The German capital is seeing more and more independent distillers offering artisan alcohol to a discerning youthful clientele. In doing so, they’re reviving a drinking culture that was once threatened with extinction.
If you regularly frequent bars and restaurants in Berlin these days, you're likely to find some bottles with obscure and sometimes exotic sounding names on the shelves. This is not necessarily a good sign in a city best known, in terms of schnapps, for the acquired taste that is “Mampe Half and Half” - the capital's answer to Jägermeister. But in better establishments, an unfamiliar brand is often a small-batch local spirit well worth straying from your normal drinking habits for.
Berlin is catching up on the craft distilling trend from the US, and as so often is the case, while the German capital may be late to the party, once a trend starts, it explodes. To make sense of the growing variety of options, I had a consultation with Thomas Kochan, the proprietor of Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur, a shop dedicated to artisan spirits in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood.
“It's about not just enjoyment, but what I'd call ethical enjoyment,” Kochan tells me. “With craft spirits, you know you're drinking something pure, without any additives, and something with a human being behind it.”
Kochan's shop is full of spirits distilled in small batches in Berlin as well as elsewhere in Germany and Europe. There are gins, vodkas, herb cordials, grain and fruit brandies, liqueurs, grain alcohols, aquavits…the list could go on and on. There are even local Berlin rums and a single-malt whisky. If someone grows it, then you can bet that someone also makes schnapps out of it.
No cheap hooch
Kochan's clientele, he tells me, ranges in age from 25 to 50, and restaurants in search of premium aperitifs and digestifs have been quicker to get on board than bars. In particular, gin is all the rage, with connoisseurs eager to try the full range of what this spirit has to offer.
Last November, hundreds of people packed the Markhalle IX in the district of Kreuzberg, already an established foodie mecca, for the “Destille 2013,” a three-day craft spirits festival. More than 20 local distillers set up shop in the historic covered market. The highlight was a gin tasting, and the next edition of the event is planned for this April.
“More and more bartenders are starting to experiment and are looking for craft spirits they can use to create unique cocktails,” Kochan tells me.
But local distilling is not just a current trend. It also has a long history in Berlin, as I'm about to find out.
Spirits with history
“I don't give a good goddamn about fads,” Gerald Schroff tells me. “As the head of a distillery, it takes me longer to plan and execute a first-rate spirit than any trend could ever last.”
I've cycled to the working-class district of Wedding and am sitting in Schroff's rather Spartan office at the Preussische Spirituosen Manufaktur (Prussian Spirits Fabrication), an institution that traces its heritage back to a royal decree from 1874. Around the turn of the century, there were hundreds of distillers in Berlin, but most were swallowed up or driven out of business with the consolidation of the drinks industry in the latter half of the twentieth century. PSM survived, in part, because it was associated with Berlin's Technical University and was the only place in West Germany that people could train to become licensed distillers.
In 2005, Schroff and his partner, the Viennese biochemist Ulrich Stahl, revived the traditional Adler brand of Berlin-made vodkas and gins. Nowadays, they sell out every batch of their 28 standard spirits and are able to pick and choose their customers. The palette includes such unusual offerings as sea buckthorn brandy and galangal liqueur.
“You won't find our products at the check-out counter of discount supermarkets, and you won't see us at Cookies,” says Schroff, referring to the trendy nightclub.
In fact, if you want to stock PSM products, you have to talk personally with the affably gruff Schroff, so I feel a bit privileged when he asks me if I want to see the distillery rooms.
A tour through the past
Down a short corridor and through a set of doors, and suddenly I'm in a room full of wooden shelves and corked glass bottles of the sort you'd associate with an old-school apothecary. If I feel as though I've been transported back to the nineteenth century, it's because, in a sense, I have. All of PSM's spirits are made with period equipment.
After spying a brass still that shines a bit brighter than the rest, I ask whether this device is more modern than the other ones.
“Well, if you consider 1874 to be modern, I guess you're right,” says Schroff, who laughs and points to a hand crank, which I think he says is used to let off excess steam.
The distillery doubles as a museum open to groups of four or more for tours, which conclude in a stately wooden-shelved, ground-floor shop that also serves as a tasting bar. Because, as Schroff points out, PSM doesn't want anyone to buy anything un-tasted.
German gin and tonic
Behind every craft spirit, there seems to be a story. One of the best is that of Pijökel 55, a herb cordial made by a small company back in Prenzlauer Berg. The brand is owned by two trained sound engineers, one of whom inherited the recipe from his father, who was a pharmacist. Many of traditional types of schnapps are ascribed medicinal properties. Whether that's true, I cannot say. I'm headed back to Dr. Kochan to ask a different question: what ingredients would he choose to make the perfect gin and tonic?
“Well, I'd start with Simon's Gin from a little town in northern Bavaria,” Kochan says after a minute's reflection. “It's got this pine note that makes you feel like you're rolling around in a coniferous forest. I'd also use Monaco tonic from Munich, which is very dry. And then I'd just add a thin slice of lime to give it a bit of citrus flavor.”
That sounds spectacular. Unfortunately I have to go and write this article, and I don't think mid-afternoon G&Ts are going to be very conducive to that effort. But I've noted down the recipe for the next time I have friends over to enjoy some good spirits.