European Masters of Bartending: Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro

He’s most known for Berlin’s Buck and Breck, but has stints at Le Lion and Victoria Bar on his repertoire. Then there’s his renown for mixing the most precise drinks around… For his continuing series on the European Masters of Bartending, Mixology author Andrew Wilkin meets Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro.

Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro isn’t keen on press. It’s not that all journalists are scum or good for nothing hacks. It’s just that his bar, the famed Buck and Breck, is very small. One that until very recently had room for only 14 guests. And in recent weeks, the double B has received some more—dare I say it, unwanted—attention. “We were mentioned in a fashion magazine,” Gonçalo sighs. “Then more people have come and we’ve had arguments and trouble at the door when we can’t let a group of 24 in!” When you can only let a maximum of four in at a time—done to keep the intimacy and casual bonhomie of the bar intact—it’s undeniable this sort of attention can be less than savoury.

It’s good news then that Buck and Breck has opened a second room at the back, although the bar is still by no means a pack ‘em in monster. I have two thoughts. There’s the relief first of all that Gonçalo doesn’t hate all journalists. Then there’s the aforementioned second room. Will the addition sully the one-room-one-table concept? We meet on a weekday afternoon in the bar, and he says, quite to the contrary, word since the opening in September has been rather good. After all, why not fit a few more in and make the most of the space?

Smiling at me over the famed bar table in the original room, he pours me his latest variation on The Last Word, called the Hermitage, incorporating lime, elderflower liqueur, alpestre and dry gin. I take a look at a bottle of alpestre, a hydroalcoholic distillate of medicinal herbs and plants from Northern Italy that Gonçalo came across three years ago. Gonçalo is rightly passionate about its inclusion—exhibiting a far different flavour profile to the standard Chartreuse—and I’m officially intrigued. Gonçalo is famed as a recipe perfectionist, one of the most precise bartenders in the game. Where did this all begin?

Initial inklings

Gonçalo, born in 1969 in Lisbon, got started in 1989 as a dishwasher. On an interrail trip across Europe ahead of his compulsory military service in Portugal—a trip that coincided with the Mauerfall—Gonçalo ended his trip in Munich. Broke and needing to earn some money before the aforementioned military service, Gonçalo was on the hunt for a job. “Anyone can work in gastronomy,” a friend told him. The claim was both staggeringly prescient and staggeringly off the mark—after all, for Gonçalo it was his calling but few gastronomy players will claim it’s a fit-all profession. He then worked for a few months as a dishwasher in Munich.

Afterwards he went on to study architecture—first in Portugal and then in Berlin at the Technische Universität (TU Berlin). Throughout this time period, he was constantly side-jobbing, including a stint at a tex-mex restaurant in Berlin. It’s clear he enjoyed the grind—“ten hours would pass by but they would feel like two”—but he wasn’t interested in cocktails. Or more specifically what he thought cocktails were. “I thought cocktails were crap,” he says. “I’d see the bartender put in a lil’ bit of that, a lil’ bit of that, then do the shaking and think—this is bullshit.”

The Negroni balance

He wasn’t interested until he was. What did it? Balance. He uses the negroni to illustrate his thinking. “You can make a Negroni with three equal parts of vermouth campari and gin”, he says. “Or you can taste it and then reduce the vermouth and campari and increase the gin. You are then playing with the bitterness and the sweetness and developing the drink.” Looking at cocktails in a new scientific way, he was hooked.

I don’t doubt Gonçalo, methodical and precise to the core, could talk about this all day. We discuss the literature he pored over, with his favourite being David Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. “It’s written by a guy who isn’t a bartender who exhibits a scientific approach,” Gonçalo says. “He really understands balance.” Other books he read in this time period included Charles Schumann’s American Bar book and the Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock.

Bars over buildings

Lo and behold, bartending—of the balanced sort, of course—soon became his number one. He begun to work full time at Berlin’s famous Victoria Bar in 2001 and dropped out from university. I ask what led him to his decision. Gonçalo admits he loves architecture but had never equated his studies with a future profession. There’s more. “As an architect you work one or two years on one complicated project before it’s finished, but with bartending you have 200 projects in one night and put a smile on every single person’s face,” he explains. The satisfaction factor, then.

He worked full-time at Victoria Bar until 2006 but one guest shift at the legendary Bon Lion would change everything. It marked the birth of the “traveling mixologists”, a group of bartenders who travel and mix in one another’s bars. It also marked the start of his collaboration with Jörg Meyer. The Hanseatic city came calling and leaving Victoria Bar, he opened Le Lion with Meyer in 2007.

No burgers, all buck

One year passed and he returned to Berlin. It was time to open his own bar. Leaving Le Lion, there was first a false start with the absinthe serving Admirals Bar. Then in 2010, he opened up Buck and Breck alongside Holger Groll, his initial business partner, after two years building up the financing and looking for the venue la parfait. Charlottenburg’s Bleibtreustraße took his fancy, as did Mitte’s Torstraße. “You don’t need to be on the most attractive street when you do gastronomy,” Gonçalo explains. “People come because they want a decent Manhattan. You can be on a parking lot for instance.” In the end Buck and Breck wasn’t to land on Torstraße— described as an “ugly road with lots of traffic”—but very close by on Brunnenstraße. Was it not stressful? Gonçalo shrugs. If they weren’t meeting the running costs, he would flip burgers Monday to Friday and open just on the weekend. “Eventually, it would work,” he says.

He is reticent to discuss Holger’s departure from the bar but Buck and Breck worked out just fine. The attention and associated customers came quickly, something he attributes to having built his name up working at Victoria Bar and Le Lion. They’ve passed their fifth anniversary recently. No burgers required.

The bar table

The wood and linoleum made bar table, where the bartender and guest are at equal height sitting at a table—not a counter—was a pioneer in German bars. Gonçalo describes a creative process including four people—a designer (Kalle Ingo Strobel, designer of Victoria Bar), an architect (Nicolas Kretschmann), an artist (Theo Lighthart) and himself making a brainstorm, and going from there. “It was reminiscent of being an architecture student”, he smiles. “A really lovely creative process including working with different influences and different ideas from different people.”

Likely to do with both its design, and its methodical drinks offerings, Buck and Breck has a jam-packed awards cabinet—including the German Mixology Bar awards of the Year in 2015 and a continued presence on the World’s Best 50 Bars list. Does Gonçalo like to win awards? “It’s nice recognition,” Gonçalo admits. “But it’s not something I’m really after or have sleepless nights thinking about.” I believe him. He has no history in competing in competitions—“there’s more value for a bartender to take care of their guests”—and he’s quiet and reserved. Scientific, not showy. Perhaps earlier in his career it mattered, but not now. He also thinks that judging gastronomy is somewhat artificial. “They judge quality which always matters, but there is also the tendency to look at this ‘hype thing’—which is of course very subjective,” he says.

So, for instance: is the once-hyped speakeasy on its way out? “The speakeasy doesn’t even exist, as we don’t have prohibition,” Gonçalo retorts. He continues. “Just because you have a closed door, you get tagged with the speakeasy tag. It’s just a journalistic term.” Judging by that answer, I would wager he’s read that Buck and Breck is a speakeasy a fair few times.

The taste of Ginçalo

Who has tagged him Ginçalo? “Ginçalo is the most important bartender of my ginaration,” says his old Le Lion partner Jörg Meyer. Jörg’s pun is apt. Asked what his favourite spirit is, Gonçalo first mentions gin. He then shouts the praises of whiskey and cognac cocktails.

You wouldn’t call Ginçalo Vodçalo though. Gonçalo refuses to serve any vodka in his bar. “It’s tasteless,” he claims. “And we don’t want people to order the Long Island Iced Tea. My main problem is with people who don’t want to taste anything.” He denounces the drink as a get-drunk-quick tool. “We want to focus on the recipes we want to make,” Gonçalo continues. It’s the recipes that stem from the spirit, not the spirit itself, that’s behind the Hausverbot.

Buck and Breck and…

I get a sense that Gonçalo is more comfortable talking about his trade, or the composition of drinks, than himself. Regardless, I spin the conversation towards other topics. He mentions his girlfriend and 19 year old son, who pops in from time to time to help at the bar. Will he become a bartender too? “Hmm, he has to find his own way,” Gonçalo says tentatively. He likes to eat, drink and travel—when he has time of course—giving shout-outs to both Charlottenburg’s Lamazère brasserie and Hartweizen, close by on Mitte’s Torstraße.

Having completed work on the new room, Gonçalo is under no pressure to begin any new projects, but one thing’s for sure: Buck and Breck will run and run. A 10 year extension on the lease was signed in January. Anything else? “Keep curious and have fun”, Gonçalo knowingly smiles.

After all, in the world of Gonçalo, curiosity never killed the cat, nor the bartender.

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