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.
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.
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:
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.
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‘!
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!
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!
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.
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?
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.
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?”
“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.”
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!
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!
If somebody offered us a vermouth and asked: "Italian or French?" We would probably answer: "A Savoyan". Because that's where they come from, the former Duchy of Savoy. Or was it Germany? And more importantly where are they now? Italy, France? Yes and Spain and a little bit everywhere actually, even Belgium has one. Vermouth is fantastic, but instead of the countless classic cocktails you can make with it or mix it with tonic, you can also drink it differently.
In most cases, years ago, when you asked somebody what vermouth is, you got the following common knowledge: ” Oh well, erm… let’s see. It’s an Italian fortified wine with lots of herbs and stuff, very nice. Oeh! And the French have a drier, white version of it. Excellent in fish sauces.” Fast forward a couple of years and the more savvy, suave and sartorial bartenders twisted their waxed moustaches and added passionately – with twinkling eyes – the following facts: it all started in the thriving city of Turin in the late 17OO’s with a gentleman called Antonio Benedetto Carpano who made it into the wonderful aperitif which we all know today. The name comes from the German word “wermut” which means ‘wormwood’ in English and is one of the defining ingredients of the drink. Etc, etc, …
This is all true and you’re somehow fine with it, until after a while you realise something is gnawing at you. Why would an Italian spirit vendor name his invention after the French pronunciation of the German word for one of the herbal ingredients in it. He could have called it “Assenzio”, no? Or “Vino Assenzio”. He didn’t, this later came to be the name for absinthe, you know the drink made of… yes, wormwood (officially called ‘artemisia absinthium’). Still with me?
So, why did he call it ‘vermut’? Well, we’ll never know, but the following is how we like to see it. Mister Carpano didn’t invent his drink, but rather made a personalised version of an old drink, which stopped being popular 100 years earlier: wormwood wine. More specific: German wormwood wine (from the Habsburgian Holy Roman Empire).
Now, we all know that people have been putting stuff in their wine ever since the first man accidentally squished a grape, but apparently wormwood is something particular. This goes as far as Ancient Egypt if you please (probably to try to revive erroneously mummified persons or something), then centuries later the Greeks almost made a sport out of it and left us with a couple of dozens of recipes. Then the Romans put a “made in the Roman Empire” stamp on it, mainly by conquering Greece. After that everything becomes a little hazy in the Dark Ages only for it to come back as a perfect medicine against the plague and all sorts of intestinal parasites (“worms”) and stomach aches in general. This vaguely reminds us of the origin of genever, which was also conceived as a cure against the plague in a similar fashion, only instead of wormwood you’d put in juniper berries.
Anyways, fast forward a couple of centuries and we arrive at the pinnacle of popularity of German wormwood wine (16th – 17th Century) and of course the Holy Roman Empire by then was stretched to its outmost borders. Guess what was part of it then? Yes, the Duchy of Savoy, including Turin and Chambéry (home of Dolin).
Wormwood wine spread widely in those days. Of course, we had our own version in Belgium and the Netherlands called “Alsem wine“. ‘Alsem‘ being the Dutch word for wormwood. Now alsem wine made his introduction into the British Isles thanks to… yes, William III, the Dutch-born king who gave the English people gin, because they couldn’t pronounce genever. Now, funny fact, they also seemed to have trouble with something as simple as the word ‘alsem’ and quickly dubbed it ‘wholesome wine‘ (which is almost the pronunciation of the Dutch word ‘alsem’). Mind you, the British already knew wormwood wine long before William III and produced it under the name of “eisel”, but they must have liked and imported alsem wine too.
In short we can conclude that practically everybody made his version of wine aromatised with wormwood and by the 16th-17th Century people started fortifying it. Until the hype died in 1700. Upon which Carpano decided to relaunch it in 1786. And with great success! By the 19th century vermouth was all over the place and the aperitif of choice. But how did they drink it?
Well apparently a lot like they drink their coffee, in small amounts and standing up. On the go, as it were. We don’t really know the measurements, I think it must have been something between 3 and 6 cl, a Piedmont glass maybe (4,5cl). Later in bigger glasses when they started to add soda water. Actually I still like it this way, it is delicious on a hot summer afternoon. Soon they added drops of bitters to their vermouth and the Milano Torino was created when using Campari. Later the Americano arrived. No one really knows why they called it like that, but there are of course several theories.
it has nothing to do with Americans, but refers to the Italian word for bitter “amaro”. Personally I don’t think that this one is correct, because they would have called it “amaricato” and not Americano.
They called it so, because it was very popular with American tourists of those days. We doubt this one too, otherwise a lot of things would have been called “americano”, like an americano with extra cheese and olives or an americano bolognese, etc…
It refers to the style of the drink, “American style“, drink. The theory goes that it being a ‘mixed drink’, a cocktail, they called it an American style drink. We like this idea better, although we don’t believe it refers to the “mixed drink” part.
So we want to add a fourth theory: it is called Americano, referring to American style drink, because it was probably served in larger than usual quantities, adding soda and -more importantly- had ice (cubes) in it. Suppose they drank the first Milano Torinos like they drank their vermouth, meaning in small quantities, the amaro added literally in drops and later they would prefer their Milano Torino made the American way and ordered: “Milano Torino, Americano.”Which could later have been abbreviated to just “Americano”.
It also makes more sense when you consider the origin of the Negroni as being told by the inventor himself: Fosco Scarselli, in an 1962 interview. Fosco tells us that Count Negroni liked to drink Americanos and preferred them a bit stronger, “so I added a few drops (!) of unsweetened gin to his drink.” Then he continues: “the Count’s habit of adding a few drops of bitter (amaro) to his cocktail started to spread among the other customers and soon they were ordering ‘Negronis’.” Considering the ingredients of a Negroni we must conclude that his Americano must have been vermouth over ice perhaps with a splash of soda.
Anyway, ordering your “Savoyan vermouth, American style” in this day and age will get you nowhere, but you can say: “vermouth on the rocks with a splash of soda, please and an orange wheel.” And that’s how we prefer to drink it, sometimes even omitting the soda. You know vermouth isn’t just there as a mixing ingredient, it can very well carry its own. Do try it!
If you want to learn more about vermouth, be sure to read the excellent ‘Mixellany Guide To Vermouth‘ by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller. More about the Negroni in ‘Negroni Cocktail, An Italian Legend‘ by Luca Picchi.
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.
Today marks the start of the Negroni week. That means that until the 12th of June every Negroni consumed in the bars that volunteered for this project will result in 1€ going to a good cause. Besides that the Negroni is starting to burst out of craft cocktailbars and high end speakeasies straight into dive bars and even living rooms again. The Negroni is an immortal classic and we love it.
Gin has a day (World gin Day), Negroni’s got a week! An entire week from the 6th to the 12th you can drink Negronis and support a good cause at the same time. It’s perfect, I can imagine it already: “Now Honey, I know it’s 2 AM, but it’s for a good cause!”.
Seriously now, it i s already the fourth edition of this project and it is doing great. The first time in 2013 exactly 100 bars signed up to join the project, last year however in 2015, no less than 3533 bars joined the ranks. If you’d put that on a graph you’ll be painting the ceiling! 321.000 dollars were collected in 44 countries, that’s a lot of Negronis. And whether you believe it or not, our small country Belgium, scored number 5 regarding the number of bars joining the project. This week 41 countries registered to join and I am sure Belgium will do its best to toast to the “count”.
I don’t know how to describe it, but if you look at it (in Belgium), the Negroni is kinda like a “sniper hype”. A silent trend. Which is good, I think. More and more people know what a Negroni is and – very important – know how to make one. It has found its way into people’s houses again and that’s great. You know, you don’t have to be a tattooed master mixologist startender to make a decent Negroni. It’s actually quite failsafe: equal parts of gin, red vermouth and amaro (Campari). And it’s a modular recipe (aren’t they all) you can substitute almost anything with anything else as long as you have a spirit, amaro and vermouth combination. But it’s not like the G&T roller coaster hype, ordering you to put a plethora of extra botanicals in your glass, you know, as a “garnish”, or just making a f***ed up vodka and selling it to you as a gin that’s made for tonic… No, the Negroni hype is more modest, humble and real. It is a great way to dive into vermouths, amaro and the better gins.
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!