Grashina Gabelmann enjoys expertly-mixed cocktails at a Prenzlauer Berg institution…
“When you enter a bar you are meant to leave the rest of the world behind,” claims Oliver Ebert, owner and founder of Prenzlauer Berg cocktail bar Becketts Kopf. The wrinkly, stern, illuminated face of Beckett himself in the bar’s window, the only hint that something interesting is located in an otherwise incognito building, urges you to realize this.
Adding to the feeling of entering another, more clandestine dimension, is the fact you need to ring the doorbell to gain entry. This isn’t necessarily about selective door policies however. “Anyone who isn’t hammered can enter,” assures Ebert. “We do this to make the barrier of leaving the outside world behind more apparent. It also means we can greet our customer personally, take their coats and make them feel welcome. There is no in-and-out rush—this isn’t a train station after all.”
Thus greeted at the door, the visitor finds themselves in the first of two rooms that, though decidedly dim, emit a warm, welcoming glow with decadent hues of oranges and reds. Furniture is minimal: chunky wooden tables surrounded by leather sofas and chairs, and a mosaic bar complete with wooden bar stools. There’s more mosaic behind the bar (a square), and in its center a painting of an orchid. The back room is similar attired, though smokier: it’s where you go to accompany your cocktail with a cigarette or cigar.
Oliver Ebert started Becketts Kopf in 2004 together with his wife Christina. His background is in theatre, hers in hotels. “I bought books on classic cocktails and started teaching myself how to mix,” explains Herr Ebert. “It sounds simple enough but you have to keep in mind that 20 years ago when I started mixing, there was a massive shortage in cocktail related products. Bitters for example, an existential cocktail ingredient, were not available. You’d have to go to a pharmacist to get some similar tasting medicine.”
This fact is now unimaginable in a city where every bar, and a lot of restaurants, serve (mostly underwhelming) cocktails. 2-for-1 watery Mojitos and overly sweet and juicy concoctions like Sex on the Beach have become a commonplace, to the point where their novelty has worn off. But some keep the mixologist’s art alive, and Becketts Kopf is assuredly one of them.
Though Herr Ebert explains he “wanted to embrace the renaissance of old school style cocktails, which not many Germans embraced a few years back,” his menu also offers pre-cocktail drinks such as juleps, punches, sours and smashes. As classic as his drinks are, Herr Ebert and his staff are always experimenting with interesting modern twists.
“We carefully modernize highly complex drinks with our philosophy being the absolute focus on the base alcohol of each cocktail. I’ve never understood fruity cocktails, whose ingredients are there to cover up the taste of alcohol. That’s the ingredient the customer pays most for so why should its taste disappear?”
What skills, in Herr Ebert’s opinion, are essential to become a great mixologist? “You need patience, taste and an understanding of coherency. You need to be able to find out what the perfect drink is for your customer. I take my time with each customer to find out their preferences so I can source out the drink most suitable to their taste.”
Having been to the bar on several occasions, I can vouch that this is true: not just for Herr Ebert but for all his staff. More than a couple of times, friends have decided against the menu and negotiated a drink according to their immediate requirements (“something Gin-based…not too sweet, not too sour…”) and the staff not only oblige but I’ve yet to witness a disappointing result.
Sadly, the formrt cocktail menu that was carefully stitched into a collection of Beckett’s stories and plays, has been quietly retired, in place of a more standard bar menu. But the poetic descriptions are still there, and the curation and selection are still top-notch. The descriptors aren’t purely entertainment though.
“If I just list the ingredients the customer won’t know what the cocktail tastes like. For example the Luigi: gin, grenadine, dry vermouth and mandarine. The customer reads this and thinks the cocktail is sweet because of the grenadine and won’t order it when, as a matter of fact, the cocktail is quite dry. With the pseudo-poetic descriptions we have tried to deliver the experience of taste.”
The cocktails are seasonal to ensure only the best and most appropriate ingredients are being used. You’ll only find mint drinks in the summer, for example, as a special type of mint is grown close to Berlin specifically for the bar: “Summer and winter calls for different drinks…our menu reflects this.”
It’s impossible to leave without asking the question that’s been nagging me since I first came across this bar many moons and excellent drinks ago: why Beckett? More specifically, why his head? “When we started out we were the only place that was open at night at this end of Pappelallee,” says Herr Ebert. “It was completely dark and we tried to imagine which name would work from a passer-by’s perspective.
“All ideas seemed too aggressive for the laid-back atmosphere we were going for. We decided we would only hang up a lit sign and it would be the only thing shining in the dark street. The picture of Beckett’s head came to my mind immediately and it just went from there…”
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