Would you order a cocktail called Gin Pesto?
My guess is probably not. It’s a good thing, then, that Joerg Meyer, the founder and owner of Le Lion in Hamburg, one of the most famous craft cocktail dens in Germany, had second thoughts in 2008 when he named his original cocktail.
As the Gin Basil Smash, 300 to 500 have been sold at Le Lion every week since its creation—22,000 a year—and the bar goes through more than 3,100 bottles of gin every twelve months. The drink is served at bars all across Germany—so much so that one bartender, griping about the amount of basil-muddling required to make it, once called it “Meyer’s curse.” It is also popular throughout Europe as well as Israel. “Seems like the sunny countries like it most,” says Meyer.
Though the Gin Basil Smash has never had as big an impact in the United States, it was there that the seeds of inspiration were planted in Meyer’s brain. While visiting New York in 2007, he encountered Dale DeGroff’s Whiskey Smash—a mix of bourbon, simple syrup, lemon juice and muddled mint—at the SoHo cocktail bar Pegu Club. It was love at first sip.
Back in Germany the next year, at an industry workshop, he was paging through a recipe booklet provided by a brand rep for G’Vine, a French gin. An unusual basil garnish on one of the drinks featured caught his attention. That same evening, Meyer, as was his habit, preceded his nightly shift with an espresso at the nearby Café Paris. There, he often chatted with the chefs and borrowed ingredients from their cold storage to experiment with back at his bar. Thinking of the mint in DeGroff’s Whiskey Smash, as well as the garnish in the G’Vine manual, he grabbed a hunk of fresh basil that night.
“I mixed it first with bourbon,” recalls Meyer. “Not so delicious. And then with gin—BOOM!”
The first version of the drink, sold under the name Gin Pesto, was served in spring 2008. But Meyer considers the cocktail’s true birthday July 10th of that year. That was the date he wrote a post about the cocktail re-christened as the Gin Basil Smash on the Bitters Blog, a site he co-authored with bitters manufacturer Stephan Berg of The Bitter Truth. As one of only two such websites in Germany, according to Meyer, the post traveled very far very fast. “It became very, very popular in one hot summer month all over Germany,” says Meyer
The press was slow to catch on to the cocktail. But that didn’t hinder its fortunes. From the start, the Gin Basil Smash seemed to sell itself. Danilo Don Ranasinghe, a Le Lion regular from the start, recalled his first impression as, “Wow, it’s green and that’s super cool”; and his second as, “It tastes really unique and different, but it’s still simple in its complexity.”
Marcel Bauman, a bartender at Le Lion in the aughts, remembered the culinary novelty of the drink grabbing customers’ attention. “The people were fascinated because of the taste of basil in a cocktail,” he explains.
Meyer played with the various facets of the recipe in those early days. The gin he used changed from G’Vine to Beefeater to Tanqueray, before Meyer finally settled on Rutte Celery Gin. Early versions also involved the muddling of half a lemon, but that method proved imprecise and was scrapped in favor of a jiggered ounce of fresh lemon juice.
The vibrant color of the cocktail, in Ranasinghe’s opinion, played no small part in the drink’s rapid rise. Once one customer ordered it, he recalls, eyes lit up around the room and queries of What is that green drink? ping-ponged about.
Meyer credits other factors with the Gin Basil Smash’s spread, including his strong presence on then-ascendent social media and the work of a group he formed in 2005 called the Traveling Mixologists, which included two then well-known gin brand ambassadors, Xavier Padovani (Hendrick’s) and Angus Winchester (Tanqueray). (Winchester also promoted the drink separately as a rep for Tanqueray.) It likewise didn’t hurt that, in 2012, Meyer painted the words “Cradle of the Gin Basil Smash” on the outside of the bar. It’s a billboard that never stops working and an image that has been Instagrammed thousands of times. (Meyer was inspired by a similar declaration about the Daiquiri that adorns the famous Havana Bar La Floridita.)
But others think the Gin Basil Smash’s greatest PR weapon was Meyer himself. “He has always been a trendsetter and a heard voice in the bar bubble in Germany,” says Ranasinghe.
Thorsten Husmann, another regular, agreed. Husmann often brought friends and business associates to the bar. They always ordered a Gin Basil Smash and left happy. “It was always amazing,” he says, “and, of course, everything got together—the service, the storytelling, the origin of the drink, the relatively dark bar and this amazing shiny green drink and Mr. Meyer himself.”
To this day, Meyer knows how to keep orders coming for the drink. “When sales go down,” he says, “I always tell the people that basil is a very strong aphrodisiac.”