Movers and shakers
We hear plenty about Flanders’ prowess and passion when it comes to beer – but there’s a cocktail revolution slowly shaking things up and tempting drinkers away from their usual tipples.
Cocktail makers are gaining ground in a landscape where beer is the status quo
When Olivier Jacobs opened a cocktail bar in Ghent last year, he figured he would go easy. Thinking that most of his patrons would revolt at a cocktail-only menu, he stocked up on different kinds of drinks. But his precautions quickly proved unnecessary. “Nobody buys beer; nobody drinks wine or champagne. They all come in for the cocktails.”
Packing a full house every night, Jigger’s has been a solid success in an unfriendly financial climate. Like other Flemish cities in recent months, Ghent is bucking a long-standing beer trend to embrace cocktails in never-before-seen numbers.
Jacobs is part of a new cocktail vanguard shaking things up in beer-crazy Flanders. In the past 12 months, a new generation of cocktail makers have rolled out one initiative after another, determined to show beer lovers the universe of Tom Collins, Manhattans and Black Russians.
Just a couple of months after Jigger’s opened, the first professional cocktail training programme for bartenders in Flanders was established in collaboration with the British Diageo, the world’s largest distiller. Founders of the Nine-X Cocktail Academy say their aim is to train 75 bartenders over the next year and help those already at top-level to perform better in the Diageo Reserve World Class, considered the premier international cocktail mixing competition.
At around the same time, the Vittail Academy foundation was created to promote vittails, or non-alcoholic cocktails, in Flanders. Then, in October, the Famous Bartenders Institute was launched in Antwerp, a series of guest sessions featuring award-winning international bartenders. The goal, according to organiser Dieter Van Roy, was to put cocktails more firmly on the map of Flemish drinking culture. “We have quite a lot of good bartenders in Belgium, but not really the crowd,” he explains. “People still need an extra push.”
The men behind these efforts all deny that they had a master plan to get barflies over to the cocktail side. “It’s not like we talked two years ago: ‘Hey guys, in 2012-2013, we’re putting out a large offensive’,” Van Roy explains, chuckling. “It’s all happening quite naturally.”
Either way, the fruit of their labour is evident. Cocktail culture in Flanders is booming, says trend researcher Tom Palmaerts. The partner at Ghent research institute Trendwolves says the popularity of all things cocktail is both unprecedented and promising. “I think it’s just the beginning,” he says. “We have some top mixologists, so the possibilities are big.”
According to Palmaerts, cocktail culture has benefited from a recent move toward “selective luxury”. He cites research that shows that Belgians go to bars, restaurants, and clubs less frequently, but when they do go, they spend more money, opting for more expensive wines and stronger beers. With cocktail prices ranging between €9 and €13 at most places, the cocktail scene is catering to a select urban, young and professional crowd.
The drinks at the heart of this cocktail revolution have little to do with the mojitos, piña coladas and daiquiris traditionally offered at summer fairs and festivals. Instead, bartenders like Van Roy and Jacobs offer classic, Mad Men-era cocktails or twists on such classics.
“A great bartender is somebody with 15 bottles, some lemons, some limes, an orange and a bottle of bitters, who can serve the real classics the way they should be,” explains Ben Belmans, co-founder of the Nine-X Cocktail Academy and regarded by many as the godfather of Flanders’ cocktail scene. These barkeeps pride themselves on using only fresh ingredients and the finest spirits. Jacobs, for instance, has a herb garden to use in the homemade syrups that go into many of his drinks.
When Manuel Wouters opened Flanders’ first real cocktail bar in 2000, naysayers told him that Antwerpenaars would never betray their beer roots, that there was no money to be had in cocktails. Fast-forward 12 years, and the famous Sips is still going strong. And it has paved the way for the present generation of fine drinking establishments – places like Jigger’s and The Old Fashioned in Ghent, Josephine’s and Cocktails at Nine in Antwerp and L’Apereau in Blankenberge.
Wouters has also made it his mission to strip cocktails of their pretentious image. With his TV programme and the accompanying recipe book The Art of Making Cocktails, he has been trying to teach Flanders how to mix drinks at home, DIY-style.
A strong beer tradition isn’t the only reason it’s taken so long for Flanders to embrace cocktails. Lack of professional training has played a critical role. Hotel schools and hospitality training programmes in Flanders have traditionally devoted scant, if any, attention to cocktails. “Oh my god, they have no idea how to make a drink,” Jacobs says about hotel school instructors. Most training is heavily geared toward wine, with cocktails covered almost as an afterthought. The result, Belmans explains, is that “95% of the cocktails in this country are made by people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
By their own account, Belmans and the others spend a lot of time nursing patrons’ wounds from previous bad cocktail experiences. “It’s your job as a bartender, when one day those people come into your bar, to introduce them to a whole new world.”
This is why the current cocktail movement is one with a strong didactic streak. These proprietors believe firmly that, by delivering expertly made classic cocktails, they are spreading the gospel. “At the moment a lot of mixologists are being like teachers – not just giving a lot of choices to their customers but actually choosing for them,” Palmaerts explains. “At this point, I think it’s educational consumption.”
The bartenders are all very excited about the recent ground that has been made but point out that the road is still long. Van Roy says that the region’s best cocktails bars are trailing behind fine drinking establishments in, for instance, London. “We’re not even doing half of what those guys are doing,” he says. “We’re still not there yet.”