Like many craft cocktail bars, Velvet, in Berlin’s Neukölln district, focuses on seasonality; fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs are sourced from in and around the city. Unlike other bars, though, Velvet calls on its staff to forage many of the items found in their intricate cocktails, and the menus (which change every week) depend on what head bartender Ruben Neideck and the team find on any given excursion.
On Velvet’s weekly “lab days,” each member of the close-knit team—in addition to Neideck, there’s bar manager Filip Kaszubski and bar staff Sarah Swantje Fischer, Matt Boswell and Benjamin Hanke—picks one ingredient to focus on and incorporate into a new drink for the coming week’s menu. Past star ingredients have included sakura (cherry blossoms), Japanese knotweed and rhubarb.
Each cocktail is centered around and named after the plant that inspired it, and the Spruce Tip is the newest on the menu. Bright green with a citrusy, piney aroma, the plant is a perfect centerpiece for the bar’s approach to drink development: It’s local, unique and strong enough to be a key ingredient that could be supported by other flavors.
To construct the drink, the team started by making a spruce tip liqueur. First, they created a syrup by boiling water, sugar and spruce tips together. They then poured a mix of vodka and puréed spruce tips into a rotary evaporator to create what Neideck describes as “a super boozy distillate.”
Finally, “when we mix the syrup and the distillate, you have the best of both worlds. The alcoholic extraction is very ethereal,” he says.
To the liqueur, Neideck adds no fewer than 10 ingredients. Korn, a native German spirit fermented from cereal grain and chosen because of its neutral flavor profile, acts as a base spirit. An umami-forward sake offers an “elegant component,” while Clairin Sajous, an agricole rhum from Haiti, offers “a bit of depth.” For “a nice fruity edge” that Neideck says pairs well with spruce, he incorporates raspberry distillate, raspberry and pear brandies, pear cider and two additional liqueurs—Muyu Jasmine Verte and a mandarin liqueur—to the mix. Finally, a few dashes of citric acid solution pull the whole drink together. It may seem like a lot of elements, but Neideck notes how each complements the others, bolstering the spruce tip distillate in a pleasantly layered cocktail.
The elaborate recipe is not only technically complex; it also came together in just an hour and a half. “We … specialize in being really fast in this process,” says Neideck, explaining that recipe development usually takes less than two and a half hours for a single drink. “We have a lot of practice because we do it every week. And because we work as a team, we have a very strong sense of communicating.”
The staff takes a trial-and-error approach to creating each new cocktail. “We always split up an ingredient into multiple glasses,” says Neideck. “And then we just pour … different spirits [into] each glass.” For the Spruce Tip, he began by pouring a raspberry brandy in one glass and an unaged rum in another, testing the homemade liqueur with both. The frequent sampling allows Neideck and the team to find flavor pairings quickly.
Despite employing an almost-scientific method when it comes to making the menu each week, the Velvet team also relies on their own instincts. To know when to gather future ingredients, “we just have this calendar in our heads about what’s going to come soon, and we know what is nice and what works for our drinks,” says Neideck, pointing to the team’s five years of experience.
Velvet’s focus on hyperseasonal produce and foraging has always been part of the bar’s ethos, stemming primarily from concern over the climate crisis. But rather than a constraint, churning out weekly cocktails has been a source of experimentation for the team.
“Once you start doing it, there is little turning back,” says Neideck. “There is so much more to discover in the wild, [and] to get the full flavor range of the seasons, you have to go out; you have to forage.”