Behind the Bar Stick People

This Is How Chocolate and a Family Business Won This Bartender a Fancy Cocktail Competition

Ran Van Ongevalle presenting his Clarita cocktail at this year’s Bacardí Legacy Global Cocktail Competition

Dubbed “the Monaco of Belgium” for its casino, nightclubs and plethora of wealthy, tanned revelers, Knokke is a small, coastal Belgian town of some 10,000 denizens located 10 minutes from the Dutch border. It’s here, behind an unassuming red door and a burning bulb in an old antiques shop, that Ran Van Ongevalle can often be found whipping up cocktails at The Pharmacy.

Van Ongevalle is an animated chap, and his confidence and enthusiasm were on full display during the finals of the 2017 Bacardí Legacy Global Cocktail Competition, held this May in Berlin, when he presented his victorious drink, the Clarita. This elegant, stirred beauty telegraphs Spain, starring Bacardí Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron eight-year-old rum and amontillado sherry, along with crème de cacao (“I’m from Belgium, I had to use chocolate”), absinthe and saline solution, fittingly garnished with olive oil.

“It was so stressful the whole week,” he says. “You work on something for 10 months, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and then it happened so fast. Fifteen minutes before I came up, I had a complete blackout.”

Van Ongevalle’s winning cocktail, the Clarita. Tim Nusog

While his presentation clearly captured deft drink-making skills, it’s what Van Ongevalle said about family at the very end that is perhaps most telling: “We may not have it all together, but together we have it all,” revealing his greatest source of inspiration and guidance.

The Pharmacy is a true family affair, run by the tight-knit Van Ongevalle clan. His father, Jan, and older sister, Hannah, opened the bar in 2013, and he joined the ranks shortly after. Younger sister Noa is now on board too. That he and girlfriend Janah fell in love behind the stick here adds yet another endearing layer to the bar’s narrative. “I was a bit cautious of working with them at first because it’s difficult to blend in with family. I always thought my destiny would be in clothes,” says Van Ongevalle.

A fashion career seemed likely for Van Ongevalle, especially because Jan ran a boutique stocked with such brands as Diesel and Dolce & Gabbana for 25 years. Then, in 2008, “they closed the shop because my father didn’t feel the connection anymore.”

The Pharmacy smoking room.

Instead of wallowing, Jan found new passion in hospitality, starting out as a waiter at an eyebrow-raising age and working his way up to bartender and bar manager. In 2012, he also took part in the same Bacardí Legacy competition.

Jan struck out on his own with The Pharmacy, and it’s emerged as an inviting locale for a number of reasons. There’s the décor that changes annually, courtesy of staff members. Rooms feature jungle-patterned wallpaper, frames delineating the biology of the hand, and a green and brown hunter’s lodge aesthetic.

Then there are the clever libations like the Walt Fizzney (made with Bombay Sapphire gin, fresh lemongrass syrup, lemon juice, egg white and elderflower tonic), what Van Ongevalle describes as “an easy, floral sipper.” And the Smoking Japanese (made with Nikka Pure Malt Japanese whisky, Talisker scotch, Frangelico liqueur, amaretto liqueur, simple syrup and Angostura bitters), smoked with sherry wood chips.

Van Ongevalle after winning at Bacardí Legacy.

“The most important thing about our drinks is having perfect balance and flavor,” says Van Ongevalle. “If we go too experimental, it won’t work. We want surprising elements, and we also want people to just feel satisfied.”

Making guests happy is a priority for Van Ongevalle, who credits one evening in late 2012 as a revelatory turning point. His father was working at the casino at the time and was backed up behind the bar, so he brought in Ran, then a Versace employee, to step in as barback. As Van Ongevalle filled glasses with ice and such, he noticed a patron walk in.

The man was crying, having just blown his savings on the casino floor, “and my father offered him a cocktail with Bombay gin, kiwi, star anise and cinnamon,” says Van Ongevalle.” I saw the guy take a sip, and there was a spark of magic. It looked like he forgot everything. He had a conversation with my dad, and when he left, he was smiling. That was something so unforgettable for me, and I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”