Tag Archives: Bijou

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!

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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!

 

 

 

Hendrick’s Quinetum – An Unusual Cordial

Hendrick’s Master Distiller Lesley Gracie created an unusual cordial to use in your gin cocktails
Hendrick's Master Distiller Lesley Gracie
Hendrick’s Master Distiller Lesley Gracie

We don’t think we need to introduce Hendrick’s to you. These cucumber-crazed pilgrims of the gin revival have already conquered the world with their famous black bottle and retro looks. Now they’re up to something new: Quinetum.

Hendrick's Quinetum a new quinine cordial . #Hendrick's

A post shared by The Cocktail Nation (@rschollaert) on

A cordial called Quinetum

A cordial is an ancient medicine containing alcohol, herbs and sometimes flecks of gold leaf, pearls and other jewellery. Probably invented by Italian alchemists during the Renaissance, the cordials were made to invigorate and revitalise the heart, body and spirit. Apparently a lot of revitalising and invigorating was needed in those times, because the stuff became so popular that everybody was starting to forget it was a medicine to begin with. So it actually became sort of a herbal liqueur as it were.

So this cordial is called Quinetum, because it contains – and you guessed correctly – quinine. Amongst other things like lavender, oranges, wormwood and holy thistle. According to the Nation’s tasting notes, it’s like chewing on a bittersweet flower. Quinine was used to battle malaria in the old colonies. They made a ‘tonicum‘ out of it, another word for herbal medicine, much like cordial, whence the word tonic. So this cordial is actually a tonicum containing quinine, whence Quinetum.

Cordial, medicine, tonicum or poison

Now, we are convinced that there must be an evil genius in the design and marketing section of Hendrick’s (who obviously has watched too many Monty Python movies). The bottle design, as a matter of fact, is an exact replica of a ‘poison flask’ found in a London antiques shop in 1940. Putting a medicine in a poison flask is very… unusual (and yet we have the macabre tendency to like it).

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How to use it

You could use it to add more funk to your Hendrick’s gin. Actually when you add about 15ml of the stuff and top up with soda you get a G&T. It starts to become very interesting in other cocktails though. At the product presentation in the famous jazz cafe Archiduc (Brussels), I was presented the ‘Maigret’ cocktail. Maigret is a famous literary figure, a pipe smoking Belgian detective in fact.

Maigret

5 cl Hendrick’s

1cl Quinetum

1/2cl grapefruit juice

1/2cl lime juice

a drop of Bruichladdich Octomore

We love the idea of using a medicine in a poison bottle to create a cocktail named after a detective. Also it is very yummy!

We suggested to make a Bijou variation with the Quinetum and Hendrick’s brand new brand ambassador, the fabulous Marco Mathieux, dragged us behind the bar to make it and we must confess in all modesty that the result is of course brilliant.

The famous Marco Mathieux and myself at L'Archiduc Brussels
The famous Marco Mathieux and myself at L’Archiduc Brussels

Bijou variation

5cl Hendrick’s

2cl red vermouth

1/2cl Quinetum

Stirr over ice for 30sec and strain in Coupe.

Or you can try it in a funky punch
Or you can try it in a funky punch

Hendrick’s Christmas Cake

Hendrick’s contacted famous stylist and fashion designer Harald Ligtvoet who in his spare time – together with his partner Wim Soete – is a passionate cake baker. Under the promising battle name of ‘Sweety Darling’ these guys conjure the most amazing cakes in their laboratory. Including this one:

Hendrick's Christmas Cake by Harald Ligtvoet
Hendrick’s Christmas Cake by Harald Ligtvoet

This beauty can be yours for the small sum of 150€ (remember it’s X-Mas). It’s available in the summum of sartorialism: Café Costume.

  • Café Costume Brussel: Rue Léon Lepage 24, 1000 Brussel
  • Café Costume Antwerpen: Emiel Banningstraat 11, 2000 Antwerpen
  • Café Costume Gent: Brabantdam 135, 9000 Gent
  • Café Costume Kortrijk: Leiestraat 20, 8500 Kortrijk

Place your order before the 18th of December at Café Costume and you can pick them up in the same place on the 24th or 31st after 11AM.