With his sparkling blue eyes, a smile that says a lot about his hospitality spirit, and a look all his own, complete with apron and Hawaiian shirt, the first Belgian winner of the Bacard Legacy world competition has become one of the international figures who are shaking up the bar world.
Through his travels and experiences, this great friend of Remy Savage has developed a passion for rum and its aromatic richness in cocktails. Now owner of an excellent bar in Bruges and of an independent bottling brand dedicated to sugarcane spirits, this new Flemish “Mister Daiquiri” is ready to revolutionize rum in cocktails. Meet him.
Laurence Marot: You were born into a family with a passion for the world of spirits and cocktails. Your family is the origin of The Pharmacy, a renowned speakeasy in Knokke, a posh town on the Belgian coast. Tell us about your first steps in the bar world.
Ran Van Ongevalle: My first experience in the bar world was in 2012. I started as a junior bartender at the Casino of Knokke alongside the Van Ongevalle clan.
My father, Jan, and sister, Hannah, both worked there and were in charge of the cocktail program before they set up their bar tucked away behind an antique store, The Pharmacy, in 2013.
It was something completely new for me. That time was a real revelation and sparked my passion for cocktails..
LM: You were discovered on the international scene thanks to your Bacardí Legacy win in 2017? Was rum already a product that interested you? What was your recipe? What did this victory bring you?
RVO: That particular moment changed my whole career. I traveled a lot around the world to visit bars and meet the new generation of bartenders who were a great source of inspiration. The cocktail that won me the competition was called the Clarita.
It was made with Bacardí 8 year old rum, Amontillado Sherry, dark crème de cacao (a nod to my Belgian heritage) and a touch of absinthe and salt solution (an ingredient for the first time used in this competition).
At the time, rum was not a great passion of mine. My interest in this exotic spirit started two years after the competition when I opened my dedicated pop up bar in Bruges “Palo Cortado” in 2019.
I was working with a bartender, absolutely obsessed with rum, Robin Pollet, who created his blog “The Rum Robin”. It was because of his contagious passion that I began to deepen my knowledge in the magical world of rum.
LM: You’ve become a true entrepreneur between your Pop Up Palo Cortado and your first Ran bar opening in 2020, both located in Bruges. How do you see the cocktail scene in Belgium today?
RVO: There is a growing diversity of bar styles in Belgium, like the Japanese Dive bar, Osaka, in Antwerp and the tiki specialist, The Drifter, in Ghent. I find it very interesting to see how many young bartenders are taking the risk to open their own bar in Belgium with concept establishments like Astro Boy and Fugazi, also in Ghent.
LM: Tell us about the concept of your bar and your influences. Do new cocktail techniques and local products play a role in your creations?
RVO: Ran’s concept is simple. We see ourselves as a neighborhood bar with a cozy atmosphere where you can come chat and enjoy delicious cocktails.
In the summer season, we grow all our herbs (exotic basil, sage or huacatay – or tagetes from the rubble, a Peruvian herb, ed. note) in a garden near the bar in the center of Bruges and we use them to make our cocktails.
This method of working gives us access to the freshest ingredients possible, bringing maximum flavor to our different drinks.
LM: What place does rum have in your bar? After the fashion for twisted classics and tikis, how do you work with rum in cocktails?
RVO: I could safely say that rum takes first place at Ran. We have an ever-growing selection, with over 90 rums, including over 40 unaged whites (Clairin, Mhoba, Barbosa, Hampden, Worthy Park, Paranubes, River Antoine).
Oddly enough, we are beginning to get the reputation of being “the daiquiri bar”. We are very proud to offer a wide range of high quality unaged rums.
LM: Do you work with all categories of rum?
RVO: Not all. I’m not really a big fan of spiced rums. I have a clear preference for rums with a simple and pure style.
Rums with high alcohol content are my favorite to work with in cocktails because they give you a real kick.
LM: Are you one of the few bartenders interested in high ester rums? What are their qualities for the cocktail world?
RVO: I think more and more bartenders are getting excited about high ester rums because they offer endless possibilities for flavor combinations due to their heavy and very aromatic profile.
The whole philosophy of bartending is moving towards a purer, more minimalist approach to flavors. We’re trying to focus more on source, terroir and pure flavors, which I believe are the fundamentals of any passionate bartender.
LM: You created your independent bottling brand in 2020 that is distinguished by its high ester content: Bar Ran Funky Juice. The first one is a Jamaican white rum with 63% ABV and an ester content close to 400gr/HLAP -hectoliter of pure alcohol.
RVO: Yes, this is the beginning of a long series of indie bottlings under the Ran flag. We launched a small edition that went out very quickly.
We’ve already released our “Bar Ran’s Funky Juice 2,” a delicious, ester-rich unaged rum from the island of Fiji (57% vol., 114gr esters) that develops floral, white chocolate and buttery aromas.
The vocation of the range is above all to be mixed in our daiquiris. We seek to deliver to our customers something that they can not drink in another bar.
LM: With the end of confinement, are you taking the time to travel and discover new rum distilleries?
RVO: I would love to haha! I have a young son, a bar to run and a hard seltzer company, so it’s pretty tough right now.
LM: How do you see rum evolving?
RVO: The rum houses are now focusing on the terroir, the sugar cane varieties and the distillation method. In my opinion, the best example of where the future of rum is heading is the new “Pre-Cask” series from Renegade, the new distillery of British Mark Reynier.
A beautiful collection of rums that highlight the cultivation of sugarcane and eco-responsible production methods.
LM: You have created your own brand, Young Heart Seltzer. Some of these waters are intended to be worked in cocktails and with rum?
RVO: Young Heart Seltzer is a hard seltzer brewed and flavored in an all-natural way. I designed this line with the intention of pairing it with other alcoholic ingredients, primarily low alcohol spirits such as amaro, fortified wine and liqueurs for example.
I like to start the evening with an ice cold “Young Heart Seltzer” and end it with a young rum from the Jamaican house of Monymusk.