Me and Tomoko were shopping in Prenzlauer Berg early one evening this past Fall. And when the time was right, we walked down a quiet street until I found the blank steel door that I’d been searching for. There was no sign. Just a photo of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in a dark window.
I reached out and rang the bell. A crack of light appeared moments later, and a head poked out. I gave my name, and we were admitted. The bartender took our coats and led us to a dimly lit room with a small collection of chairs and sofas.
He presented us with a volume of Beckett’s work. “You’ll find the drinks list at the centre of the book,” he said. “We change our menu at least once a month, based on seasonal ingredients and flavours.”
I asked him about the city’s drink culture. As a fan of the classics, I had detected a pattern. Just the night before, we’d spent the evening in a back alley bar off Friedrichstrasse which was solely devoted to the gin and tonic: 6 or 8 choices of tonic, and a collection of over 100 different gins.
“Why are there so many great cocktail bars in Berlin?” I asked.
Classic drinks were seeing a resurgence in the city. They were being shaken or stirred in elegant establishments whose atmosphere was as carefully crafted as the drink and its presentation.
“Even 5 years ago, all you’d find in Berlin would be generic mojitos or a cheap daiquiri,” he replied. “But that started to change. Now we’re seeing a true revival of cocktail culture in hidden bars all across the city.”
We made our choices after careful consideration of the temperature, pedigree and mood of each ingredient. I heard the cheerful rattle of a shaker coming from somewhere to our rear, and not long afterward, we were presented with our drinks on a small silver platter.
I raised the heavy glass to my lips and took a sip. A perfect sphere of hand-chipped ice bumped gently against my upper lip. And my mouth was filled with the taste of autumn as my nostrils scented nostalgia in the form of liquid alchemy.
I sank back into the deep leather armchair and closed my eyes as the cocktail flooded my limbs and melted my tension away. It was the perfect conclusion to another Berlin day.
I believe it was the novelist and lifelong expat Lawrence Durrell who praised the variety of alcoholic experiences available to the traveler. But this wasn’t an idle boast by our favourite Mediterranean scribe. He was referencing something much deeper.
Like Durrell, I’m a firm believer that a nation’s drink is shaped by its unique landscape and climate, and that its drink in turn shapes its culture. Every country seems to have its own version, and exploring them is a great way to gain new insights into a region.
If possible, I urge you to drink these wines and spirits outside, surrounded by the hills and soils and sunshine whose very tears have been captured and bottled by local farmers just for you. If you do this, you will taste the essence of the land, and you will come to understand something of the Spirit of Place.
Inspired by Durrell — and, I admit it, by a crisp little cocktail around the corner at Jigger, Beaker & Glass — I have come up with my own global theory of drink. I present it to you here in the hope that you will take up your shaker and contribute to this growing body of mixological scholarship.
Here we go…
It is my firm premise that the world can be neatly divided into several distinct Zones of Booze.
The UK and Ireland are home to warming whiskeys, dark heavy ales and stouts. Just the thing for when the perpetual damp soaks through your bones: a sip to burn away the mists of mind, memory and landscape.
To the east, Scandinavia and Russia — cold icy lands locked for half the year in perpetual darkness — are the birthplace of vodka and aquavit. They created a clean, crisp drink that’s as icy as the northern air they breathe. It cuts through the brain like a knife of cold clarity. At least, the first one does.
Europe is split by a wandering line that divides those who drink wine from those who drink beer. This line bisects Germany into a zone of frothy steins and a zone of rolling vine-covered hills. On one side the people are beer hall boisterous, and on the other they’re reserved and contemplative.
The Mediterranean countries of Europe fall into the zone of wine, but they add a small twist: the tradition of the aperitif and the digestif. Call them what you will, they’re the stuff of early morning café nips, and like wine they’re the fuel of conversations deep and wide.
Eastern Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia are parched throat lands in need of a crisp, refreshing gulp. Their sharp light lagers work, but sustained travel leaves one longing for something stronger. Little wonder that British colonizers brought gin to India and Malaya: a warming drink turned cold, one that mirrors the gradual dissolution of the long term colonist.
Across the Atlantic, in Central America and the Caribbean, it can be only rum. If wine is the fuel of conversation, rum is the fuel of lust: sweltering nights; air filled with the sweet scent of jacarandas; dusky island girls swirling barefoot to a sinuous slow reggae beat. These are lands where the moonlit tide washes on sandy beaches, lapping and surging like the hot blood that courses through your rum-filled veins.
Just to the north, the tequila belt of Mexico cuts a swath across the map like a dangerous tropical storm zone: hot dusty mariachi nights at the end of which you don’t know your arse from your elbow.
Finally, North America is a vibrant meld of cultures. It’s an amalgam of booze, just as North Americans are an amalgam of peoples. Though it has created several unique spirit variations of its own, rye and bourbon among them, its culture is most truly represented by the cocktail: a cutting edge blend of old and new. Elegant and refined or playful and carefree, the endless combinations of the New World’s cocktail culture bring with them endless variety and creativity.
And as I learned in Berlin, that elegant cocktail culture is coming full circle back to the Old World from which so many immigrants brought their treasures to the New.
So there you have it. My professional opinion as an anthropologist and a travel writer. My grand theory of the world in seven fiery sips.
Exploring the world of drink truly is one of the perks of life on the road. And what better way to outmaneuver a cultural barrier than through the gurgle of a bottle — especially a bottle of something local?