Times Will Tell

Podcast: Tel Aviv’s cocktail master talks hospitality and mixes a boulevardier

Ariel Leizgold, a founder of the Bellboy bar group, credits his Russian-born parents for teaching him how to pour vodka and make people feel at home

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

On this week’s Times Will Tell, we speak with Ariel Leizgold, cocktail master and one of the founders of the Bellboy Group, a hospitality and bar firm with six bars in Tel Aviv, one in Berlin and plans to expand.

Leizgold talks about growing up in his Russian-Israeli family, where hospitality and vodka –along with mayonnaise — were regularly featured, but his medical professional parents never expected him to work in the service and hospitality industry.

He discusses the early days of cocktail making in Tel Aviv, when customers had to be convinced to try something more daring than vodka mixed with Red Bull, and what it means to bring the Tel Aviv bar experience to the globe.

Finally, Leizgold mixes his favorite cocktail of late, a boulevardier, and shares his recipe:

Glass: Coupe
Garnish: Absinthe spray on glass, large chocolate diamond, black ribbon on stem
Method: Throw
30 ml rye whisky
20 ml cognac
20 ml amaro
20 ml sweet vermouth
15 ml Campari

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Hey, everyone, it’s Jessica Steinberg from Times Will Tell, and I’m in Butler, the cozy, intimate bar tucked into the back of Bellboy, one of the six bars in the legendary Bellboy hospitality group. Bellboy and Butler are in Tel Aviv, and Butler has this 1920s-era vintage wallpaper spotted mirrors behind the bar, and tin ceilings in other parts of the bar. And I’m speaking with Bellboy co-founder Ariel Leizgold, one of Israel’s 50 most influential figures in hospitality, who won the title of Israel’s Bartender of the Year nine times and won several international bartending awards. And he is here with us. Hello, Ariel.

Ariel Leizgold: Hello, Jessica. Nice to see you.

The Times of Israel: Nice to see you. So you have an interesting background in the hospitality industry. You started out as a teenager being a waiter for a catering company in Beersheba, where you lived, I believe, at the time, and you ended up becoming this world-class bartender, binding together cocktails and the world of hospitality. Now I’m wondering if that was the game plan.

Ariel Leizgold: No, it was never the game plan. It was actually if you would ask my parents, the game plan would be for me to be a dentist or something terrible like that.

The Times of Israel: Terrible. Horrible. Because your parents, as I know, are both medical professionals, correct?

Ariel Leizgold: Correct. Yeah. They both went down the right path. Yes. If you would ask them, it would be whatever was expected of me growing up in old school Ashkenazi home, firstly in Beersheba. Then we moved to Givatayim, which is close to Tel Aviv. Yeah, but it was always something like working in hospitality always meant being the black sheep, even after many years in hospitality.

The Times of Israel: But you did say that your parents were hospitable people.

Ariel Leizgold: Absolutely. It was kind of like a paradox for them, because on one hand, they were not expecting me to go into the world of hospitality, bartending, waitressing later on, becoming a business owner, etc., in the field. However, every time I look back at my childhood and my boyhood, I have them to thank for giving me those values, for giving me all the ins and outs of hospitality and of connection with people. So it wasn’t their plan, but they were kind of gunning for it even without knowing, so right.

The Times of Israel: And I think you might have mentioned to me in the past that vodka wasn’t something that wasn’t known to be on the table.

Ariel Leizgold: Well, just like any old-fashioned Eastern European immigrant table, our dining room table was always filled with all kinds of booze and mayonnaise. So not to wear out the cliche, but this was the case. They were both very hospitable, and both worked really, really long hours, but still had to have the time or find the time. It was very important to them to be hospitable to always have people over. We would always discuss the size of the living room, is this living room large enough for us to have the minimal amount of people that we wanted to have or going away and visiting some friends and gossiping on the way back home which would include discussion on the size of the living room and the quality of hospitality, etxc.

The Times of Israel: So you learned from people who really knew what they were talking about when it comes to hospitality.

Ariel Leizgold: Absolutely. I remember this one night, I was in military service, and my friends and I invited my friends over one weekend and we had this real booze fest the whole night. We would drink and then play cards and whatever. And so it’s like 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. My mom comes downstairs and she sees me and a bunch of guys in the living room. Well, not really drunk, and she would get so upset with us. And at first, I thought she was upset because we were drinking and we were drunk in our living room. Then it dawned on me. She was upset because I didn’t serve anything to eat. My mom would fix breakfast for me and the guys, and she would say, Listen, you know, if you go out drinking, you need to eat, otherwise you’ll get really, really wasted.

The Times of Israel: That’s a mom teaching her son how to behave in the world out there and how to be hospitable. That’s a good story. Okay, now, you opened your first bar, I believe, 223, was that the first one?

Ariel Leizgold: Yeah, we opened 223 in 2007, 2008. It was the first-ever cocktail bar in Israel.

The Times of Israel: Right. When Israelis still preferred vodka with Red Bull. Correct. That was like the favorite drink in those times. Not by you, of course.

Ariel Leizgold: It was a complete desert in the cocktail field and drinking in general. The public back in the day was very, very old-fashioned, very limited, very square, and very set in its ways. So, yes, back in the day, whether it be vodka and Red Bull or sweet white wine, other brands which were quite popular back in the day, but it was like, very minimal with respect to the range of how open people would be back in those days.

The Times of Israel: What did you do? How did you change their minds about what a cocktail is? How did you even show them, explain to them, get them to try your concoctions? How did you get them to walk in the door?

Ariel Leizgold: A few things. One, back in those days, it was pre-Instagram. It was like the early days of Facebook. In order for us to get educated in the field we’d literally have to read books, which is something that is very rare these days. We would read books, we would travel, we would really research the old-fashioned way, the field. And New York City was very big and was, I would say, the first to arrive with respect to the renaissance of cocktails. In the early 2000s, a legendary bartender opened Milk and Honey in New York City, which was like the pioneer of cocktails on the international scene. And later on, also in New York, a bunch of New York bartenders opened Employees Only, which is also around to this day and is also one of the world’s most legendary bars. And those few bars that opened in New York and later in London were the beginning of the renaissance of cocktails globally. And so I and a few other Tel Aviv bartenders we were kind of like beginning our journey in the Tel Aviv bar scene or the Tel Aviv cocktail scene where we wanted to create it.

And then we took inspiration from Employees Only, from Milk and Honey, from other bars of the time, and we launched 223 and we set it on the way to becoming the mecca or the house of the Israeli cocktail.

The Times of Israel: Okay, so what is now all these years later when cocktails are served, obviously in many bars, on many restaurant menus, and of course you’re at the center of the cocktail renaissance. What is Israeli then about Bellboy or about Butler or about your cocktail making and your cocktail hospitality? Is there anything specifically Israeli about it? Or Tel Aviv?

Ariel Leizgold: I would say that everything that we do, we try to put Tel Aviv in our DNA and we try to be, as we say, Tel Aviv about it.

The Times of Israel: But not Israeli.

Ariel Leizgold: Not necessarily Israeli, but, you know, we’re connected in particular in the global scheme of things? It can’t really be Tel Avivian and not be Israeli. So obviously Tel Aviv means Israeli. But for me, I like to dive deep into what Tel Aviv is for me. And for me, Tel Aviv is eccentric, it’s eclectic, and it is surreal in some ways. And so whatever we do from a culinary perspective, but also with a cultural view, we try to be as local and as seasonal as we can. But more than anything, we try to be multilayered and multisensory and try to make things as experiential for us as Tel Aviv is. And so for me, that is the essence of Tel Aviv in my creation.

The Times of Israel: And now that you have Bellboy Berlin and you’re talking about opening other locations, then what does that mean? Do you fit the cocktail bar to the location? Do you bring elements of Bellboy, Tel Aviv and of your other locations to your more global locations? What does it mean when it comes to the actual cocktail, the cocktails that are being served to your guests, to your customers?

Ariel Leizgold: So when we first opened Bellboy, the vision was we don’t want people to come in and have the experience and say, oh, this reminds me of New York, or, wow, I feel like I’m in London. We wanted it to be unique. We wanted the experience to be unique on a global level. And I think we were successful in the sense that we have a following from around the world. We have people coming in and followers on social media and otherwise. And wherever we go, we have at the very least, we have a slight foot in the door. And so with regards to where we go next, we pinpointed a few cities that we’re looking at, and we’re entertaining deals there to create a Bellboy operation in one of those cities in the next year. And we’re hoping to close within the next couple of months. But what we introduce is yeah, we introduce our operation from Tel Aviv. Obviously we have the benefit of taking the time and understanding what we’ve done wrong and how we might do things slightly differently, but not completely different to the extent of changing the concept.

The Times of Israel: And you’ve got the Israeli hospitality, I imagine that’s obviously the big piece of this, not just the cocktails.

Ariel Leizgold: I think what we’re famous for is, on one hand, to create this high-end experience with the cocktails and with the food and with design and everything. But what makes it really unique is that we are so fun-loving and so close and so warm and so somewhat even silly about it, serving drinks.

The Times of Israel: With rubber ducks and so on.

Ariel Leizgold: Well, for example. But it’s also the personal element, and it’s something that is very hard to bring across. And when you need to teach it to staff members and to other new people joining the team, it’s a major part of what we do. It’s a key element of our education system to our staff and to the newcomers to our teams.

The Times of Israel: Okay, now, you said you would make me a drink, correct?

Ariel Leizgold: Absolutely.

The Times of Israel: And your favorite drink of late is?

Ariel Leizgold: Well, recently I like boulevardier, which is kind of, I would say a whiskey negroni.

The Times of Israel: Okay, sounds good to me. So I think we’re going to step behind the bar over here and we’re going to make the drink.

Ariel Leizgold: We pre-batch the boulevardier in the samovar as I said, the blend that I was discussing, you would get it inside here, and I would add ice to my cocktail shaker, and I would just throw it.

The Times of Israel: Throwing it back and forth, tossing it from shaker to shaker in the air. Liquid flying through the air.

Ariel Leizgold: So this would introduce air.

The Times of Israel: To the drink. How many times do you do that?

Ariel Leizgold:
For about 30 seconds.

The Times of Israel: Are you counting?

Ariel Leizgold:

The Times of Israel: That goes on for a while.

Ariel Leizgold: So the drink gets a bitter chocolate diamond and you place it on the bottom. It would give you a small hit, but then imagine what happens as you reach the end and the final sip. And then you take with the final sip, you take that chocolate diamond and it’s the best finish to a cocktail ever.

The Times of Israel: Ariel, thank you very much for being with us today.

Ariel Leizgold: Thank you very much, Jessica. Thank you for having me.

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