I wrote this article for Food Republic, originally published September 22, 2015. Here is the unedited article with an additional 5 bars at the end and also Berlin shops selling rare spirits. The article and all photos are by Virginia Miller.
Not having been back to Berlin since 1999 when the city was flush with cranes, construction and raw energy, I found upon returning 15 years later that Germany’s most spread out, diverse city has also become one of Europe’s top cocktail cities. As the city has built up and changed shape constantly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, so the drink scene has grown into one where historic, hidden spaces house unreal spirits selections and meticulous cocktails. Despite Berlin’s excessive proliferation of speakeasy-style bars with doorbells and hidden storefronts, a long tired trend in the States, here these bars are generally without the pretension and excessive prices often found in cocktail meccas like London.
Quirky Berliner humor and German precision ensure many superb bars where you can have a quality cocktail for under $15 USD. In addition, can’t-miss spirits shops sell rare gems that would thrill drink fanatics, as I they did me. I spent a good couple hours talking to Dr. Kochan, the schnaps expert who runs the charming Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur shop packed with rare spirits in all categories from German gins to Scandinavian whisky, specializing in obscure German schnaps/eaux de vie/brandies from farms and distillers around the country (more on what real schnaps is here). Whisk(e)y lovers can’t miss the closet-sized but nonetheless awe-inspiring Finest Whisky collection. Spirit rarities are jam-packed in the tiny space, including nearly impossible-to-find Japanese and American whiskies, Scotch and beyond. An only-in-Berlin kind of shop is Absinth Depot with an impressive collection of obscure absinthe and other spirits (they offer tastings) in a small space that oozes Old World charm.
Here are the top 10 Berlin bars (plus a few more for good measure) now:
Famed for its appearance in Quentin Tarantino‘s “Inglorious Basterds, the old mansion that houses the three room, oak-paneled Lebensstern is a spirits’ lovers heaven and easily one of the best bars in the world (upstairs from Cafe Einstein).
Akin to the unreal spirits collections commonly found in Tokyo, glowing cabinets, surrounded by cushy armchairs and couches, are packed with insane rarities, including over 600 kinds of rum, around 500 whiskies and 200 gins, even gins from China or the Middle East. There are flights in numerous spirits categories from rhum agricole to German gins, with many bottles decades old.
Classic cocktails dominate, set to indoor smoking and live jazz. The elegant space appeals to drink aficionados and history buffs, entered after ringing a doorbell on massive front steps and being escorted upstairs. The staff lack pretension and truly know their spirits. An evening here feels like being blissfully lost in another world and time.
Fragrances & The Curtain Club at the Ritz-Carlton Berlin, Tiergarten
Located just off Potsdamer Platz in the Ritz-Carlton Berlin are two of Berlin and Europe’s best bars, thanks to bar manager Arnd Heissen. The first, Fragrances, is a high end cocktail sanctuary and one of the world’s show-stopping bar concepts. Entering through a hallway off the hotel lobby, a museum-like exhibit explores each cocktail on the menu with spirits bottles and ingredients displayed next to fragrances that inspired each drink. Famed perfumes and colognes, from Giorgio Armani to Yves Saint Laurent, are behind each cocktail, served with dramatic presentation and a refined sense of taste. Explore the fascinating drinks and presentations here, like a bourbon rum cocktail that arrives smoking in a little house.
In the main lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, the Curtain Club is a completely different experience but no less wonderful. Where Fragrances is reverent and removed, Curtain Club’s long bar, dark woods and fat armchairs buzz with locals and travelers, set to live music around the grand piano. Heissen and his talented team of international bartenders keep the vibe playful with an only-in-Berlin sense of humor and the most engaging presentation of a classic Blue Blazer cocktail anywhere set to music (the lights go down and each bartender has their own song and interpretation of the flaming 1800’s drink). As at Fragrances, Heissen’s cocktails are as intriguing as they are balanced, inspired by unique aromatics and essential oils he collects at the bar. Case in point: Vetiver Garden lets the grassy, stone notes of mezcal shine illuminated by Fukuyu yuzu sake, lemon, vetiver essential oil and egg white.
One of my favorite finds this trip to Germany was the stunning collection of Stählemühle schnaps produced by the distiller of famed Monkey 47 Gin, using seasonal ingredients from his farm. These expensive brandies (which I far prefer to Monkey 47 and wish we had imported to the States) are extremely rare and limited production, even in Germany. Curtain Club is the only bar to house every bottle in the collection, from coriander to Japanese mint schnaps, smelling and tasting as fresh as the ingredients themselves.
Le Croco Bleu, Prenzlauer Berg
There are a handful of Berlin bars that feel like time traveling and Le Croco Bleu is one of them, opened by Paris Bar and Rum Trader barman Gregor Scholl. Off of busy Prenzlauer Allee, hidden in the former Bötzow Brewery, trying to find the bar feels like walking into some abandoned, futuristic world. But once you step inside, you enter a wonderland amid the brewery’s pipes and brickwork one that feels like 1930’s supper club set in a faux tropical island getaway, complete with greenery, stuffed animals, including a crocodile, while crooners serenade from the speakers. White coat, black tie servers bring cocktails on trays (generally ranging from 9-18), including dreamy creations like a Yuzu Mai Tai combining Bacardi 8 year and Appleton V/X rums with yuzu, dry orange curacao and lemon, topped with a yuzu-almond espuma (foam). It’s sheer magic, a place to dress up and linger.
Rum Trader, Wilmersdorf
Berlin’s oldest cocktail bar, Rum Trader, is virtually unchanged since opening in 1976 but feels more like stepping into Berlin’s glory days in the 1930’s, complete with big band jazz softly playing in the closet-sized space. There is a buzzer on the door but it is best to call ahead as roughly no more than 25 people can squeeze into the smoke-filled space. Eccentric bartender Gregor Scholl (who opened Le Croco Bleu), looking as if he stepped out of the 1930’s himself in waistcoat and bow tie, gives preferential treatment to regulars and friends, although his fellow bartender gave us excellent service. This bar is for the dedicated cocktail aficionado, those willing to give respect to the experience, one that ultimately is rife with romance, a place where time stops. As you sip a classic agricole rhum Ti Punch or a neat pour of 20 year Dictador rum, you realize this is a slice of history, a one of a kind bar that epitomizes jazz age Berlin. This is the era I wish I could have experienced the city in. At Rum Trader, I can.
Stagger Lee, Schöneberg
Think Old West saloon in a dim, seductive, old timey space and you’ll start to picture the allure of Stagger Lee (named after Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds song). There is a doorbell but you can see right in to the bar so it doesn’t feel exclusive so much as laid back, a wood-lined cocktail parlor marked by saloon doors, antique lamps and a piano.
American whiskies and tunes set the tone while bartenders are friendly and equally adept with the other dominant spirit on the menu: tequila. Sipping a Margot, a refreshing combination of Aperol, sweet vermouth, soda and Sudtiroler Wacholderschnaps, I longed for this to be my neighborhood bar.
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Becketts Kopf, Prenzlauer Berg
Hidden speakeasy Becketts Kopf (translating to Beckett’s Head) is one of Berlin’s revered bars for over a decade, drawing many a bartender to move to Berlin to work here, as evidenced by the international staff.
It’s best to call ahead to see if there is seating in the two-room space (no standing around allowed, with one room for smokers). On weeknights, I found plenty of chairs to sink into after pressing the buzzer on a door next to an illuminated photograph of Irish novelist Samuel Beckett, the bar’s namesake.
Menus hide inside Beckett’s books, but the accommodating staff can easily go off-menu, pulling from their highly-curated spirits selection. After talking German schnaps, they served me a Forrest cocktail, mixing Old Bardstown bourbon infused with rosemary and one of a couple rare bottles of the aforementioned Stählemühle schnaps, a schnaps aromatic with pine and leaves.
Redwood Bar, Mitte
Californians and produce-driven cocktail fans will feel right at home at Redwood Bar, thanks to owner Kevin Brown who is from Sacramento and bar manager Shawn Beck from San Francisco. But so will anyone craving a laid back bar, a barrel aged cocktail (a rarity in Berlin) or well made classics, listed on a flavor spectrum, like dry (El Presidente, Vesper, Boulevardier, Calvados Cocktail) or Sweet (Negroni, Hanky Panky, Manhattan, Vieux Carre).
In keeping with its California roots, the bar itself is a striking redwood tree slab and the staff head to a nearby farmers market daily for fresh produce, utilized in the cocktail of the day and featured drinks. Go the fresh route with the likes of a Maypole, mixing gin, lemon, strawberry, basil and chili tincture, or boozy-bracing with a Constantinople, combining rye whiskey, coffee, cardamom and old fashioned bitters. Across the city, John Muir also has California ties, a bar named after a crucial figure behind the vast amounts of nature preserved in California. Despite its seductive vibe and an easy fit in the produce-driven cocktail category, unfriendly staff and lackluster cocktails are the opposite of the welcoming vibe and expat crowd at the intimate Redwood Bar.
Buck & Breck, Mitte
Buck and Breck (named after American president James Buchanan and his vice-president, John Breckinridge) is yet another speakeasy with an art gallery front (our excellent waiter at the mind-blowing, 2 Michelin star Tim Raue restaurant called ahead to to make sure there was room for us).
B & B only seats 14 people around one large bar that takes up the whole room. But unlike many of the classic cocktail-heavy speakeasy bars around Berlin, this one is set to a hip hop soundtrack with bartenders in T-shirts and baseball caps and patrons smoking around the bar. It’s a seductive setting and easy place to make friends over well-crafted but not fussy cocktails. Reservations recommended.
Schwarze Traube, Kreuzberg
Though some bemoan the hipster staff and exclusivity of speakeasy-esque Schwarze Traube and the experience does require some patience and time to wait for custom drinks here, menu-less drinks are unique and tasty. Bartenders seem to keep to themselves until approaching you to discuss your preferences to create a custom cocktail, which could be interpreted as pretentious but evoked more of a chill, hippy vibe rather than pretention. One of a few intriguing drinks customized for me was a mix of Ferdinands Saar Quince Gin (a German gin), Campari, cardamom, lime, muscat grapes and Ferdinands Rubinette Apple Lemon Thyme Bitters, with fresh nutmeg grated on top.
Bar Amano, Mitte
Though Bar Amano cocktail prices run high (13-15) and the somewhat stuffy hotel bar space isn’t exactly uplifting (especially if you’d rather skip the clubby weekend DJ atmosphere), the rooftop bar and views are inspiring, gazing out over the Berlin skyline. Not every cocktail works from the artful menu that is like a history of America via cocktails, but creative combinations can sing, expressing the culinary side of cocktails. Case in point: El Conejo Muerto, a bright, savory blend of Marca Negra Espadin Mezcal, carrot curry syrup, house celery bitters, lime and orange peel.
Other cocktail bar recommends: Though their solid cocktails are not exactly destination-worthy, quirky, intimate Fairytale in Prenzlauer Berg is nearly as enchanting as a fairytale, especially with rabbit statues watching you sip and paper butterflies flying out of the pop-up fairytale book menu (don’t miss the bathroom mirror that turns your eyes square). Only in Berlin. Tier is a seductive bar packed with smoking hipsters and serving quality drinks, often featuring mezcal, like the El Medio combining Alipus San Juan Mezcal, lemon and house galangal ginger liqueur.
Pauly Saal in Mitte is worth visiting for the 1930’s-influenced bar design alone (it’s also a Michelin-starred restaurant) in the former Jüdische Mädchenschule (Jewish Girls’ School), with a crazy history including a Nazi take-over dating back to 1928. The bar design is gorgeous, all browns, greens and art deco influence. Though known for their cocktails, note that they only serve basic, easy drinks (think gin and tonic) during the day watch for schnaps rarities on the shelves, like Austria’s fantastic cask-strength Rochelt (18-24 a 2cl pour).
Windhorst in Mitte is a cozy bar and regular haunt of diplomats, being down the street from the US Embassy. Owner Günter Windhorst’s vinyl collection speaks to the jazz musicians painted on the wall, while a 52-page menu is heavy on American classics but especially shines in creative twists like a Thai Fizz mixing Tanqueray gin, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass cordial, coriander, lime and soda.
In the Schöneberg district, Green Door is a classic Berlin cocktail bar, owned by playwright Fritz Müller-Scherz, behind a neon green sign and doorbell. Pull up to a long bar in the intimate room marked by gingham wallpaper, where straightforward classics are served from a book. A unique highlight is Berlin Son, a light, herbaceous fizz mixing Berliner Kummel (caraway liqueur), Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, sugar and citrus.