Berlin used to be associated with rustic corner pubs, potato salad, meatballs and caraway-flavoured schnapps. But modern Berlin is an altogether different story, and its gastronomic diversity is expanding fast.
Separated by a forbidding concrete wall and sliced in two until 30 years ago, today’s Berlin has morphed into a lively, multicultural and experimental metropolis. A lot of the locals maintain close connections with their roots, but the branches of the tree of life of this vibrant city are growing in all kinds of directions.
That’s both beautiful and, sometimes at least, exhausting. Berlin today is so full of life, so different and so exciting. Berlin is not just a city, but a way of life. And no matter what you do or what you’re looking for, there will always be someone even crazier than you. We, that is Stefan, Sascha, Franzi, Matthias, Peter, Lars, Andi and David, happen to be crazy about whisky. During an extended evening walk, sampling local cuisine, beer and a few invigorating SMWS bottlings, we want to show you our Berlin. My name is David and I’ll be your guide on the first part of our journey together.
HANDCRAFTED FROM BERLIN WITH LOVE
First stop, BRLO Brwhouse. There’s not a whisky in sight, but it’s a great place to kick off our evening. The impressive modular construction of shipping containers is the heart of craft beer start-up BRLO, bang in the middle of the city. There’s lots of metal here, old wood, a skilful sprinkling of shabby chic. All in all a bit hip, but still really stylish. After all, Berlin is a city of designers, creatives, aesthetes.
Everything here tastes great and looks terrific. The focus is on vegetables in all their glorious shapes and sizes. Fermented, pickled, roasted, smoked, cooked in salt crust, regional and seasonal. Meat is also available … but as a side dish. This innovative approach has been met with great approval. BRLO have picked up a number of awards, and they are the only brewery to have earned themselves some precious Gault Millau points.
There’s animated chat among the group about current and personal favourite SMWS whiskies, and we decide that we’ll have to sample quite a few drams to put our theories to the test. Before we head off, we round off our visit of the BRLO Brwhouse with a traditional Berlin brew, namely a Berliner Weisse wheatbeer. Zingy, refreshing, no sugary stuff, no frills. Just beer, and very Berlin.
FRESH AIR AND WHISKY
To digest our meal we set out for a stroll through nearby Gleisdreieck Park, a good place to recharge the old batteries with fresh air, an invigorating dose of nature and a dram or two.
With nearly 80 acres of urban green space, the park offers the perfect spots for picnics, soaking up some sun or to have a few beers with friends after a hard day’s graft.
Gleisdreieck was built on old railway premises and a few overgrown structures remain. This quiet haven in the middle of the city stretches from the Landwehr Canal to Monument Bridge and is one of many pleasant green spaces, among them Volkspark Friedrichshain, Tiergarten and Treptow Park.
We meander through the gentle drizzle until we discover a wooden podium. Maybe it’s meant to be a bench. No matter. Just the right spot to set up our mobile whisky bar, with Society bottlings 35.219: Mystisch, magisch, mysteriös – a German-exclusive bottling – 52.25: A morning at the beach, 29.195: Charred staves and black dragon tea, 59.55: Highland Riesling and 6.26: ...untimely ripped…. That should do nicely for starters.
Whisky allows for endless wonderful digressions before you’ve even had a sip. It’s ridiculously easy to while away a few hours debating flavours, production, history and character. Whisky is and remains a magnificent drink and we love it in almost all its infinite variations.
Ultimately, however, whisky wants to be drunk. That’s exactly what we’ll do now. Somewhat typical of our city with its occasional hedonistic tendencies, we don’t take our first sips in one of the multitude of pubs or bars. Nope, we’re keeping it simple, somewhat rustic and close to nature in the park.
Fresh air and a gentle breeze on your face enhance the pleasure, especially when savouring this young 52.25: A morning at the beach, an Oily & Coastal flavour profile from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead with a captivating, no frills maritime briskness. A congenial, powerful, honest dram which will whisk anybody with a shred of imagination from the Gleisdreieck Park to the wild and windy Scottish coast, quicker than you can say slàinte mhath!
Alas, we’re heading back into the urban jungle and hail a taxi to Charlottenburg. Our next destination is an outstanding SMWS partner bar and Andi will now take over as our tour guide. Have fun!
MAIN ACT: BAR AM STEINPLATZ
This feels like a massive culture shock. One minute we’re sitting in the park, sipping our drams in the shelter of some mighty trees, next minute we find ourselves sinking into a luxurious leather suite in this award-winning hotel bar.
The interior design is dignified and elegant, yet subtle and discreet – another one of those typical Berlin contrasts. Bar am Steinplatz is an official SMWS partner bar and has an impressive selection of bottlings seductively winking at us from the tall shelves behind the bar. The award-winning cocktail menu is another reminder that we’re in SMWS territory.
There’s not a single fancy name in sight: no colada, no mojito, no daiquiri. The sole focus is on the flavours you’ll encounter in your glass – sounds familiar, right? Incidentally, our little band of brothers has grown – it must be the attraction of this place, or maybe it’s our own charm. We’ve been joined by Society member Lars as well as ambassador Peter Eichhorn. We unanimously decide to check whether the cocktails live up to their excellent reputation. Poor bartender Willi is then saddled with satisfying our individual cocktail desires, but steps up to the challenge with undeniable authority.
We end up with three cocktail variations, each based on matching SMWS bottlings. Willi presents the peat fanatics with a Blood and Sand, adding a little 10-year-old Talisker to the partner bar exclusive bottling 64.97: A sunny day in late summer, to ensure that indispensable smoky note.
Matthias and I stick to the classics: an Old Fashioned plus a dash of Sweet, Fruity & Mellow 41.109: Satsuma and the flumps. And Peter? Well, Peter obviously has faith in no-one but himself because he’s brought his own bottle of A4.2: Fresh as a daisy, an armagnac which Willi puts to good use in an excellent Sazerac. If you’re wondering how these beautiful concoctions went down, let me quote Frankie Valli: “You’re just too good to be true.“
But no good thing lasts forever and it’s time to (more or less) elegantly rise from the plush leather armchairs and venture out into the Berlin night again, but not without a beer to go from one of the little cornershops that never shut.
MAIN ACT NO.2: UNION JACK
A pleasant 10-minute wander takes us to our next watering hole. No plush surroundings here, but exactly what many of us ultimately associate with whisky: a solid, traditional, down-to-earth pub. The Union Jack is another SMWS partner bar, offering a vast selection of over 800 whiskies plus a decent range of British beers on tap.
Tonight, Lennard presides over the bar and we receive a warm and boisterous welcome. The other folks propping up the bar seem to ask themselves – as we would in their shoes – why the heck a bunch like us is greeted so cheerfully?
The answer is simple. We are whisky lovers with a thirst for a few drams, a couple of draft beers and friendly chat with kindred spirits. All these expectations are met in abundance at the Union Jack, especially with Lennard in charge of the bar. My words don’t quite do this place justice – you’ll simply have to experience it for yourself. Entertainment is guaranteed and expert advice dished out generously.
We manage the beer quite nicely but lean on Lennard for support with the choice of drams. After all, he’s the man in the know and might reveal one of the many secret gems slumbering behind the bar. We each try to explain what we’re after and unfailingly he responds with a confident “I think I have just the right dram for you”. He manages to hit the spot with each recommendation.
So here we are at Union Jack, a soulful troupe of whisky aficionados with so much to chat about, first and foremost this precious water of life, which we are nosing and sampling and comparing to our hearts’ content. But as Nelly Furtado sang: “All good things come to an end“. It’s getting late, time to say our farewells and step out into the night again. Time to go home? Not so fast.
CALL IT A NIGHT WITH CURRYWURST
In Berlin, a gathering of fine people (that’ll be us, thank you), food and drink can end in many ways. Here’s one authentic Berlin option: the curry sausage, known and celebrated here as currywurst. Its origins? Well, we all know the old chestnut of who invented whisk(e)y – the Scots or the Irish? Germany has a similar conundrum with the currywurst. Where does it actually come from? Bochum, Dortmund, Hamburg, Berlin? The answer depends on who you ask. Ask me, and I’ll tell you the truth: I’m from Berlin and so is the currywurst. End of debate!
A CULTURAL EXTRAVAGANZA
This little gang of SMWS members had a wonderful time. Our wanderings reaffirmed the dazzling diversity of our beloved Berlin and its people. What’s more, tonight has demonstrated the unifying power and high-spirited nature of our favourite drink. United in our shared passion, it was whisky that brought this unlikely bunch together and ensured amiable and animated banter throughout.
When all’s said and done, whisky does bring us together. It strikes the perfect balance between robust and refined. More than just a strong spirit for the working man and woman, but by no means reserved for the upper classes. It connects people and is one of the ingredients of a great night out, whether it’s all-out decadence and debauchery, or a few quiet and reflective hours among kindred spirits. And that’s exactly what whisky has in common with our city.
Berlin connects cultures, people and lifestyles. Loud and brash in some places; cool, calm and collected in others. Berlin is there for everyone and everyone can find their place in Berlin. Instead of offering up a list of advice to anyone visiting our beautiful city, I’ll leave you with the title of a Nirvana song: Come As You Are. Or maybe David Bowie summed it up best about his time living and recording here in the 1970s: Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.
About the authors
Andi Bernhardt is a proper Berliner. He used to be in event management and marketing, is a resident DJ at various events in the capital and now ‘works’ in a whisky shop. David Frikell’s also born and bred in Berlin. He studied communication design, works as an art director and has been making music longer than he cares to remember. He releases his records under the nom de plume “Wiljalba“.
Together, Andi and David are known as Whisky & Vinyl. They found each other thanks to a shared enthusiasm for whisky and music and combine both those passions in their tastings on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and www.whiskyundvinyl.de. Check them out!
Photography by Nadine Kunath
This feature is from the August 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership