European Masters of Bartending: Klaus Stephan Rainer

Klaus St. Rainer, owner of Munich’s Die Goldene Bar, is undeniably one of Germany bartending stars. Coupled with some testimonials from those who know him best, MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin met him for a warts and all interview, finding out more about the man behind the bar with those famed golden walls.

There’s a scene in “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” (1975) where a furious God emerges in the clouds and admonishes a flustered King Arthur to find the Holy Grail. It’s a metaphor that Klaus Stephan Rainer uses to explain how he decided he wanted to work in the industry.

How “little Klaus” entered the Bar

It’s New Years Eve 1985 and 13 year old Klaus first set foot in Munich’s indefinably glamorous Bayerischer Hof hotel, to work at a big gala. “I couldn’t find the back entrance for the staff and I needed to be on time, so I entered through the front door”, he reminisces. “I immediately thought: ‘I don’t know what they are doing here, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’” Whether or not a human god did appear through a hole in the atmosphere brandishing a golden set of cutlery—or he just got chastised for being in the wrong area—lil’ Klaus certainly fell hard for the business.

And if he wanted to do it then, 30 years ago, he clearly still wants to do it now. Best-known as the owner of Munich’s dazzling Die Goldene Bar, the bar/café in the Haus der Kunst, Rainer has narrowed his gastro focus to bartending and keeps up a mind boggling array of industry-related side tasks. Alongside his work at the bar, he runs a shaker manufactory. Then there’s his OK Bitters and Sexy Bitters range. He makes tonic waters together with his partners from Munich based manufacturer Aqua Monaco. Writes a GQ blog. He’s drinks creator at the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He works with brands such as Tanqueray or Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque. His books. Klaus is still chasing that holy grail – even if most of us would say he’s probably found it.

I ask him if he’s a workaholic. “Err, I guess so?” he retorts. Adorned in tattoos, clad in black and somewhat rock-n-roll’ self styled, Rainer is quite unassuming in person. He’s not the man to make bells and whistles about how much work he does—he just does it. Shortly after his Monty Python opener, we move onto the early years. As it goes, one night at Bayerischer Hof became four years. Then at 19 alongside the owners of the Hof he opened his first bar. By 21, his 2nd. By 22, his 3rd.

I strap myself figuratively in. We’ve got a lot to get through.

100% bartender

During these initial days, Klaus felt most comfortable in the bar. Focusing his attention on mixing drinks, he read whatever books he could get his hands on. He brings up here his participation in competitions. In the 90’s he competed in many—most notably, the Bacardi-Martini Grand Prix (now Bacardi Legacy)—to gain experience. “Finishing in the top 10 was enough for me, it was more a chance for me to visit bars in other cities and connect with others,” he remarks with customary reticence. However, the old Deutsche Barkeeper Union (DBU)—overlords of 99% of competitions back then—comes in for some heavy stick. Klaus uses one word to describe them, “Realitätsfremde”, which for the non-German speakers here translates roughly as ‘out of touch with reality’. Young talents were often ignored and the same old candidates—cherished members of the DBU—received all the recognition. For this reason, until the era of bar awards and juries in the mid-2000s, Klaus said Auf Wiedersehen to the competition circuit in 1995.

I want to discuss the different bars he’s worked in—making for a tour around Munich’s premier bar scene, including guest appearances from many of its stars. Described as “one of the most important jobs in my career”, Rainer begun to work for Ernst Lechthaler in 1998. Hired as one of three Head Bartenders for Lechthaler’s new Lechthaler Bar, Klaus describes how they met in the lobby of Munich’s Four Seasons Hotel and Lechthaler introduced the three to an architect. “Bartenders, meet architect. Now you make the bar, because you guys have to work in it.”

2.5 million Deutsche Marks down, Klaus waxes lyrical about the bar they created. “It was a Rolls-Royce. It was perfect,” he beams. Clear nostalgia abounds here, especially when it becomes clear that Lechthaler’s consulting business included rather a lot of glamour too. Klaus clocked up air miles like crazy—bartending at the Burj al Arab opening in Dubai, the Cannes and Venice film festivals, the Academy Awards, the Cinema for Peace gala and more. He loved it—of course he did—and it was also a taster of the connected future, when bartending became international and networks became global.

The Schumann’s era

Until Die Goldene Bar, Rainer was most known for his work at Schumann’s. It comes at a somewhat surprising time in his trajectory. As Head Bartender for Lechthaler, and living the jetset lifestyle, Klaus decided to jump ship and join Schumann’s as bartender in 2003. As it turns out, he’d always wanted to work there—ever since reading Schumann’s American Bar book in ‘92—but his admonitions to Charles Schumann had always fallen on deaf ears.

Klaus laughs in remembrance. “I went to his bar every year and said ‘Hey remember me, I want to work for you’. Every time he said no and this went on for seven years until he said yes!’” The pay packet was smaller and bringing up two young children, it didn’t go down too well with his wife, but Klaus had achieved his ultimate goal. I wonder briefly if it was a cackling Charles Schumann, omnipotent to future events, playing God in the Bayerischer Hof that fateful evening.

7 content years at Schumann’s followed. Darker times intermingled. He got divorced from his wife. He also battled skin cancer. And in true Klaus style: “23 operations later I was winning against this bastard and I was back to work.”

Those golden walls

We finally arrive at Die Goldene Bar. It comes as a surprise to me that Klaus, hitherto a man of the most long-gestating and conscious of decisions—see Schumann’sdidn’t even want to open a bar. It was his now ex-wife Leonie von Carnap who came to him in 2010 suggesting he took a look at the venue at the Haus der Kunst. He reluctantly went along. What was it that did it? Those walls.

“I checked the walls for more than an hour. It was the best thing I’d ever seen. All of the gold represents drinking themes around the world – there was a guy who painted a gin bottle over London, there’s a distillery, whiskey trailers, there’s cigars from the Caribbean, german vineyards…”, he rapidly reminisces, a hint of awe and wonder in his voice.

Holders of the premises, the Freistaat Bayern, held an auction, which included many of Munich’s biggest gastronomy players—Kaefer and more. The walls swayed Klaus. “We had to make the best concept and give a professional presentation. We had to have pictures of the chairs and tables, an example food menu, cocktail menu, a business plan for the next 3 years—everything in every detail”, he explains. Lo and behold, Rainer and von Carnap won the bar, he quit Schumann’s and on 14th October 2010 they were open for business. Celebrating their fifth anniversary this year, Die Goldene Bar is undeniably one of Germany’s best—the temple to high-quality gastronomy that Klaus had always wanted to be a part of.

Brands, brands, brands

I mention that Klaus works for lots of brands. “No, not too many”, Klaus sharply retorts, almost like he’s heard it before. He chooses to highlight three. First there’s Tanqueray, which as it’s his favourite gin since childhood, makes “absolute sense” he supports them. Working for brands is something he does to support quality—the whole reason he got in the business in the first place. He also notes Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque Champagne, a dry champagne only sold in bars and restaurants, and Hans Reisetbauer, a producer of whiskies and fruit eau de vies—the latter from whom Klaus doesn’t take a single cent. “It’s about quality, not money”, Klaus reiterates. I don’t doubt him there, but there’s no doubt he’s also creating himself a brand. “He’s a great barman and he’s also very good at creating a corporate identity,” says Stefan Gabányi.

As befits his work with Tanqueray, gin is one of his favourite spirits. Scotch too. He finds the question a bit baseless though. “It’s like asking who is your favourite son. It always depends on my mood, the weather and where I am – for example, in some situations a cold beer is the best drink in the world”, he says. Klaus however likes to keep it dry. A good scotch on the rocks, for instance, preferably utilising a Single Blend from the 60s or 70s.

Shooting carrots, spitting tequila

Whilst gin might be a favourite, don’t come into his bar with a new one. “Everybody is distilling gin now. We don’t need another fucking gin in the world,” he groans. Indeed Klaus may be unassuming, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be sharp. Humorous too. I ask about the tattoos that adorn his body and he points to his arm, where there’s a stencil of a gun shooting a carrot.

“It’s the work of a friend of mine, Nicodem, a great graffiti artist in Paris. He has an organisation with some friends against war and for humanity,” Klaus says. “It’s called the Movement of the Carrot. In Paris they have a saying, which is when I shoot a carrot it means I am telling the truth.” Klaus can’t help but be honest, admitting that can sometimes cause him problems. I like it. Klaus seems at times reticent and quiet, and at other times like the self-styled rock star, but also—forgive the cliche—always ‘no bullshit’.

There’s more. Just two days before our chat, he had a spitting snake with “damn tequila” imprinted on his body. Inspired by a drawing he found on a toilet in Cape Town, it reflects the current perceptions and difficulties the agave-based spirit faces. “I love tequila, but so many people hate it because they had a bad experience when they were 14,” he laughs.

Learn slow

Klaus’ career has been a long one and he thinks some bartenders nowadays learn too fast. “There are many young talents but most require longer education, work experience and training,” he says. What’s next for him? He’s not sure. He wants to stay in Munich first and foremost—“there’s no other city I would rather live in.” Regardless of this, he’s working non-stop—he’s at Die Goldene Bar from 12-12, then is up doing his plethora of other tasks—the writing, the emails and whatnot—until 4am. 7 days a week.

I think back to that first night at the Bayerischer Hof. Lil‘ Klaus may have just made it.

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