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At first glance, Monica Berg’s drinks look simple: a Gin and Tonic, an Old Fashioned, a Martini. But it’s not the blueprint that makes a Berg drink stand out. It’s her way of incorporating the Nordic ingredients that colored her childhood memories into otherwise commonplace classics.
As a kid growing up in Oslo, Berg’s stepfather, a fisherman and hunter, taught her to understand the value of good ingredients and the time it takes to grow and cultivate them. “I had to learn how to fish, grow vegetables and fruits,” she recalls. “From when I was young, I’d have to keep the sourdough starter alive as a weekly chore, on a Sunday go out to pick mushrooms or berries.”
Berg also fell in love with bartending early on— so early, in fact, that she opted to decamp to Greece to work there for several months while waiting to turn 20, the legal age to tend bar in Norway. Upon her return home, she spent the following years working everywhere “from dive bars to cocktail bars to nightclubs to restaurants,” she remembers. “I was quite restless when I was younger.”
Eventually, she decided she needed a break from bartending — but she didn’t stray far. Instead, she began teaching her craft at a Norwegian bartending school, going on to become the manager and later the owner. Four years later, Berg was ready to get back in the game, and her timing couldn’t have been better: In 2009, Norwegian hotel group Thon came calling, with a bar project focused solely on the Nordic ingredients of her childhood. The bar would become Aqua Vitae, and Berg would become its head bartender. There, she began championing local products and collaborating with chefs on cocktail ideas. After three years, she traded Oslo for London and took a job at Pollen Street Social, another bar she credits with helping her develop her creative process.
In 2015, she left to start her own bar consulting company, which opened the door to projects like Himkok, a hybrid bar and microdistillery in Oslo, for which she is perhaps best known; Credo Restaurant, where she developed drinks for the rigorously “ingredient-driven” restaurant; her drinks symposium series, P(our); Tayēr + Elementary, a bar slash cocktail workshop with an ever-changing menu of experimental drinks; and Muyu, a new line of premium liqueurs. (Most of her projects, except Himkok and Credo, are collaborations with her business partner, Alex Kratena.)
While Berg’s drinks are experimental, she insists they aren’t overly complicated. In fact, she cites a quote from Ivan Abrahamsen, master blender for Linie Aquavit, as one of the guiding principles of her drink-making style. “Sometimes you have to be brave enough to intervene as little as possible,” he told her.
Another guiding principle? Openness, something she values in mentors and collaborators, like Abrahamsen and Heidi Bjerkan, chef and owner of Credo. “I think it’s important to just be open and willing to share,” she says. “You always have to want to improve. Imagine how far you could get if nobody cares who gets the credit?”
Berg says she has Bjerkan to thank for showing her how to master fermentation (“When it comes to flavor, I’ve met few people who can match her in how she manipulates ingredients,” she says of Bjerkan), which she calls on in drinks like her Butter Martini. Berg turns the classic on its head by butter-washing gin and then garnishing the drink with a lacto-fermented gooseberry in place of an olive.
The last point of inspiration for Berg is what she calls “flavor memory,” pointing to a whey cordial she makes for a Gimlet-style drink as a perfect example. Whey, fermented and cultured into a kefir, provides acidity in place of the usual citrus — and also channels her childhood memory of pouring kefir or cultured milk into oatmeal.
“These are familiar flavors,” she says, “but in a completely new setting.”