Ariel Leizgold on ‘evolving’ Tel Aviv’s cocktail scene

23rd February, 2018 by Nicola Carruthers

Pioneering bartender Ariel Leizgold took Israel’s hospitality scene by storm when he opened Tel Aviv’s first cocktail bar, 223, in 2008. He has followed it with others, and now plans to duplicate his Bellboy venue in New York.

*This feature was originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Spirits Business

“There was a big question mark around everything back in the day,” Ariel Leizgold, one of Israel’s biggest names in the bartending scene, muses. We’re on the 32nd floor of The Shard in London, where he is hosting a one­-night bar takeover at Oblix, discussing the opening of Tel Aviv’s first cocktail bar. “When I was opening 223, there was a lot of scepticism. There was a big stigma saying that Israelis and locals don’t drink cocktails, so it was a difficult time.”

The Israeli native opened 223 in 2008. It is known as the oldest operating cocktail bar in the capital and paved the way for new bar entrepreneurs. “It became a big hit,” Leizgold says of his first venture. “We were the first to introduce basic things like a classic bartender outfit, and then introducing ingredients that were simple, like egg white. We were happy to be experimenting with things. I wouldn’t say this was the early days of technology, but the internet and information was not as abundant as it is today.”

Growing up in Tel Aviv was an important part of Leizgold’s journey into hospitality. “It’s a city that really formed my personality,” he adds. “I grew up in a very hospitable home. People coming over was always a big thing for us.”

This led to roles in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs before the opening of 223, which Leizgold describes a “very easy-­going place where we can showcase our love for hospitality. It’s about creating something different, new and exciting, and something that would help and inspire others.”

Leizgold's Bellboy bar

Leizgold’s Bellboy bar

DEFINING HOSPITALITY

Not one for sitting still, Leizgold embarked on his second venue in the city, Bellboy – “the jewel of my creation. It took five years of concept development.” He adds: “There are many different things that are important and that define hospitality. Realising that, we took it upon ourselves to deconstruct the entire hospitality experience, enhancing all of the aspects. We wanted to bring the ordinary things and make them out of the ordinary.”

Storytelling and narrative is a recurring theme throughout our conversation. “At Bellboy, it’s really about the story. We take different stories and sources of inspiration and use them in our drinks. We try to really challenge our guests and challenge the way they perceive their time of leisure.

“It’s about going into detail. Some might say that detail is irrelevant, but it’s very much about being theatrical and outgoing and eccentric, like the way I like to live my life personally as well.”

When it comes to the creation of the drinks, Leizgold uses a storyboard as the base. “We write down what comes to our mind and eventually transform it into a recipe.” He uses a walk in the woods as an example for one of his cocktails: “We’re talking about a homemade aquavit, infusing vodka with caraway seeds, dill and honey, then introducing fresh eucalyptus, a mix of fresh berries, birch soda, mushroom extract and lime. So all of that eventually becomes a recipe served in a Viking horn.”

SECRET ROOM

Leizgold continued to expand his bar offering with the introduction of Butler, described as a “small speakeasy-­style” bar situated inside a secret room within Bellboy.

“There was always something missing from Bellboy,” says Leizgold. The bar-­within-­a-­bar, which opened this year, is the “tiniest in Israel” with 12 seats and a focus on personal experience. “It’s very much about who is behind the stick on that night, they give you the hospitality and our style of drinking, and it’s more laid-back. God forbid somebody might walk in to a bar and would like to talk to the bartender, and this is what we do there – we talk to our guests.”

Leizgold also attributes some of his success to the globally renowned Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition; he reached the final six in the 2015 global final. “World Class is a major opportunity for bartenders,” he says. “I was so humbled to have the experience and to be as successful as I was. And the success just kept on going since then, as it propelled Bellboy into the spotlight.”

223's ouzo-based TLV Heat cocktail

223’s ouzo-based TLV Heat cocktail

And he’s thankful for the opportunities it’s given him. Since 2015, Leizgold has delivered his ‘Storytelling through cocktails’ masterclass in 40 countries. “Ten to 15 years ago when I started in hospitality, had you told me that bartending would be a profession where bartenders are flying around the world, sharing their philosophy, and that bartending has become a craft, I would have said you were crazy,” he chuckles.

And now, Leizgold is set to open another story-­inspired venue, this time taking the concept of Bellboy to New York. “New York is amazing”, he says. “I truly believe in the Bellboy concept and I want to showcase it in the top city in the world, and New York for me is that. It’s going to be very challenging and exciting.”

He’s also enthusiastic about his next venture in Tel Aviv, Fantastic. Slated to open in 2018, the venue is inspired by “surrealistic stories and literature”. Leizgold’s biggest venue in Israel is set to feature four rooms, each with a different colour, design and inspiration. It consist of an all-­day bistro and cocktail bar; a high­-end theatre-­like bar and restaurant; a work space where you can order “simple drinks, like bottled cocktails and snacks”; and a fourth room, which Leizgold is keen to keep under wraps.

GLOBAL RECOGNITION

As our time draws to an end, I ask Leizgold to describe the bar and cocktail scene in Israel now.

“It has evolved dramatically,” he says. “It’s very much growing; we’ve got bars with global recognition today, and bars in the top lists in the world. Today our guests are almost disappointed if we don’t make something new for them. We have people bar hopping in Tel Aviv, keen to experience the bar scene and asking for bar recommendations. So it’s not really provincial anymore. I feel very lucky to be living at this time and to be at the forefront of it.”

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