridiculously low, because the whole thing is a not for profit event. The value for them is to watch and learn from each other…and a killer party of course.

Well, you know where I will be on the 5th 😉

P.S. There’s also barbers, hairstylists, tattoo artists, cheese aficionados, patissiers and street artists, … Chances are very high people won’t recognise you anymore after ‘the bash’.

Flemish Food Bash

More information on:

 

http://www.flemishfoodbash.com

5th of July, Oostduinkerke Beach, Belgium

12:00 – 06:00hrs

Tickets: 30€

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Jigger’s will be jamming with the best of the world!

Belgium's best cocktailbar Jigger's has invited 4 worldstar bartenders - each belonging to a bar from amongst the top 50 best bars in the world - for a two day guestbartending. This is your chance to meet the best of the best in the world and compare cocktail culture from Italy, Moscow, Chicago and Amsterdam with Ghent, Belgium.

Jigger’s (in The Cocktail Nation currently known as: “The Black Panther Club” and their bartenders as “The Bagheera Boyz” 😉 ) has a special program for you on Wednesday the 1st and Thursday the 2nd of July 2015. And if you like cocktails (even modestly) you should grab this chance to meet the best of Milan, Amsterdam, Chicago and Moscow’s bartenders.

The Bagheera Boyz
The Bagheera Boyz from Jigger’s. Left to right: Jesse, Olivier, Benji and Robin.

Wednesday 1st of July

Massimo Stronati, The Doping Club, Milano

This fine gentleman will do the “Italian Job” at Jigger’s and that doesn’t mean running away with your paintings in a Mini Cooper… it will be a Ferrari at least. Massimo will show you how Milan, a city with hundreds of years of fine drinking experience, stands tall amongst the greatest in the world.

The Doping Club will fix you up at Jigger's
The Doping Club will fix you up at Jigger’s

Danil Nevsky, Tales & Spirits, Amsterdam

Daddies don’t bring your daughter to the slaughter! This Scottish raised Russian gentleman has a reputation to be the honey to your bumblebees. This man tickles all your senses with the fantastic drinks he makes at Tales & Spirits in Amsterdam, voted one of the best 50 bars in the world. Don’t miss him at jigger’s.

Nevsky pouring his magic.
Nevsky pouring his magic.

Thursday 2nd of July

Julia Momose, The Office, Chicago

This passionate lady can make hurricanes disappear by just smiling at them. She recently worked in The office, a speakeasy hidden inside of the famous Aviary in Chicago. I don’t know about you, but I am very excited to meet her and taste one of her drinks.

Julia Momose will represent Chicago at Jigger's. Photo by Hanna Lee Communications
Julia Momose will represent Chicago at Jigger’s. Photo by Hanna Lee Communications

Roman Milostivy, Chainaya, Moscow

Moscow’s China Town is a very special place and this wizard of tea and cocktails know why. This charming bartender like no other knows how to mix two worlds in a glass.

Roman mixes equal parts of Russia and China.
Roman mixes equal parts of Russia and China.

 

 

See you at Bagheera’s… I mean Jigger’s!

Hortense, Cocktails & Spirits – Brussels, Belgium – a review

It is not easy to find a good cocktailbar in Brussels and frankly, I have never been able to put the finger on the reason why. We have several hotel bars, some of which you should certainly check out and some of them you should never "check in", but a real craft cocktailbar in Brussels, we thought, didn't exist. Until I stumbled into Hortense's cavernous delights.

So we were happily strolling around on the Zavel Square in Brussels when we saw this small grey sign on the wall of a big old white mansion. It read: “H Hortense Spirits & Cocktails”. The name did ring a bell – but a far too distant one and only once – and I was very much intrigued. It said “Spirits & Cocktails” and not, like you would expect in Brussels, “lounge”. There’s something decisive and direct about it, “look pal, it’s spirits & cocktails, that’s it!”

candles everywhere
candles everywhere

 

Speakeasy and candlelights

Something told me that I shouldn’t be afraid seeing parrots puzzled together from pineapple pieces dying a diabetic death in a sugar laced, eye-frying, fluorescently coloured drink. Having finished my Gauloise, I stepped through the huge gate – actually, the old coach entrance of the mansion – half expecting to see more signs and arrows. Nope. Yet a single small candlelight crooked it’s flame to beckon me towards an opened door a few yards past the closed main entrance of the mansion. The little door was painted black and had a meaningless decoration on it. I put my head into the dark and followed a cute trail of candlelights descending into the cellars, where we would meet “H”.

Passionately prepping the drinks
Passionately prepping the drinks

Hortense’s cavernous delights

Hortense is a very cosy arched cellar lit solely by the light of several dozens of candles. The familiar sound of ice cubes hitting the tin, warm smiles and a beckoning backbar makes you feel welcome immediately. The quaint aroma that might hit you comes from an old popcorn machine producing your barfood for tonight.

happy fingerfood!
happy finger food! Barrel aged Mezcal Negroni in the background (sheer bliss).

We sat down and immediately received a glass of water and the menu. Which was a bit wrinkled, but I didn’t mind that. Choosing between the 6 or 7 cocktails offered, wasn’t difficult for me. I went for the “Pink Skull”, consisting of homemade pink peppercorn syrup, Mezcal de la Vida and grapefruit. It’s delicious, savoury and fresh. The kind of cocktail you will order again and in my own opinion “instant classic” material.

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Pink Skull - Mezcal de la Vida, pink peppercorn syrup and grapefruit, salt & peppercorn rim on the glas.
Pink Skull – Mezcal de la Vida, pink peppercorn syrup and grapefruit, salt & peppercorn rim on the glas.

“H” as in hip, happy and hospitality

Hortense exists almost 2 years now and luckily hasn’t seen too many tourists. Apparently the bar is frequented by lots of expats who enjoy the atmosphere. I fully agree with them, I enjoyed it a lot: the drinks, the hospitality, the music and the pop corn of course.  Every time I’ll be in Brussels, you know where to find me, because it’s Spirits & Cocktails, pal!

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P.S. I said the name rang a bell, when you’re there, check the back of the menu.

H – Hortense Spirits & Cocktails

Somewhere on the Rue des Sablons, Brussels, Belgium.

Tel: 02/514.43.47