Alex Waldman: Istanbul’s craft cocktail saviour

Alex Waldman runs Istanbul’s only craft cocktail bar. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin travelled to Istanbul and spoke with him, finding out about a former filmmaker whose bar carries an entire city’s cocktail culture on its shoulders.

It’s apt that Istanbul’s only craft cocktail bar has no name. In a city where the bars peddle glitzy names, loungey vibes and standard mixes — at the likes of Vogue, 360, La Boom — why bother with a name when you’ve got nobody to compete with?

Locally dubbed Alex’s Place, or The Alchemist, the bar stands alone. It’s a place for considered drinking located just off İstiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s brasher than brash commercial and party epicentre. It’s also really the only dedicated craft cocktail bar in the city — the type many other Western cities would now consider standard.

Alex Waldman is the eponymous, straight-talking American proprietor of the bar. We meet in the micro-sized bar early on a breezy autumnal night, just before the evening crowds arrive. Cozy to the hilt, the bar consists of a warm brick lined room with space for around 10 denizens. 15 minutes later, drink in hand, we head upstairs. I wonder – just how did he become the only purveyor of craft cocktails in Istanbul?

The Bloody Mary factor

His life trajectory spans the geographical gamut — he’s from San Diego but studied in Chicago, went to university in New Hampshire and did grad school in London. He majored in filmmaking and then came to Istanbul in 2003 for a film project. Fast-forward to 2008 and with filmmaking not working out, he decided to teach himself the way with a mixer and shaker.

This wasn’t just a split second thing — distant childhood memories were a prominent factor. Waldman remembered his grandmother’s Bloody Mary and wanted to recreate it. That’s not to mention other factors. “I was bored of drinking from the bottle,” he says. He went on to spend the summer of 2008 making cocktails and exhaustively reading books and internet blogs for intel. Most notably, Ted Haigh’s classic tome “Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails” came in handy.

Eleven to exodus

Prior to ever having worked in a bar — an advocate for DIY learning if ever there was one — Waldman then opened his own cocktail bar called “Eleven”. It was distinctly an underground operation, without any license. On the 3rd floor of an office building and open two nights a week, it sounded like a veritable ball. Sushi nights one night. Dinner parties the other. Great DJ’s throughout. Yet from one day to the next, it was over. In 2012, somebody “ratted” them out and they were tipped off that the authorities had come over. If they returned to the bar, the consequences would be severe: fines, imprisonment or deportation are all mooted. Thus, Waldman and his two co-owners jumped ship.

What’s next? Waldman had a mission to complete — Istanbul truly needed somebody to be making good cocktails and it seems he was the man to do it.

Catch as catch can

Enter the bar with no name. In October 2012, Waldman opened up the bar with a partner, Ertan Uca, a former regular at Eleven. Waldman describes finding the location as “catch as catch can”. Licensing is a tough, and pricey, game in the former Constantinople. “Everybody has dollar signs in their heads when they hand out new licenses here,” he explains. The key is to find somewhere the municipality has already licensed. Lo and behold they came across a space just off the İstiklal Avenue – one that had been laying low for a year but still had a license, making it comparatively cheaper. Waldman and Uca picked it up and the bar was born.

I ask why it is the only cocktail bar in the city. Waldman lays the buck firmly with economics. The current Turkish government, under Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP, have been increasing the alcohol import duties for years. Furthermore, at the start of 2014, the consumption tax went up 10% — which followed many similar rises in the previous years.

Waldman uses Tennessee’s most famous to explain his import predicament. “If I were to stock Jack Daniels, I would be paying around 90 lira a bottle. Even at the inflated 3-1 currency conversion of these days, that’s around $30 for a bottle of Jack as a bar owner and the retail price is $14.99 in the states!” The economic conditions are clearly not optimum. And there’s other factors too – the fact that Turkey is traditionally a Rakı and wine country without any ingrained cocktail culture, the influence of Islamic groups and the scorching hot summers which lead many to the beach. Here’s what’s clear: Opening a cocktail bar in Istanbul sure ain’t easy.

The spirit conundrum

I ask how the bar reflects traditional Turkish culture, notably the spirits produced in the country. In short, it doesn’t. Instead, Waldman is aiming to bring something to the Istanbulites that they didn’t have before.

“What we were trying to do from the beginning, and we’re still trying to do, is trying to give them something they couldn’t get anywhere else and they might not have even imagined,” Waldman says. Rakı is only used as a flourish, most often as a spray absinthe for Sazeracs. As he explains, as a 40% anise-based spirit, it’s too much to fight against. He doesn’t use vodka either — describing it as like “painting with white on white”.

“I want to teach them about bourbon, mezcal and gin,” he continues. That’s not to say Waldman doesn’t like Turkish spirits. He notes a Rakı and pineapple concoction that’s served down by the beach that he’s particularly partial to. “If I had a blender, a pineapple and a bottle of raki on a hot day, I’d be drinking that,” he smiles. Despite this, does he have lots of Turkish customers? He nods. “Lots of people come in and say, ‘damn finally we’ve found a decent drink.’”

Caribbean temptation

Away from the bar, and towards his personal tastes, sugarcane-rhums give him the tingles. He first notes Trois Rivieres Blanc from Martinique. “It comes in an opaque turquoise bottle, has all of these funky aromatics and it’s only € 18 a bottle”, he exults. He reserves some praise too for Clairin, which emanates from Haiti, describing the aromatics as “ridiculous: The bottle smells like black truffles!” Waldman’s also partial to mezcal. “I’ll be drinking a lot of mezcal the next time I’m in the US on the West Coast,” he says.

He has aims stretching far into the future. He wants to start producing barware. Opening more bars is another. Translating Imbibe Magazine to Turkish yet another. He loves Istanbul almost as much as he hates it, but there’s no sign of him shutting up shop quite yet.

We head downstairs to a busier bar and say goodbye. Just a few weeks later it’s announced the authorities have cancelled the annual World Rakı festival in the Turkish city of Adana. Rakı is Turkey’s national drink. Cocktails are a footnote. The scale of Alex Waldman’s challenge just got even mightier.

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