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Meet the mixers behind the slow-burning cocktail revolution in Brussels

10:34 28/08/2018

“It’s about the pleasure of the experience, to stimulate the senses with taste, and the mood it makes you feel,” says Harouna about his passion for cocktails at Life is Beautiful. His protégé cocktail maker Ali pulls a small blowtorch out from under the bar and proceeds to singe the wedge of blood orange and the sprig of rosemary on top of my drink with a naughty grin. He’s making the bar’s bestseller of the season, the Bees Knees: organic Cachaca Abelha Silver shaken with ginger, lime, lavender bitters, blood orange cordial and coffee-infused Martini bitter. The last two ingredients are Harouna’s personal creation for this season’s menu.

I take a tentative first sip. The smoky orange and rosemary gives way to the sour depth of the alcohols, bitters and coffee, then comes a fiery little kick from the ginger. After a stir with the sustainable glass straw, the second sip has the sweeter overtones of the blood orange and lavender. It’s a complex, balanced combination, quite lovely, and rather invigorating.

Harouna and Karoline started with a monthly cocktail taster evening in Ixelles three years ago. It became so popular they started looking for their own place to create a beach haven atmosphere in, and Life is Beautiful was born on Brussels’ Rue Dansaert in June 2016. Plants hang from the ceiling, cushions are strewn over the seats, a mixtape of funk, African rhythms and bits of 60s psychedelic wafts through. The place exudes the feeling of being among friends.

Life is Beautiful is rare in Brussels for making some of its own bitters – alcohols steeped with botanicals and spices. The process takes several months. For the summer, Harouna is hoping to reduce it to a month, using siphon technology to create micro-batch bitters. Other homemade ingredients on the 10-strong menu each season include small batches of fruit cordials, and syrups like pistachio and salted caramel.

The couple are also big on sustainability and source ingredients as locally as they can, or support brands with a social impact, like Snow Leopard vodka, which funds work to save the world’s remaining snow leopards from extinction. The chocolate used comes from Frederic Blondeel, beer from the Brussels Beer Project and coffee from Moka, all in the vicinity.

Beer capital

Cocktail culture has been slow to take hold in Brussels, according to Sophie, one half of Green Lab on Avenue Louise. “It’s what you get for being in the capital of a strong beer culture,” she says. “Almost anything creative takes hold in Antwerp first, then Ghent, then Brussels, then Wallonia. But the desire for special flavour blends has been growing in Brussels for the last two years. Now we can really say we have a scene,” she says, beaming.

Green Lab is a modern-day speakeasy with an industrial vintage vibe, serving around 200 gins, 10 absinthes and a menu of six cocktails developed from scratch every two months, as well as DJ nights, live jazz and opera. “We source a lot of Belgian gins from small producers,” her partner Leslie says as she shakes me An Englishman Lost in La Provence. It has a base of Earl Grey tea-infused gin, homemade lavender syrup, lime, absinthe, Bloom bitters and egg white. It’s refreshingly floral, sensual even, conjuring up a fragrant summer day in the country. “That’s exactly what I had in mind on the rainy grey Brussels day I created it, and how I wanted to feel,” she says.

My Brussels-born friend who scoffed at the idea of trying cocktails undercover with me has a beer, but lights up at a taste of mine, then sneaks in several sips when she thinks I’m not looking.

Cocktail week

Sophie and Leslie have been instrumental in putting the capital on the cocktail map, by creating the first ever Brussels Cocktail Week last year. The second edition, from 23-29 September this year, will see guest bartenders and mixologists at more than 30 bars and restaurants around Brussels presenting new creations, food pairings and tastings.

Green Lab also hosts a Martini Monday on the last Monday of the month, where a Brussels mixologist creates a Martini with a twist. “It’s a popular night among mixologists as it’s traditionally a bartender’s day off,” says Sophie. The last one saw Feodora Van Calster from Hortense create a Martini with dried Jerusalem artichoke peel and smoked hay.

While I sit studying the menu at Vertigo in the Sablon, bartender Carmello is busy dissolving vanilla sugar in dark rum, in a small copper pan he’s heating with the help of a blowtorch. He’s experimenting for the new summer menu. It’s a rainy Belgian night, and there’s a fire roaring away in the hearth of this listed old tavern. Things couldn’t get much cosier.

I can’t decide what to have so he sets to work on a spontaneous creation, adding the rum mixture to a shaker, with a chocolate liqueur, mezcal, lime, a homemade orange cordial, a coffee bitter and two other ingredients that flash by too quickly. It’s pure theatre and poured from a great height. The result is a dessert in a glass – rich, chocolatey, comforting. He says he’d like to enter the World Cocktail Championships but at 18 he’s still too young. I tell him he’s going to smash it when he’s 21.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2018. Pick up a copy in newsagents today or subscribe here...

Written by Saffina Rana