It’s rare to walk into a bar and recognize none of the bottles on the backbar. After all, most commercial spirits are distributed by a few multinationals whose global reach allows you to order a familiar cocktail, no matter where you are in the world. But even the most seasoned drinkers will tell you: Becketts Kopf is unlike any other bar.
“I have no idea what any of their stuff is,” says Naren Young, creative director of New York City’s Dante and one of the world’s most-traveled bartenders.
Husband-and-wife duo Oliver Ebert and Cristina Neves opened Becketts Kopf in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg more than a decade ago as a traditional cocktail bar. Over the years, however, it has evolved into a compendium of obscure spirits sourced from nearby producers. Today, nearly all of their bottles bear the names of small German and Austrian distilleries. There is a red-beet brandy from Austria that Ebert and Neves mix with an almond liqueur, red quinquina, blood orange juice and a grain spirit distilled from wheat, rye, and malt in a cocktail called Red Roots. There is a rowanberry brandy from Bavaria that they stir with tequila and Madeira in the Bird of Pray cocktail. Their coffee cocktails are redolent, with a coffee distillate from beans from the Barn, one of the most famous roasters in Berlin. They have several bottles of Korn, a grain alcohol that Ebert calls the “German vodka,” and they mix their Manhattans with German rye.
Ebert and Neves aren’t scouring Germany and Austria for products simply for the sake of being local, which can result in less-than-stellar results. “Germans and Austrians are the best distillers in the world,” says Ebert. The realization has transformed Becketts Kopf into a distinctly German and, at the same time, world-class institution. (After his most recent visit, Young declared Becketts Kopf, not for the first time nor likely the last, the “best bar in Germany.”)
It’s an impressive feat considering Ebert and Neves had no bartending experience when they opened Becketts Kopf back in 2004. But at that time, they weren’t alone—practically no one in Berlin could mix a proper drink when they first opened. “Fifteen years ago, no one in Germany knew what a Sazerac is,” says Ebert.
The pair’s own interest in cocktails began when Ebert brought home a copy of Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book from a used bookstore. They began mixing cocktails for friends, and their collection grew to include more volumes, like Jerry Thomas’ Bar-tenders Guide. After a while, they wanted to share their drinks with a wider audience and sought out a space for a bar on an empty block of Prenzlauer Berg, one of the hippest neighborhoods in Berlin at the time. They put a picture of Samuel Beckett in the window (Ebert has a background in theater) and installed a gold-tiled backboard with a painting of a lily at its center. They screwed in a few Edison bulbs above the bar and dimmed the rest of the lights, creating a dramatic Caravaggio-like contrast.
In the early days, Ebert and Neves struggled to find even basic ingredients like bitters. They had to persuade their ice supplier to build a new machine just so they could have big, transparent cubes, one of the hallmarks of a quality cocktail bar. Customers were skeptical of the higher prices. “The first year, we always heard, ‘Is this the whole cocktail? It’s very small,’” says Ebert. “The second-most-common complaint was that the drink was too strong.”
With time, though, Ebert and Neves developed a loyal base of regulars, and as they became more confident in their bartending skills, they developed a deeper interest in the spirits they were using. “We started to think about what’s inside the bottle—how it’s made, what the raw product is and where it comes from,” says Ebert.
They realized that most of the commercial distilleries knew little about the provenance and quality of their ingredients. Their disappointment led them to the German countryside, where many small distilleries made Obstbrands, or fruit brandies, with local crops. Few of these brandies ever travel far from their distilleries; you would be hard-pressed to even find them in German bars. “Nobody used Obstbrand for mixing,” says Neves. “It was not classic.”
They were amazed by what they found. “We discovered a lot of flavors we did not know existed,” says Ebert. They tasted brandies with flavors like mandarin, rhubarb, sea buckthorn and sunchoke. The Obstbrands somehow tasted truer to the fruits than the fruits themselves. “You can never taste the soul of a fruit if you have it fresh and bite into it,” says Ebert. “You have to distill it.”
The distillers that Ebert and Neves sourced their spirits from often farmed their own crops, inspecting every individual berry or piece of fruit to make sure it was ripe. They fermented without sugar or any other additives before distilling it. (They used a slightly different process for nuts and herbs with no natural sugars, macerating them in a neutral alcohol and then distilling them into a spirit known as Geist.) They controlled the temperature precisely and distilled slowly in order to preserve the fruit’s flavor. One particular Austrian distiller, whom Ebert visited recently, needed two tons of fresh raspberries to make just 50 liters of raspberry brandy. “Fruit brandies are the most complicated things to distill,” says Ebert.
Slowly, Ebert and Neves replaced the fruit liqueurs at their bar with local products. They ditched their commercial cherry brandy (made from cherry juice, neutral spirit and sugar) for a cherry Obstbrand from a small German distiller called Schloss Zinzow. Instead of applejack, they mixed a Jack Rose with an unaged Obstbrand made from Elstar apples.
By 2012, several classic cocktail bars had opened in Berlin, expanding the city’s cocktail literacy. Sazeracs and Negronis were no longer novel, but Ebert and Neves, consistently one step ahead of the curve, were turning heads with their new recipes built on German spirits. In 2013, Mixology Magazine named Ebert Germany’s mixologist of the year, an award he earned again this year.
Along the way, he and Neves developed relationships with many local distillers and began to collaborate on a range of specialty spirits as part of Freimeisterkollektiv, a platform designed to allow independent distillers to sell directly to consumers (Ebert is a partner). It opened up an avenue for the duo to collaborate directly with some of their favorite distillers and make those products available outside the confines of their bar. Ebert had always wondered why, for instance, coffee liqueurs never tasted like the coffee he drank in the morning. He introduced Ralf Rüller, the roaster from the Barn, to Josef Farthofer, an independent distiller in Austria, and together the three of them developed a clear coffee distillate from single-origin Kenyan beans.
Now the rest of the cocktail world is waking up to what Ebert and Neves discovered years ago. The notion of sourcing local ingredients and terroir-driven spirits is no longer unheard of; German, Austrian and Swiss distillers have dominated the World Spirit Awards in recent years; and it’s not uncommon for representatives of multinational brands to stop by Becketts Kopf and praise the drinks (just recently a group of Campari employees passed through and were wooed by a Campari-less Negroni). For Ebert, the lesson is simple: “If you are open-minded, if you do not always think in small-minded business terms, you will enjoy more things in life.”