Facts: Seven Berlin Spirits
Hint: Berliner Weisse with green syrup isn’t one of them! No, we’re talking here about herbal liqueur, vodka, gin, caraway liqueur and more herbal liqueur. Berlin’s distilling tradition goes way back. Join us on a tour of Berlin’s wide range of local distillates past and present with our full-time Berlin resident author, Peter Eichhorn.
There’s an old song that proclaims, “Berlin, your face has freckles and your mouth is much too big”. I’m not sure about the freckles, but Berlin’s mouth is unquestionably large. And thirsty. Locals all over town have their own distinct favorite spirits at their own distinct favorite watering holes. Here we take a look at seven Berlin specialties that have left their mark on the city’s beverage history or are still making a name as ingredients in today’s latest drinks. MIXOLOGY has more than just one chest full of liquid treasures in Berlin. In the words of one of Berlin’s own, the late, great Harald Juhncke, “My definition of happiness? No appointments and pleasantly tipsy”.
1) Mampe Halb & Halb
“Medicinal purposes”. Mmm-hmm. But it’s true that the bar world owes a huge debt to history’s physicians and pharmacists for today’s drink specialties and ingredients! Mampe, the herbal liqueur with the elephant on the logo, is just one of these. In 1831, physician and Medical Advisor to the Royal Prussian Court Dr. Med. Carl Mampe combined a few mysterious components with herbs and bitter orange to create a liquid potion for effectively combating cholera. While sadly the disease continued to do just fine, it was widely agreed that the new elixir tasted great, and soon Mampe lounges could be found on streets all over Germany.
Long-forgotten on the shelves of many of Berlin’s smoky local bars, Mampe is currently enjoying something of a well-earned revival. While you can occasionally still see the old bottles featuring the accustomed yellow label with a horse-drawn carriage, today’s Mampe comes in a more trendy looking matt finish red-blue bottle.
But the liqueur’s legendary elephant mascot remains, and was even portrayed on the jerseys of Berlin’s Hertha BSC soccer club in the late 1970s. For a long time Mampe was even the patron of an elephant at the Berlin Zoo appropriately named “Mampe”.
Today the Mampe legend is preserved at the Mampemuseum in Berlin. Visitors to the McDonalds restaurant on Kurfürstendamm near the Gedächtniskirche church are astonished to find three rooms furnished in late 19th century fashion, the space which originally housed the lounge, “Mampes Gute Stube des Westens”.
2) Gilka Kümmel
Now we turn from an elephant to a penguin wearing a spiked army helmet that decorates the Gilka Kaiser-Kümmel bottle. This 38% vol. spirit is double distilled from caraway seeds, and these days the bottle also bears the highly coveted “Bio” organic certification, testifying that today’s Gilka Kümmel is made exclusively from organic quality natural raw materials.
Gilka Kümmel is best served ice cold as a digestif after a hearty meal as a discreetly sweeter alternative to the Nordic region’s Aquavit.
Back in the day, caraway schnapps was a component of the famous Berliner Weisse. And here’s another little-known fact: The Weisse was traditionally a “man’s” drink, made all the more manly with caraway schnapps. It’s a pity that not many of Berlin’s restaurant and bar operators today even know about this original version of the “Weisse”.
Long a favorite among Berlin’s older female population, the word “Persiko” is derived from the Latin phrase for peach, “prunus persica”. Peach pits have generally been the source of this drink’s flavor. Other producers have switched in the meantime to cherries and their juice for a similar flavor profile.
Berliners can still get their hands on the authentic version from the Leydicke liqueur manufacturing company. Founded in 1877 by the brothers Emil and Max Leydicke, the brand still continues today to make outstanding fruit wines and liqueurs which can be tasted and purchased in the historic atmosphere at the company headquarters on Mansteinstrasse in Berlin’s Schöneberg district.
Yet another popular brand is Persico Sauerkirsch from the Hardenberg Wilten GmbH company.
4) Held Vodka
“And you, you can be mean / And I, I’ll drink all the time / ‚Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact / Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.” This line from the song “Heroes” by former Berlin resident David Bowie celebrates the hero (German: “Held”) in us all. The “Held” we’re looking at here is a vodka. This triple-distilled specialty can be traced back to a 1921 recipe from the Meissner family from the Upper Silesia region, which originally ran a brewery with a liquor factory there.
In 2005, the family and its recipe was rediscovered by two new Berlin residents. The year 1921 displayed on the bottles commemorates the year the recipe was created and is indicative of a period in Berlin’s history when the demand for vodka skyrocketed. This was a result of the influx of Russian exiles arriving in Berlin in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Many landed in the district of Charlottenburg, which is still known today by the nickname “Charlottengrad”. The homesick refugees sought to drown their sorrows with a distillate they knew and trusted. The Berlin vodka brands Schilkin and Gorbatschow also originated during this period.
5) Berliner Luft
Music, anyone? Composer Paul Lincke wrote the piece “Berliner Luft” (‘Berlin Air’) in 1904. By 1922 it had become an integral part of the popular operetta, “Frau Luna”. But it’s unlikely that Lincke would have ever dreamt his famous Berliner Luft would also become an equally popular drink.
This strong, luminous green peppermint schnapps comes from the Schilkin distillery, and it was already hugely popular during the Cold War at East Berlin locales such as the “Mokka-Milch-Eisbar” and the “Gastmahl des Meeres” near Alexanderplatz. Thirsty East Germans were happy to have such a superior product, given that many of the spirits available there at that time were substandard at best. East Berlin-based author Thomas Kochan goes into great detail about East Germans’ drinking habits in his German language-only book, “So trank die DDR”. At his acclaimed Berlin shop “Dr.Kochan Schnapskultur” in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, he’s also an enthusiastic source of information on the region’s current and former spirits specialties.
For now, it’s likely that as a drink Berliner Luft will continue to be associated with Berlin’s unofficial “national anthem” from Paul Lincke. The song is always the closing number during the annual concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic at the city’s famous Waldbühne outdoor venue.
6) Pijökel 55
Berlin and herbal liqueurs are bound together by a tradition which happily still continues today. In 1955, a new kind of root wood was found by a group of young people who named it “Pijökel”, a dialect word essentially meaning “little thing”. The “Pijökel” is still kept at a secret location and only presented to fans once a year at a ceremony that has since become legendary.
Pharmacist Kuno Grote investigated the root wood and created a herbal liqueur named in its honor, including the year it was discovered. Following Kuno’s death, the recipe was rediscovered by his son Gabriel Grote. Gabriel joined forces with Henning Birkenhake in 2010 to begin producing Pijökel 55 once again by hand in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district.
7) Adler Berlin Dry Gin
Gin and Berlin? At the moment gin is everywhere. And although the label might say “London Dry”, the booze inside might well come from Niederetteldorf or Middlefritham. A plethora of new bottles is currently flooding the shelves, eager to tell customers how unique, regional, exotic or sophisticated the gin inside is. But there’s one Berlin gin that was already in production long before the “Gin Craze” of the 21st century hit the bars. And it’s a classic, emphasizing its juniper berry character. But enough irony.
Preussische Spirits Manufaktur (PSM) is a place and a company dedicated to the expert production of alcoholic beverages. Its consolidated expertise is applied to its own products along with external projects like the Michelberger distillates and Brandstifter Berlin Gin.
PSM’s products range from gin and vodka to liqueurs, bitters, brandies and more, predominantly based on traditional products and historic recipes.
But if we are to name only one Berlin gin, then it has to be PSM’s Adler Gin. The craftsmanship involved includes vacuum distillation and aging of up to eight months in stoneware containers. PSM additionally avoids using extracts in favor of the real deal. Adler’s primary botanicals components are ginger, coriander, lavender and lemon peel.
The factory is still maintained in its original state from 1874, and tours with tasting sessions can be arranged in the adjacent museum.
Translation by J.J. Collier.
Foto: Berlin via Shutterstock