A few years ago, if someone uttered the words « Belgium » and « cocktails », one name would always follow: Ben Belmans. Today, in parts thanks to his pioneering work, the Belgian cocktail scene has grown and you can find first class bars in Gent, Antwerp, Knokke and, increasingly, Brussels. Meanwhile, and as ever, Ben is following his own course, from bartender to distiller.
Ben took his first step on that road in 2003 when he started to work at Sips, then the only ‘premium’ cocktail bar in Belgium. « You had one bar in Gent and another one in Leuven, but they were student bars, with 250 drinks on the menu, lots of booze, cocktail umbrellas and no quality at all. Then, there were a couple of hotel bars in Brussels, ran by bartenders who made IBA-approved recipes. And even at Sips, in the first few months, we didn’t use shakers — you’d make a Whisky Sour in 4 seconds with your Hamilton Beach… At the time, to guide us we only had my boss’ experience, Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail and Charles Schumann. That’s it. » To learn more about mixed drinks, the only solution was to travel. « But even then, says Ben, you’d go to a bar show in London or Berlin and Gary Regan would talk in front of 8 or 9 people maximum ». It was a smaller scene and, unsurprisingly, Ben was the only Belgian around. « You’d put some money on the side and use it to check out bars in New York City. You’d never take a cab — you’d walk everywhere — and you’d eat all the peanuts that’d come with your drink. You really didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars to go there and not remember the drinks the following day », he quips.
Inevitably, with all the knowledge he had amassed, Ben was soon in a position to share. So he left Sips and started doing private events or work for brands. « I just didn’t have the money to open my own bar. But I felt I had to share what I knew — because if you share what you know you really have to keep learning. My boss didn’t agree but I thought that the more I shared with other bartenders, the more they’d increase the value of their drinks and that’s beneficial for the customers ». And, in turn, educated customers are good for everyone…
After a decade dedicating himself to spreading the cocktail gospel, it was time for Ben to open his own bar. In the meantime, things had change. The industry had grown and bartending turned into a career. Drinkers were also maturing. According to Ben, one of the decisive factors was the growing interest in food: « drinks tend to follow gastronomy », he says. And Belgian chefs were among the first supporters of the Gin & Tonic trend. « It used to be that the good stuff was drunk straight and the poor stuff was mixed. The gin trend changed everything. » This being said, it’s important for bars not to run faster than their clients. « You have the early adapters who want to try everything. They’ll follow you and tell their network about you. But you also have your regular clientele, you know, people who have never had a dish more exotic than a Flemish beer stew. You have to educate in the noble sense of the world. They’ll want a Mojito and you can’t be arrogant about it: you have to make them the best one they ever had ».
Maybe Ben and partner in crime Dieter Van Roy were guilty of going too fast when they opened BelRoy’s Bijou: « It was meant to be an innovative concept. We only had two styles of drinks: highballs and bottle-aged cocktails. We served them in smaller glasses, at moderate prices, with minimalist garnishes. Liquid tapas, if you want », Ben tells us. It didn’t work. « The only thing our clients could see was that the drink was smaller ». After three months, they decided to change course — Ben is stubborn but sometime you need to accept changes have to be made if you want to succeed. « We put more garnish, our glasses got bigger and we doubled the price. It’s no use to try and force your clients to accept something if they don’t agree ». Bijou is now doing brisk business.
Day to day operations are now left to Dieter Van Roy, as Ben’s focus has increasingly turned towards distilling and brand-building. The duo first turned their attention to the bottled cocktails they were serving at the bar. « We had clients coming from all over the country, but how often are you going to drive 200 km to have a Negroni? We thought ‘why not sell them our bottled cocktails’? ». The line now includes a Vesper Martini, a Negroni and a Presidente, and they’re all excellent. Spirits quickly followed the cocktails. Ben recently studied distilling — and the art of blending is, he says, something that should come natural to good bartenders. He says part of his drive to launch his own products came from his experience working with brands. « You have that very smooth vodka with 11 mg of glycerin or that great rum with 40 gr of sugar. Making our own spirits gives us more control and it allows us to develop things we don’t see on the market."
Three new products will be officially launched at Venuez, the Belgian Bar Show, in ten days. The challenge, now, is to sell them, without the big budgets of the bigger brands. « First, I wanted to become a bartender, says Ben, then I wanted to become a distiller and now I want to become a good entrepreneur. You know, when I started, I was the only consultant on the Belgian market. I never had to actively look for clients. I never had to sell anything. Now it’s different. What drives me now is to tie a good product that was not developed in a marketing department with techniques from a marketing department ». This is not going to be the easiest challenge Ben has faced. We think he can pull it off, though. Remember: only 15 years ago, the bar he was working at didn’t even use shakers.