Istanbul’s Last Craft Cocktail Bar

Between the government’s aggressive push toward prohibition and the high cost of liquor, Turkey’s only craft cocktail bar, run by American Alex Waldman, is already in the crosshairs.

Three Russians walk into a bar. The first one looks around. The second whispers to his friend. The third says, “This is it? Where’s the VIP room?” Alex Waldman, the bartender and owner of a small, single-room cocktail bar in the Asmalimescit neighborhood of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district is quick to reply, “It’s downstairs.” He is referring, sarcastically, to the bathroom, which is down the spiral wrought-iron staircase that the Russians stare at skeptically. Not getting the joke, they nervously exchange whispers. Alex shoves the menu in their direction. The three Russians promptly exit.

It is a scene that will repeat itself in various incarnations with slightly different players throughout the night. First-time visitors hear through the grapevine that someone is doing interesting cocktails in Istanbul’s binge-drinking epicenter. They make their way down a dark street off the broad and bustling Istiklal Caddesi; some even succeed in finding Waldman’s unmarked bar. But “Alex’s Place,” as the bar is unofficially called, isn’t for everyone and indeed it’s quite unlike its neighbors, which sell industrial lagers and conventional mixed drinks.

Yet there is no other area Alex’s Place would fit in. Beyoglu has been the epicenter of Istanbul’s drinking culture for well over a century. This European district is flanked on one side by Istiklal Caddesi, a wide avenue from which Asmalimescit’s dimly-lit streets originate, carrying visitors to restaurants serving raki, taverns and pubs. Amidst the dozens of bars, Alex Waldman tends Istanbul’s only craft cocktail bar.

Waldman, a California native, came to Istanbul in 2003 to work on a film and stayed. But as his cinematography career waned, he looked for alternatives. The self-taught bartender started mixing drinks at home and then did some guest bartending before opening his own place. He quickly earned a reputation as a confident, creative bartender whose ingredients and style set him apart in a city where few drink and even fewer drink well.

His discerning and loyal clientele is a blend of local food activists, chefs, writers and artists who congregate inside the brick-walled pocket square of a bar or prop themselves up on scooters and against walls outside. There is a menu—two hand-written sheets affixed to a slab of wood, but these are handed out only to first timers. Regulars know it’s best to submit to Waldman’s will.

What the future holds for Istanbul’s drinking culture is uncertain. Violent government retaliation to recent protests has exacerbated fears that the democratically-elected AKP is becoming increasingly totalitarian.

Such an approach to bartending wouldn’t be unique in New York or London, but in Istanbul, it is profoundly novel. Turkey is a raki and wine-producing country where cocktails have little cultural relevance. Waldman describes Istanbul’s cocktail scene, which is mostly limited to Asmalimescit, as driven by “Red Bull with vodka and mojitos” and refuses to make either.

Instead, his cocktails draw on American classics and personal inventions. His mise en place is packed with homemade bitters made from fruits and herbs culled from the city’s produce markets. Waldman relies on these concoctions to achieve balanced flavors and aromas and, in a way, to cover the industrial liquors he works with out of necessity. 

Turkey’s liquor supply is monopolized by global brands, with whiskey and vodka dominating catalogues. There is no rye, the tequila options are slim, sherry is virtually non-existent and serious bartenders must choose from a narrow menu assembled by big distributors who can absorb Turkey’s exorbitant importation costs.

Since May of this year, the government has amped up its anti-alcohol rhetoric and regulation. Public promotion of alcohol, be it a local wine festival or an advertisement, has also been banned. While standing in front of his bar in June, Waldman gestured inside, “I’m not even going to be able to have the doors open because having the bottles in view constitutes promotion.”

The new rules don’t ban alcohol altogether, but certainly aim to impose economic hardship on business owners who serve booze.

“The government’s strategy is really quite basic,” says Waldman. “They are trying to price alcohol out of reasonable consumption patterns. They’re not making it illegal and, certainly in Beyoglu, they’re not making it so much more difficult to find. They’re making it less comfortable and they’re making it more expensive.” Since the conservative AKP party took power a decade ago, taxes on alcohol have risen threefold.

Bar owners are able to pass some, but certainly not all, of that increase on to customers in order to remain competitive. At Alex’s Place a cocktail costs 35 Turkish lira (US$19) on average, roughly half the cost of a full meal with raki at the surrounding restaurants. On a recent visit, I shared a drink with Waldman’s citrus purveyor who scoffed at paying such a price for a drink and ordered a $5 beer. The government strategy, it appears, is working. These high prices, along with increased regulation, are a tangible threat to Waldman and Beyoglu’s other bar owners.

“When I started making drinks maybe five years ago,” explains Waldman, “A bottle of Jack Daniels sold for between $25 and $35. Now a bottle goes for more than $45 and I wouldn’t be surprised if in another five years it costs $75.” Considering AKP’s recent regulations, one wonders whether in five years Jack Daniels, or any other liquor, will be served in Turkey at all.

What the future holds for Istanbul’s drinking culture is uncertain. Violent government retaliation to recent protests has exacerbated fears that the democratically-elected AKP is becoming increasingly totalitarian.

A small craft cocktail bar could easily fall victim to the government’s anti-alcohol policies, a reality that is not lost on Waldman. Standing behind his bar, Waldman explains in a matter-of-fact tone, “When we got into this place we made sure the terms of the lease were flexible in case serving alcohol here became too difficult.” On a street where tear gas lingered in the air just weeks before, I had the feeling that time might not be too far off.