Meet the woman leading Belgium’s cocktail revolution

We sit down with award-winning mixologist Hannah van Ongevalle who, with a little help from her family and artisan Belgian ingredients, is shaking up the nation’s drinking scene

The first time mixologist Hannah Van Ongevalle worked as a bartender “was horrible,” says the craft cocktail champion. “I had a very strict manager who said, ‘you’re never going to be good enough to be a bartender. You have to work in the cloakroom.’ He was very wrong!”

We’re in a speakeasy named The Pharmacy in Knokke, an upmarket seaside town a couple of hour’s drive west of Brussels. Outside, the pale sun sparkles off the beach house’s white façade and the North Sea – but step through the red, unmarked door and you’re met with a cosy warren of wood-panelled corners and velvet furnishings, glowing in lamplight. From each nook and cranny looms an antiquated piece of décor: a taxidermy peacock, a blood-red Chinese lantern, a tobacco-stained clock.

Before me is a concoction named Rudolph, poured with perfectly amber whisky, infused with orange peel and nuts and served in a triangular glass over a charred pile of cinnamon sticks, dried chili and star anise. As I take a sip, a subtle waft of smoke engulfs the glass and adds a wintry, bonfire-night aroma to the already-smoky drink.

This clandestine place won Belgium’s Best Cocktail Bar award shortly after it opened in 2014, and is followed by a new sister bar in Antwerp, which opened this January (with a similarly 1920s-esque interior, in a cavernous space above restaurant Danieli Il Divino). At both, precision is key to the cocktail-making artistry. Drinks at The Pharmacy can take months to design. They’re beautifully balanced, simply presented, and are finished off with details like an edible flower garnish and singular ice cube and minimally encased in ornate crystal.

Van Ongevalle was the first woman to win the Diageo World Class Belgian Finals, a prestigious cocktail-making contest that led her to the global finals. But her journey to mixologist stardom wasn’t one she took alone. Cocktail crafting flows through the veins of the Van Ongevalle family – Hannah’s younger brother Ran was crowned Best Belgian Bartender in 2014 and was the first Belgian to win a Bacardi Legacy Global award. He’s now based at Artesian, at London hotel The Langham – named the world’s best bar between 2011 and 2015. Back in Knokke, the youngest of the three siblings, Noa, is managing The Pharmacy for her father, Jan, who founded it with Hannah five years ago.

They’re an energetic, eclectic bunch, boasting 50 tattoos between them – Jan and Ran roll up their sleeves to reveal a cocktail stirrer inked on the forearm – and their passion is palpable. The bar shelves groan with Mexican mescals and Japanese whiskies sourced from afar, and unavailable anywhere else in Belgium. And the clan is more than willing to dip into their own supply at the first whiff of a family gathering. Alongside a handful of other bars in Antwerp and Ghent, the family is at the forefront of a growing culture of Belgian mixology.

Over the course of an afternoon with the Van Ongevalles, it becomes clear that ambition is as much a common denominator among the family as their love of an expertly mixed drink. “I wanted to win an Oscar by age 14,” says Hannah. It was her thespian-side that led her to her true calling.

“I was always a very creative child and needed an outlet, so my parents let me go to LA by myself at 14,” she says. “I didn’t get any auditions, but it was life changing. I came back thinking that everything is possible if I work hard.”

Hannah studied in London, then did her stint in the Belgian nightclub cloakroom before working her way into fashion in Paris, Amsterdam, and Nice. It was there that, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Hannah’s French partner Guillaume was involved in a road accident that left him hospitalised for six months. “I went from trying to find my way to extreme survival mode,” Hannah says. Her father Jan had since become bar manager at the Knokke Casino, and offered her flexible work so she could frequently travel back to France. It was in those circumstances that she began to make cocktails.

A few months later, Hannah received a phone call that would change her life. “My dad said, ‘I want to open a bar. Do you want to join me? You have 24 hours to decide’,” Hannah remembers with a laugh. “My dad does everything in a rush.”

Six weeks later, The Pharmacy was born. Within seven months, Jan was encouraging Hannah to enter the Diageo World Class contest, despite her relative inexperience. “It was the first time a woman had competed, and I arrived pulling my suitcase in my heels,” says Hannah. “The other bartenders were like, ‘that’s so cute, is your boyfriend entering the competition?’ I said, ‘no, I am, and I’m going to be great’.”

Fortuitously, the theme of the first stage was Stars and The Theatrical – and Hannah caught the judges’ eye with a Cabaret-inspired performance. But it was her gastronomy-led approach that sealed the deal.

“For the second stage we had to buy ingredients from the market, so I thought, ‘if I want to win I need to do something a bit shocking’,” Hannah grins. “I bought an aged, greasy ham and put it in the shaker. Everyone was staring. Even my dad was mouthing at me, ‘no!’ But I presented it to them with a card trick, and slowly everyone started standing up and clapping.”

It won her the Belgian stage and cemented Hannah’s chef-inspired style. She believes that Belgium’s increasing interest in cocktail culture correlates with a renewed interest in food culture (a phenomenon she’s seen in London, Paris and New York, too).

“When my dad moved from fashion to bartending seven years ago, bars that had a couple of cocktails on the menu were seen as cocktail bars,” she says. “But now, people are more aware of what they’re eating and drinking, even in their own homes – with the gin and tonic craze, and TV shows like Come Dine With Me [or Komen Eten in Belgium].”

Hannah’s also been inspired by her travels since 2014, judging competitions and consulting in Mauritius, Martinique and Thailand, and working with local flavours that reflect her immediate surroundings, including chocolate and beer. “We have a beautiful portfolio of ingredients in Belgium,” she enthuses. “We have herbs growing in the dunes in the Zwin and work with local businesses that go out and pick them. I work with things from the sea: seaweed, saline solution, sea salt. Salty drinks won’t become popular in Belgium anytime soon, but when they do, I’m ready with 1,000 recipes!”

As a food-influenced mixologist, Hannah couldn’t be much better placed in the world – there’s a grand total of 22 Michelin stars within a 25-km radius of Knokke. Local esteemed chef Willem Hiele, who owns a restaurant in the region, was the inspiration behind one cocktail on the menu that’s close to Hannah’s heart. “I tried a fish dish at his restaurant last summer, made with prune, elderflower, goat yoghurt and basil oil,” she says. “I took a bite, looked up at Guillaume and saw a tear roll down his face. We started laughing because we were both crying at how good it was.” She headed home with a stack of prunes from the kitchen garden, distilled them into a syrup and added Riesling, vermouth and basil. “We put it on the menu and called it the Willem.”

All the non-alcoholic ingredients in The Pharmacy’s cocktails are created either in Hannah’s kitchen or in a local laboratory, where younger sister Noa is increasingly spending her time, distilling local flavours into clear syrups bursting with life (her family fondly calls her their ‘little nutty professor’). Hannah has also just set up The Motel: a training school designed for chefs to take cocktail-making courses, with the goal of raising the bar of drinks available in Belgian restaurants.

As for Noa, she’s already designed a cocktail for a global campaign by Bombay Sapphire and, alongside her sister, makes a promising antidote to Belgium’s male-dominated world of bartending – managing an older, often-male team. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard, when they have to listen to a 20-year-old girl,” she says. “I’m quite strict and people don’t like it, but I have to be – for the sake of the bar. I even tell my dad what to do. But he does it. He’s a good listener.”

Jan insists that his wife, Heidy, is the glue that holds the family together. But it’s him who’s constantly in the eye of the storm, his exuberant children whirling around him in a flurry of amber liquids and gleaming glassware. He’s also their harshest critic, keeping them grounded even as they’re making history. “I never give Hannah’s cocktails more than a seven out of 10 and I didn’t even want to hire Noa,” he says. “She’d never had a job before and we thought she’d be a quitter. She started at the lowest place, cleaning in the kitchen. But she’s the hardest worker and now she’s irreplaceable.”

It is the family’s charming dynamic as much as its vision for innovation that makes a visit to The Pharmacy so memorable. And with plans in the pipeline for another branch to open at the end of the year, this is only the beginning.

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