Current hotspots and institutions that have stood the test of time
Berlin, January 2013 Cocktail culture is booming in Berlin as plenty of sophisticated drinking dens have come online in recent years. No matter whether you're into old-school classics or cosmopolitan hotel bars, hidden speakeasies or hipster lounges, you'll find a place for some quality imbibing.
Shhh! Secret Bars
Berlin has always had hidden and nameless bars, long before the new 'speakeasy' wave swept through New York and London. A scene stalwart is Bar Tausend, a swank thirst parlor anonymously tucked into a railway viaduct. Aspiring customers have to ring a bell to gain admission to the tunnel-shaped space. It draws an international, all-ages glamour crowd swilling martini and pink mojitos (with raspberries, that is) amid 'retro-futuristic' decor. Later in the evening, bands or DJs ramp up the amps.
A popular furtive libation station is Butcher's, the brainchild of cocktail whisperer David Wiedemann. Like PDT in New York, the entrance is via a red British phone booth secreted in the back of a sausage kitchen. True to its name, the bar indeed occupies a former butchershop and has the tiled walls, meat hooks and bovine art to prove it. Drinks are first rate – and that's no secret!
Another hidden newcomer is Drayton Bar, docked to the all-veg restaurant Cookies Cream. The entrance for both is via the dark service alley of the Westin Grand Hotel, a dim light the only tip-off to their existence. Upstairs awaits a sophisticated art deco hideaway where hip patrons sip Christian Gentemann's cuisine-style cocktails amid the watchful eyes of two gilded fantasy-bird lamps.
Down in Kreuzberg, Marqués is another restaurant that has spawned a sophisticated shrine to spirits. In the basement at Graefestrasse 92, bar guru Marcus Wolff focuses on drinks that have written cocktail history – Vodka Martini to Negroni – served in an intimate space whose velvet sofas and antique tables invoke an English gentleman's club; a fireplace inspires single-malt sipping.
Mitte, Berlin's most dynamic and cosmopolitan district, is packed with handsome bars that are the darlings of the creative in-crowd but also manage to cast their spell on visitors. Some of the edgiest line at Torstrasse and Friedrichstrasse where King Size Bar has been packing 'em in since 2010. The name itself is wonderfully self-ironic since only a few dozen patrons can squeeze into this hole-in-the-wall that gets delightfully dancy from around 1am till dawn.
Next door, Berlin's scene maven Mario Grünenfelder's latest venture, Rocco & Sanny, 'fires' on all cylinders. The combined bar-restaurant-party spot looks as though a fire raged through only yesterday, a deliberate design intended to emphasize its pop-up pedigree. Doors will remain open only until a new hotel breaks ground in this location, presumably in late 2013. Meantime, patrons get to enjoy Christina Schneider's expert cocktails, including a killer Italian Sour with homemade Limoncello.
Around the corner, on Torstrasse, buzzy Bravo Bar may be signless but makes no secret of its existence thanks to thumping basses booming from behind darkened windows. Pasty-faced party hipsters perennially pack the twin rooms that channel the improvised shabby-chic charm of the 1990s. Loud and raucous, this is not the place for quiet cocktails, which is why beer, champagne and mixed drinks are the poisons of choice.
Keep going east along Torstrasse and you'll likely be drawn into the vortex of the sassy Neue Odessa Bar. At this fashionable haunt, party people sip colorful cocktails, organic wine and Krusovice beer in two rooms where candlelight, velvet sofas and mirrors create an Art Deco 2.0 vibe.
Mitte's most glamorous new playground is The Liberate. Dripping in black-and-gold opulence, this stylish bar would not look out of place in Paris or New York. Only top-shelf spirits find their destinations here in classic drinks poured amid décor that includes a mirror and chandelier scavenged from the demolished Palace of the Republic, East Germany's former seat of parliament.
Good bye .HBC, hello Goldneun. The former Hungarian cultural institute has new owners even if the kooky neon light installation in the bar remains in situ. The drinks menu offers up unusual blends like Cremant Blanc (with pear-ginger essence) and the Rote-Beete-Fusion (vodka with red beet essence), proving that cocktails don't have to be retro to be good.
The brand-new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel has also enriched Berlin's barscape with the Lang Bar, named for the 1920s pioneer of German cinema and indeed endowed with film-set looks - long marble bar, curvaceous booths and wispy floor-to-ceiling curtains. Bar chef Wieland Hartauer whips up matching classic drinks from the 1920s and 1930s and also makes his own bottled- and barrel-aged cocktails.
Since its 2010 opening, the Amano Bar at the eponymous hotel has garnered award after award thanks to its original libations that verge on cocktail alchemy. A bestseller in the dimly lit and hushed lounge is the Yoshitaka Amano, a blend of gin, sake, lime and ginger. In summer, the bar's rooftop expansion is a winner in terms of scenery.
Every night at 6pm sharp, the heavy curtains are pulled back on the Curtain Club in a pompous ceremony orchestrated by a retired London Beefeater (Tower guard). This is when Ritz-Carlton bar chef Arnd Henning Heissen starts creating intricately aromatic 'fragrance cocktails' inspired by the world of perfumes. Of course, all the classic potions, plus a mindboggling selection of champagne, are also accounted for in the clubby, wood-paneled lounge.
Plush luxury is the mojo of the Bebel Bar at the Hotel Rome where the Mad Men crew would fit right in. Instead of whisky, though, most guests like to give the adventurous cuisine-style cocktails and flavored martinis a try. On balmy nights, the action moves to the rooftop terrace with its splendid view over historic Mitte.
Sharing an entrance with the uma restaurant at the back of the Hotel Adlon, the Shochu Bar celebrates exalted Japanese drinking culture. Appropriately, Shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit, forms the basis of many cocktails. Infused with such aromas as saffron, bergamot, cardamom and jasmine, these deliver inspired out-the-box taste experiences.
The hipster hoods of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukölln have thus far been are better known for over-the-top partying than civilized cocktail sipping. Of late, though, a few new arrivals have notably elevated the bar scene.
It was a trip to California that inspired Marwin Bald and Kate Coffee to name their new bar after John Muir, the famous 19th-century Scottish-American naturalist and 'father' of the US national park system. Redbrick arches, antlers and a heavy wooden bar give this cellar space a romantically rustic air. Its hallmark is the monthly changing menu of boutique cocktails, although a few bestsellers (Honey Rye, Basil Mojito) make perennial appearances. What's on tap rotates too, but you can always count on scoring a bottle of Anchor Steam, one of San Francisco's finest brews.
On a nondescript Kreuzberg block, at Wrangelstrasse 24, Schwarze Traube is a pintsized drinking parlor that feels as warm and welcoming as a hug from an old friend. The bar itself takes up half of the front room with a few trashy-chic conversation corners opposite and more tucked into quiet niches in back. A top contender among the man artful potions is the Lemongrass Basil Gimlet.
On Reuterstrasse 27 in northern Neukölln, Artem from Siberia is shaking things up with his bar Vater. Amid eclectic flea market flotsam oozing Russian living-room charm, he pours hard-to-source imported vodkas turned into such home creations as the fruity-sweet A Girl named Lenka and the Bojarski shot (with strawberry syrup and a dash of Tabasco). Nastarovje!
In a quiet corner of Neukölln, The Club has quickly become the go-to place for nighttime revelers tired of the district's better known party miles like Weserstrasse. The space has a split personality, letting you match your mood to white-cube minimalism in front or cozy living-room clutter in back. Draws are the strong drinks (shots are a specialty) along with eclectic programming ranging from bingo night to Golden Girls screening marathons.
Across the Spree River, Friedrichshain now has Crack Bellmer, an island of mellow imbibing amid the sea of high-octane clubs along Revaler Strasse. Behind the requisite street-art-festooned facade awaits an industrial-chic space with vintage sofas, lofty ceilings and chandeliers. Popular for pre-party warm-ups, post-party night caps and any time in between.
Nearby, Booze Bar is a classy antidote to the Happy-Hour madness of the Simon-Dach-Straße party drag. Sink into comfy lounge sofas, surrounded by warmly lit brick walls and a photograph of actor Terence Hill, a cigarette cooly stuck between his lips. The ambience is relaxed and the classic drinks finely crafted by a young team. DJs hit the decks on some nights.
Another star on the Friedrichshain cocktail firmament is the Chapel Bar. Its 'altar' is helmed by meister mixer Michael Blair, whose repertory includes both classic and out-there drinks like the Jägermeister-based Hubertus & Jade. A giant chandelier bathes the otherwise rather simple room in a complexion-friendly glow.
Dapper drinking has long been fashionable in Schöneberg, exemplified by the Green Door that has welcomed cocktail lovers since 1995. A pattern of checks and waves decorates the walls of this ribbon-shaped bar presided over by top-flight publicans flaunting a 500-drink repertory. Though not a speakeasy, the name harkens back to the Prohibition era when green doors pointed to premises serving alcohol.
Victoria Bar has been a beacon of sophistication on gritty Potsdamer Strasse since being founded in 2001 by Stefan Weber, the first barkeeper of the Green Door. 'The Pleasure of Serious Drinking' is the motto of this communicative space teeming with arty regulars. The champagne-based Green Victoria is a top choice.
Another Schöneberg flagship is Lebenstern, ensconced in elegant, antique-filled rooms of the 19th-century villa of silent movie star Henny Porten. Its shelves hold a dazzling selection of rare and noble spirits, including 600 types of rum. Ever since Tarantino filmed scenes of Inglorious Basterds here, there's also a drink by that name (featuring gin, brandy, fresh lime juice and ginger beer).
Still comparatively new on the booze circuit is Stagger Lee, a cozy cocktail saloon complete with swing door, brown Chesterfield sofas and burgundy-red walls. It's mostly about classic drinks, but inspired new compositions - such as the Stagger Lee Beer Old Fashioned, made with bourbon and beer sugar - are well worth a try. Stagger Lee, by the way, was an infamous 19th-century murderer immortalized in song by the Grateful Dead, Nick Cave and many others.
Of course, many of Berlin's other neighbourhoods also have their classic cocktail parlors. Helmed by veteran bar barons Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro and Holger Groll, Buck and Breck brightens up an unglamorous stretch of Brunnenstraße in Mitte. No more than a dozen connoisseurs fit around the deep bar to sip innovative concoctions alongside such historical cocktails as the eponymous Buck & Breck (cognac, bitters, absinth and champagne).
North of here, Becketts Kopf is a Prenzlauer Berg institution where patrons are greeted by a portrait of namesake Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Since 2012, rising star Harry Glockler carries on the bar's tradition of mixing Golden Era cocktails that seduce all the senses.
Enviably untouched by the effect of aging is Rum Trader at Fasanenstraße 40 in Wilmersdorf, a clubby cocoon serving seasoned connoisseurs since 1976. A menu is not needed as bar icon Gregor Scholl, debonairly dressed in waistcoat and bow tie, consults with each patron prior to suggesting a particular drink.