The cocktail bar scene in Brussels was pretty non-existant before Matthieu Chaumont, the owner and cocktail master of Hortense opened his bar in Place Sablon in 2012.
Although the cocktail bar scene in Belgium is pretty vibrant particularly in the Flemish cities of Antwerp and Gent, Brussels did not have a proper cocktail bar like the one created by Matthieu four years ago. He attributes this to the fact that there was no cocktail culture in Brussels despite the presence of a large expat community for a very long time. “For example, I don’t remember my parents ever drinking a cocktail. When they would go out, they have a tendency to order a glass of wine or beer but I have never seen them drinking a cocktail,” he tells me.
Matthieu has over the past four years worked to change this trend and he seems to be managing thanks to a receptive audience which is now becoming more and more interested in exploring new things. “In our first year, our crowd was mainly composed of expats but after a year, the Bruxellois and Belgians started to become more and more interested. There is now a real interest in cocktails and in what we do,” he told Food and Wine Gazette.
You can easily understand why if you look at his philosophy. Matthieu is not the normal bartender but he takes a very similar approach to what chefs do in kitchens. It is no wonder he thought of becoming a chef in the past. “There are lots of similarities between the work of a chef and the work of a bartender,” he says. At Hortense, he prepares all the syrups from scratch and says that this is very similar to making a sauce in a restaurant. “When we are working on preparing a syrup it is the same as making a sauce. There is the same technique even if the end use will be different,” he said.
His focus is on using artisanal spirits and that is matched with quality mixes like syrups and infusions which he himself prepares. Matthieu says there is a different between using artisanal spirits and large industrial ones. “It is the same like with a wine. Behind a good wine there is a good winemaker who works hard to create a great product.”
“My idea, when I started was to find spirits that are made in the same way as good quality wine. We tried to work with great products using them simply because that is the best way to showcase a good product.”
Using artisanal spirits helps to sell the story of a cocktail but there is also a lot of innovation that goes into preparing the cocktails which change every month. “We get inspired in different ways. Chefs for example have to be creative all the time because seasons and produce change so they need to adapt. We also try to taste different spirits and I enjoy working with sake, madeira and sherry because these are products that are very versatile. When I taste a dessert, like rhubarb and almond milk, I always try to see and think how it could work as a cocktail.”
Matthieu says that at Hortense they also try to respect the seasons. “In our creative process, it is very important to try the spirits, to follow what chefs are doing, to spend time in the forests, to visit markets and to be in direct contact with the produce because this is how you find inspiration.”
Creating a new cocktail can take a long time. “A lot of work goes into creating a new cocktail though with experience it is not necessary even to taste it. When I create a cocktail, I take a pen and paper and start to jot things down. Sometimes, I can create a recipe in a morning, on other occasions it could take me three to four months to finalise a recipe.”
He loves the cocktail bar scene in Antwerp and Gent and says that the reason is that Flemish are more welcoming to new ideas. “When you go to Antwerp, it reminds you a bit of New York with its vibrant scene. Things are improving in Brussels with new coffee shops, slow coffee houses, micro breweries but in Antwerp this has been the case for the past years.
Matthieu has started to help restaurants create their signature cocktails. “We are approached by chefs and restauranteurs who do not have their own cocktail master. We try to learn about the philosophy of the restaurant and then create a cocktail or two which reflect this identity.”
He believes that this is a very interesting part of his job and one which he will be doing more and more in the next five years.
He thinks that the trend for bars in the next five years is to serve cocktails on tap. “The service may also change but I don’t see any revolution in terms of the spirits we use. We will continue to use the same spirits but I think there might be a shift in the use of limes for example because these are becoming more and more expensive. We are also no longer sure of the quality so my guess is that we will try to get the acidic taste from fermentation.”
Asked where he sees himself in five years, Matthieu says he would love to have his own restaurant. It is likely to follow a similar style as for Hortense, using quality produce and maybe pairing food with cocktails.