Berlin - “Welcome to an evening of divine imbibing and decadence,” said the emcee from a compact, elevated stage in the back of the narrow, crowded bar in Berlin.
He wore red-and-black striped pants and had fringes on his jacket's epaulets, and he introduced Roxy Diamond, a Swiss expat who, working down from a flouncy dress to full burlesque regalia (which is to say minimal regalia), strutted, shimmied and gleefully evoked catcalls.
It would seem like an exercise in nostalgia, evocative of the things that iconic Weimar-era writers Joseph Roth and Christopher Isherwood made famous about the city. That's what this bar, Prinzipal Kreuzberg, is like. Sort of. The thing that brought me back to now was the bourbon cocktail infused with grapefruit, dates and cinnamon made by a tall Norwegian expat named Odd Strandbakken, all boyish features and blond hair. It was Saturday night and I had arrived early, as everyone recommended. Strandbakken regaled me with tales of when he lived in the North Pole, such as the time he faced down a polar bear. Then he did some Vegas-calibre card tricks.
Berlin is a city where past and present are on a constant collision course. History hangs heavy, but creativity - and the creative types that give a city its energy - remain among its exhilarating hallmarks. David Bowie, for one, once deemed it “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”
There's much to-do this year throughout Germany to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Reinheitsgebot, the German beer-purity laws. Abiding by tradition like that is virtuous, to be sure, but personally, I consider disruption way more captivating. That's precisely what I found in this city, where creative bartenders are establishing new traditions in a way that's uniquely Berlinesque - imaginative while nodding to the “cultural extravaganza” that historically defined it.
That's what hit me when I walked into Fairytale Bar, best described as a fever dream engineered by the Brothers Grimm and Tim Burton. The menus are retrofitted into vintage illustrated storybooks with test tubes of cocktail samples nestled in the pages. The bartenders wear corseted dresses, and the decor has the feel of an aged aunt's kitsch-laden living room.
My first drink was served in a glass vessel designed as a high-heeled shoe, a sort-of salute to Cinderella. My second intriguingly combined Scotch, plum wine and Guinness beer syrup. But those drinks were tame compared with the sensory bonanza at Fragrances, a glammy lounge in the Ritz-Carlton that boasts the kind of madcap formulas usually found in molecular gastronomy temples or in mixology bars that require X-ray glasses to find the unmarked door. I was sure I was in the wrong place when I walked in the department-store-style entrance, lined with glass display vessels, each containing a designer perfume, scent samples in small boxes and liquor bottles to show the ingredients in the cocktail that the fragrance inspired. This was the menu.
After about 15 minutes of inhaling gorgeous, indulgent scents, I settled on a mezcal-based drink with ingredients involving orange, sandalwood, cloves and pink peppercorn inspired by Frederic Malle's Vetiver Extraordinaire. It was spicy, earthy and bright in scent and flavour.
The following night, a local friend instructed me to meet him at Gin & Tonic Bar. It was safe to assume that, with a name like that, there'd be no whimsy. The brass-accented space was as minimalist as the starring drink: nearly 100 bottles of gin lining a mirrored wall behind the bar.
But my attention was diverted by a glass dome on the bar containing an arrangement of a bottle of English gin, a small bottle of Jägermeister, a lime and a sign that read “Pretty Amber.” Then and there I knew I had walked into something truly surreal, as my grown-up cocktail-sipping self tried to imagine how Jägermeister, that fierce liqueur I was always instructed to shoot cold, would play in a tranquil cocktail-bar setting.
Figured I'd try it - just for old time's sake, right? Actually, it was nothing like the old times I remembered. The small measure of inky bitter liqueur added a sweet, violetlike floral dimension to the bright botanicals of the gin, in this case the zesty, citrusy Sipsmith.
What a curious fluke, I thought. Until it happened again. The next night, my friend and I visited Chapel Bar, a lively spot with opulent chandeliers, stark concrete walls and Victorianesque velour couches. The drinks leaned inventive, with unusual twists on classics such as the whiskey sour (fat-washed walnut bourbon, anyone?) and rum infusions, but my eye landed on this option: Ardbeg 10, Jägermeister, fresh lime and maple syrup. Ardbeg, an exceptionally peaty Scotch, was brought to submission and revealed its gentler side with a small helping of the liqueur.
I chatted with the bartender, who explained that he liked to use it as a modifier in lieu of common bitters such as Angostura, as it has a spicy bitter quality, or as a sweet substitute for a syrup. He told me that a recent visit to the facility inspired him to play around with it more. It wasn't far - about a two-hour train ride. I try to always leave room for changes of plans when I travel, so I changed them.
The next day, I took the train with a friend to Wolfenbüttel, a charming town that's all narrow zigzagging streets, a narrower canal, timber-framed buildings and even a grand library said to be among the oldest in the world and home to more than 1 000 Medieval-era manuscripts and 1,000 000 old books, many written on vellum.
A short walk from the old-world town centre, however, is a sleek glass building where people in white lab coats scurry around. Given the space-age polish of the space, the smells that envelop you in the visitors' room are disorienting - they evoke an old Chinese herb shop. But as I learned, the drink, which dates to 1935 and was created by a longtime wine and vinegar merchant whose family still owns the company, is made with the same 56 herbs, spices and botanicals as it was back then. Those raw smells - Jamaican allspice, Indian ginger, Madagascar cloves - were transporting, reminding me of the past.
It's a past that the bartenders in Berlin are saluting as they create their own history.
* Weisstuch is a travel, spirits and lifestyle writer based in Boston and New York.
If you go...
Where to drink
Weekend burlesque shows are just one of the draws of this popular cocktail bar behind an unremarkable locked door on lively Oranienstrasse. (Knocking required.) House infusions, syrups and other homemade ingredients play a starring role in the creative drinks (from $11/R150), like the Potion of Sykei (gin, fig-infused vermouth, blue cheese). Open 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and until 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Other bars are more open-ended about their closing times.
Am Friedrichshain 24
At this dimly lit, hip hangout, the imaginative cocktails (from $11) are as whimsical as the storybook-inspired decor, an exercise in kitschy-chic. The menus are retrofitted into vintage books that have small snacks and test tubes of cocktails nestled in the pages. Open from 8 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations required.
Potsdamer Platz 3
This glammy lounge in the centrally located Ritz-Carlton serves highly-wrought yet elegant cocktails, each inspired by a designer perfumes (from $17.60) and served in a dramatic vessel. The entrance to the bar features a display of perfumes and scent boxes that serve as an interactive, inhalable menu, of sorts. Each fragrance/drink option is accompanied by an engaging haikulike description, such as “The protected feeling of home by the fireplace” (inspired by Vaara by British fragrance house Penhaligons) and “A festival on the rooftop in Macau with a stunning view on the starry night with fireworks” (inspired by Salvatore Ferragamo's Viola Essenziale). Open at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Victorian charm meets industrial chic at this relaxed neighbourhood bar in the lively Friedrichshain district. The cocktail menu - drinks from $10 - runs the gamut from playful twists on classics to hyper-imaginative formulas employing anything from fat-washed walnut bourbon to Darjeeling-infused gin. Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Gin & Tonic Bar
Grosse Präsidentenstrasse 6-7
There's no false advertising here. Located in the boutique Hotel Zoe, this sophisticated, minimalist space with brass accents and Art Deco touches specialises in gin, offering many dozens of selections from around the world and an exorbitant range of tonics. Bartenders also mix drinks that are more elaborate than the classic G&T combo. From $9. Open from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily.