Words by: Ian Cameron
Oliver Ebert left a career in the theatre to run his own bar with his wife Cristina in Berlin, focusing on the origins of classic and long-forgotten cocktails long before that became fashionable. Seven years on, their bar, Becketts Kopf, is regarded as having driven a new appreciation of classic cocktails in the city.
Ask anyone to name the best cocktail cities in the world, chances are they'll include Berlin, a city healthily full of geekery and great bars, a knowledgeable magazine reflecting the local passion in the shape of Mixology, and a scene regarded as 'up there' with New York and London. In fact, its presence in such lists belies a renaissance in cocktail culture that is surprisingly recent.
As recently as the early 2000s, Oliver Ebert, then a theatre director, says it was hard to find a bar that catered to anything other than the sweet palate that German drinkers were accustomed to. Although Munich barman Charles Schumann had already published American Bar, drinkers and bartenders remained unadventurous.
"About seven or eight years ago the renaissance in the US had started but it just wasn't possible to talk about cocktails the way we do now in Germany, even to bartenders," says Oliver. "Nobody talked about this old school renaissance. Charles Schumann had made cocktails famous, but most bars were stuck in the 80s, mixing the taste of the alcohol away. If you talked to a bartender about something like the Vieux Carré, nobody knew. Yes, they could make a Martini and probably had maybe three different gins then, but there was little known about the history of cocktails. They would make Manhattans but actually you couldn't get rye."
Having moved to Berlin from Munich in 2000, Oliver had become interested in old, forgotten recipes of the shorter, more bitter kind and had been accumulating a small personal library populated with the likes of Jerry Thomas, Harry Craddock, William Grimes and Dave Wondrich. He would 'torture' his friends with his take on old cocktails, and take what were then esoteric recipes in to bartenders, but was frequently told such drinks were not commercially viable and would not chime with a national palate that had sweeter tastes. Only one bar - the Victoria - proved inspirational. "Its head barman Gonzalo was the first guy who had the same insights in old cocktails that I was having. The bar's owner saw that Gonzalo was becoming popular and said he would source whatever he needed." That was rare, however, and even hotel bars did not pass muster, especially where cocktails were concerned. "You would get typical hotel service but they didn't know how to do a drink."
Dissatisfied in his ability to get a good drink, quoting 'artistic differences' in the theatrical world, and with a gut instinct that told him that the country's predisposition to herbal liqueurs augured well for a revival of shorter, stronger drinks, Oliver found himself contemplating a new career. Newly married, he also thought that running a business with his wife Cristina Neves afforded an amazing opportunity to spend more time together. At first they contemplated running a hotel - Christina was already a director of a hotel group. "Then we realized we would always have to get up early, and started to think that if we opened a bar we could sleep longer. We were always people who lived in the night."
Opening a bar that made the drinks he wanted suddenly became amazingly attractive, and they began a search for a site, settling on a former 'knieper' - an old German style of pub in north Berlin.
This being before the cocktail renaissance, the lack of understanding about the viability of an old school cocktail bar extended beyond bartenders. "I tried borrowing money from four or five different banks. Four laughed in my face, one said they would give me €30,000 but insisted on my buying their insurance. In the end, we used our own money that we'd accumulated from our jobs and our parents lent us some."
In 2004, having quit their jobs, they opened their bar, Becketts Kopf. It would be nice to say that the rest is history, but things didn't go quite so smoothly. Back then, the street was devoid of other bars and restaurants, says Oliver. Luckily that meant that the rent was relatively low. That turned out to be a good thing, as their new concept hardly reflected the market or the palate of his customers, and because Becketts Kopf was not exactly an instant success.
"Subconsciously we didn't want to scare customers off, but I always wanted to give them more than they expected. Drinks like the Vieux Carre, Widow's Kiss, a Twentieth Century Martini or a Corpse reviver #2. The first day was an opening party, so we had friends and family and it was packed. The second day nobody came in. Christina and me would sit together, sometimes for eight hours. We played backgammon and talked, practised some drinks and tested recipes and ideas for cocktails. But we had no guests. It's hard to describe, but it had something like a David Lynch atmosphere."
Never having tended bar before, you'd be forgiven for thinking Oliver might have been nervous at his new endeavour, but he says not. Softly spoken and brooding, dressed in black, you can see Oliver quite enjoying the solitude. "We knew it would be hard and that we just had to survive the first year. It suited our characters. I was not nervous and we always slept very well."
After six months, customers finally started coming in. "Our guests developed, together with us, towards spirituous oriented drinks, and after a year it was enough commercially. You could see people liked the drinks. Back then it was easy things such as floating cream on a White Russian. It's nothing special now but at that time it was incredible. There were a few who said the drinks were too strong, but from the start we mostly served short drinks. I don't know if there's another bar with as few long drinks as us."
Learning side-by-side with his customers, Oliver's methodology was simple: trial and error. And he prefers to employ bartenders with less experience and more interest in cocktails, coaching them in the books he'd learned himself. Just seven years after opening, it's hard to see the classic style of Becketts Kopf as having been anything other than normal, but today it is acknowledged as a trend-setter and now one of the established players on the old school scene.
For the sake of objectivity, we asked Helmut Adam, editor of CLASS's counterpart in Germany, Mixology magazine, what he thinks of Oliver. "Oliver Ebert and Becketts Kopf bar are perfect examples for the renaissance of the classic bar in Berlin. When I first visited Becketts Kopf there were typical signs of amateurism - Oliver didn't have a hospitality background. But I'm convinced that people that move into hospitality from other backgrounds tend to be more alert and more innovative. On that visit I discussed the menu with him as I considered it flawed. It consisted mainly of key cocktails e.g. a Gimlet and the suggestions "choose your spirit". It resembled more a physicist's view of the cocktail world. However the design was innovative, and they've still got that novel approach today. Oliver was incredibly fast to soak up knowledge in the years following the opening and his bar and cocktail offering changed accordingly.
"Becketts Kopf redefined itself as "home of the classic short drink", and if you look at the neighbourhood around Pappelallee it takes quite some stamina to go down that road: there's no other classic bar nearby, it's a district dominated by alternative bars selling bottled beer and dodgy Caipirinhas for €3.50. Becketts Kopf was one of the bars, if not the bar that proved there's a crowd in Berlin that appreciates quality ingredients, and that there were consumers out there ready to develop a palate, ready to sample strong concoctions and spirits. I've never seen anybody moving with such a speed in this industry."
Do as Helmut says and walk down Pappelallee today, and Becketts Kopf stands out, if only by virtue of the fact it is not a brightly lit venue garishly boasting 'cocktails' in neon, as many of the other venues do. In fact, there's no name displayed, and you can't see inside. All that identifies it is a headshot of Samuel Beckett. Why? Oliver says there are two reasons why it is so-called - an intellectual one and the real one.
The intellectual one says that the Irish playwright's works often perfectly articulate the role of a bar. "If you read the dramas like Murphy or Waiting for Godot, you have lonely people waiting for something they don't know, and that's a kind of a bar situation: people lost somewhere, waiting, though not depressed."
The real reason is that they couldn't agree on a name and so just put a picture of Becketts head (or kopf) out front. No contrived speakeasy here.
Buzz for entry (Oliver's preferred method for subconsciously controlling customers is greeting and seating them), and you'll find yourself in a dark, warm, two-room drinking den, ordering cocktails from lists hidden inside old novels.
"Over the years we've changed and became more and more radical. So yes, in the beginning we had a White Russian and a Cosmo, but we always tried to give them a special kick, but today we are much more radical shorter, and older. And also we've got pricier - you just couldn't charge as much in the old days particularly as many people thought the drink they were getting was so short."
In contrast to those €3.50 Caipirinhas down the road, his menu professes 'an alchemical search for the perfect balance' from the cocktails of the golden era between 1880 and 1920, articulated by drinks like the Herbarium (Scotch, sherry, cherry brandy, bitters), the Lusitanian (aguardiente, cherry brandy, vermouth rosso and bitters) and the Duke of Marlborough (Sherry, vermouth and bitters). Soda is served out of siphons that come from Bavaria and cost €20 each. Ice is hand-cracked of course. Oliver works at least three nights a week - always with Cristina, mind.
If Becketts Kopf and Oliver are something of the establishment now, Oliver is a reluctant wise man. His softly spoken nature might belie a sharp wit and sense of humour, but he's all too aware of wanting to stay in the shadows, so you won't him on Facebook or Tweeting. "I'm too quiet to be something like an anchor man for the German bar scene. There are others who are louder and speak more and more on social media. They have a lot to say, more than me, that's why I am so quiet. I don't like to put myself in the middle." He's perfectly happy to stick to running just the one bar too. "When you want to have another bar you have more work and you cannot concentrate as I do it now. I need time for development and to read - and not just bar books. The bar is part of my life but not my whole life."
Staying in the background means he can observe the rest of the bar scene objectively. So what's going on? "Today in Berlin bars, punk is back," says Oliver Ebert. "But it's in their ideology rather than their appearance."
He's not kidding. Step inside any of Berlin's newer bars and you won't find Sid Vicious-style bartenders, sporting gravity-defying hairstyles, leather jackets, facial jewellery or tattoos. Instead, Oliver's talking about a deeper-seated, but more subtle anti-authoritarian ideology - one that's deliberately pitched against the corporate drinks world.
"Punk today means being completely atypical of its surroundings. Today's Berlin bar styles are small and uncomplicated. All the newest bars open in places where you would not expect to see cocktail bars. They are not aimed at the aspirational or the rich, but at uncomplicated people: there's no such thing as 'high society' bars. And the drinks are referential - they are reviving lost, historical and forgotten cocktails with names you have never heard of. Even the house drinks are interpretations of classic bar drinks. They don't have a lot of money but equally they won't take money from industry as they want to be free ideologically."
That might not sound all that rebellious, if that's what punk is all about. In fact, that sounds remarkably like many other bars the world over do, (complete with rather more facial hair, sleeve garters and braces than you might find in Berlin). But later that night, we join Oliver on a short bar crawl, and it's easier to see what he means. Bars often have no signs, no phone numbers and certainly no website.
They might not have a menu, they definitely won't have business cards to give out business cards (or accept credit cards). And that rigid focus on old drinks, it's actually directly opposed to the progressive or, God forbid, the molecular: which in a sense has become part of the modern establishment. In other places, these factors might be PR-led gimmicks, but here they're acting deliberately against what's expected of a modern cocktail bar and ignoring the rules that every other modern businsess tries to emulate. And in particular, in contrast to the financial help and support and free stock that many bars elsewhere extract from big spirits companies, that's anathema here in Germany's capital.
"There's no 'industry', nothing 'corporate' with new bars here," says Oliver. "In fact it's the worst thing you can do to be called 'close to industry'. It's a big problem if you are a brand ambassador here. It's avant garde but it's started to bring classic drinks to people who are not traditionally classic. And that's typical Berlin."
At the helm of Becketts Kopf, Oliver's stewardship has arguably helped Berlin's bar phenomenon grow into something that resembles its heyday back to the 1920s, when "Berlin was the capital of the world", as he describes it. "Germans have always loved cocktails. They are huge drinkers. When the Romans came here they ran away, I think because we put the 'bar' into barbarian. Cocktails were the symbol of 1920s Berlin. It was all about emulating the US - though during Prohibition most US bartenders came to the UK and France and not to Germany."
Post-war austerity meant social largesse was frowned upon in the 1950s and 60s, then wine culture became big in the 1970s and 80s. The big news for cocktail culture was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which you can see as the latest manifestation of an 'underground' mentality that's now on show with the punk movement. "After the fall of the Berlin wall the first places for nightlife were underground - with no licence, in cellars or derelict apartments. But they sold cocktails, maybe just from behind a piece of wood, because again they were a symbol of the west."
And how could the Berlin scene improve? "Everyone is so focused on reviving lost, historical and forgotten cocktails, so that they are not experimenting or looking forward. It's in the German mentality to look back at history rather than look forward. It's absolutely crazy, maybe part of a national angst." Another irony of the current scene lies with its own bartenders. "When you see someone order a G&T, it's mostly a bartender. It's like they don't trust in the cocktails that they serve. When we have bartenders from New York they always order cocktails - but if they come from anywhere in Berlin or Germany they always order boring G&Ts."
He might be in the shadows, but probe him long enough and Oliver eventually acknowledges the part he has played in driving Berlin's bar scene forward. "In 2004 I was the punk. Now I'm establishment. What's different is that today you can open a cocktail bar which is concentrated on old short drinks and everyone understands immediately."