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Punch Drunk

A bartender's life in Richmond.



Drinking Up Berlin
“Writing … is not method acting and I find it easy to step out of it at cocktail hour.” — Bret Easton Ellis

An international contingent of bartenders and drink (drunk) fanatics — nearly 4,000 of them during a span of two days — swell into the Postbahnhof, a 9,850-square-foot brick Gothic building just steps away from an original stretch of the Berlin Wall.

The crowd seems eager to taste any of the liquor offered, while professional mixologists are eager to bestow. At each booth they concoct liquid Mona Lisas while corporate snake-oil salesmen stand nearby, preaching the merits of their hooch. Copious amounts of free drinks are poured and inevitably the line between education and inebriation begins to blur. Not that anyone cares about a matter so trivial.



Bar Convent attendees hit up the Beam Global Spirits booth, which serves up Maker's Manhattans, mint juleps, Moscow mules with Vox Vodka and platinum margaritas with El Tesoro tequila. Photo by Jack Lauterback

This is Bar Convent Berlin, the epicenter of the European mixology and bar industry, held Oct. 4 and 5. I fly over as a guest of Mixology magazine, the creators of the event, to carouse, mingle and write about the spectacle for them. Here are some observations from my experience:

ƒ?› The who's who of the German and to some extents, the European bar trade, are in attendance. Liquor companies are keenly aware of this and spare no expense courting them and their bars. A popular stateside rum, Sailor Jerry, throws a huge bash with an unlimited cap on premium cocktails for 400 guests. Bank's Gin brings Jim Meehan, the genius of New York's East Village speakeasy, PDT Bar, just to work the booth and serve up cocktails. Diageo, a multinational big dog in the liquor trade, flies in chandeliers for its lounge. More than 60 brands are here to network, cost be damned.

ƒ?› Watch me make a Sapphire and tonic and then watch some of the elite bartenders make one. In this rarified air of mixology, you don't just get some generic pint glass with a lime on the rim. These guys chip their own ice from blocks, cut the lime fresh — never touching your wedge with their hands — and provide your own minibottle of tonic so you can control how much to dispense. You might even get your drink on a small silver tray. That I can make 25 G&Ts in the time it takes them to make one is cold comfort.

ƒ?› It should be no surprise that people (especially bartenders) dress better and are skinnier in Europe. Americans are schlubs.

ƒ?› There are only a few bartenders in Richmond who care deeply about making a perfect cocktail and who would've truly gotten some of the concepts and drinks I experienced — like gin aviations, sidecars and Moscow mules. I'm not one of them. (Go to Julep's and ask for Bobby. Be sure to order off of his exceptional drink menu though — he can get a little miffed when people start asking for JAger bombs.)

ƒ?› Smoking is not only allowed in Berlin but also celebrated. I go to Europe a six-cig-a-day smoker. I return with the black lung and four cartons of duty-free Camels.

ƒ?› Some must-haves from the convention include Sipsmith Gin, which wins spirit of the year (because gin is the king of spirits and this one rocks); Hennessy Black Cognac (a new product that's a bit more approachable and mixable than most cognacs to which we're accustomed) and 10 Cane Rum (which isn't new but is far superior to any rum on the planet). Also, in the midst of a hangover, I sip on an incredible Bloody Mary made with Ketel One Vodka. Strangely (and awesomely), it's topped with a celery foam, which is exactly what it sounds like. Veggies in foam form are the way to go.

ƒ?› A night out in Richmond consists of shots, beers and the occasional drunken drive. Massive hangovers are customary and accepted as the price of a good time. In Germany they imbibe with less urgency, and tend to drink a higher quality of hooch. Cabs are taken, shots are not. A better bottle of booze and a slower pace means no hangover for Jack. It is glorious seeing the sun before noon.

This is a trip I'll always remember. I walk remnants of the Berlin Wall. I share cabs with the greatest American bartender ever, Dale DeGroff. I make love to a mysterious and beautiful German spy named Anja. I have a Maker's Mark mint julep that makes the Kentucky Derby version look like child's play.*

If there's a better way to make an easy living, I haven't found it.

* I only did three of those things.

More to the Story: Read Punch Drunk columnist Jack Lauterback's blogs from Europe's premiere bar convention.

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