In addition to his role as lead bartender at Chef Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Wood restaurant in San Diego, CA, Willem Van Leuven is also the San Diego chapter president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild and most recently ran the bar programs at Puesto and Prohibition. Willem has a passion for agave spirits, seen by his frequent travels throughout Mexico, especially Jalisco and Tijuana.
Years in the Industry: 18
Notable Achievements: Regional finalist at the 2012 Domaine de Canton bartender of the year competition; First place in multiple categories at the 2015 Pacific Magazine Margarita Grand Tasting Event.
How did you get into cocktails and what do you most enjoy about your job?
I began bartending at a wine bar in Pasadena in 2010, it was there I helped run a cocktail bar attached to the back entrance. We hired Ben Browning as a consultant, and he helped inspire me to focus on well-crafted cocktails. Since then, I’ve been pursuing a career in the bar industry focused on creating thoughtful, meaningful experiences. What I enjoy about my job is the creative process of coming up with a new recipe by thinking outside the box. I love creating cocktails that are mindful and serve a purpose.
What elevates your own personal drinking experience?
For my personal drinking experience, I like to keep it simple with neat pours of whiskey or tequila and cold refreshing beers. What really elevates it for me is when I’m having good conversation with even greater friends. Some solid tunes in the background takes it to the next level.
What’s one cocktail would you order from a bartender to suss out their skills and why?
The one cocktail that bartenders always judge each other on it the daiquiri. If you can’t make a proper classic three-ingredient cocktail, you need to go back to school. It’s the equivalent of a chef in a kitchen testing a cook on making an omelet.
Person from history you’d most like to sit down and have a drink with?
I would have loved to sit down and sip bourbon with Booker Noe, the former master distiller for Jim Beam. The product with his namesake, “Booker’s bourbon” has been my favorite whiskey since I found out about it 8 years ago. It came to be a product because it was Booker Noe’s favorite way to drink whiskey, straight from the barrel, uncut and unfiltered. There is nothing like standing in a warehouse in Kentucky with a master distiller and taking pulls from samples taken right from the barrel.
Any particular spirits, syrups or flavor profiles on your cocktail radar for 2017?
For spirits, I think rum as a category overall will do really well in the next 12-18 months. Especially agricole rhum and aged rums. For cocktails, I think that we’re also going to see more savory ingredients more commonly seen in cuisine. I’m personally working on more herbal syrups and flavors in cocktails, but that has mostly to do with the cocktail program at Herb & Wood.
Herb & Wood is located at 2210 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101. Please visit herbandwood.com or call (619) 955-8495 for more information.