From the menu of classic and original cocktails, I tried an Ohio (a kind of rye manhattan topped with Champagne), a Beuser and Angus Special (a sort of chartreuse sour) and a Twin Lions (which contains bourbon and Scotch). Each was flawless.
Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro, the owner of Buck and Breck, once worked at Victoria Bar, a long space with a high ceiling and a bar so long that you could bowl on it. The classic-cocktail-bar look of Victoria Bar is offset by modern art on the walls. It’s an aesthetic juxtaposition common to many of the city’s cocktail bars, a reflection of Berlin’s mix of history and modernity.
The drinks menu, bound in red leather, contains hundreds of choices, including several that were invented at Victoria Bar. White-jacketed bartenders will guide you through the maze of options. I settled on the Boi Portugues, an intriguing aperitif cocktail made of dry port, Campari, vermouth and bitters.
Older than Buck and Breck is Green Door. The door is green, as advertised, and the color motif extends inside. As at many Berlin bars, you have push a buzzer to gain entrance. The room looks like a scene designer’s vision of a classic cocktail lounge: long, narrow, slightly Art Deco, dimly lit and filled with well-behaved people. My chosen drink, the suave Velvet Cordon, made of gin and fir needle cordial, seemed a perfect liquid companion to the surroundings.
To get a fuller sense of Berlin history, there is Bar Lebensstern, on the second floor of a 19th-century villa that escaped Allied bombing during World War II. The house was owned by a Jewish couple but was seized by Joseph Goebbels, who installed in it an actress who was his mistress. The beautiful interior is made up of many rooms, each with red walls and filled with cabinets holding rare, expensive spirits. The menu features a Ranglum, a modern rum drink created by Mr. de Sousa Monteiro that is a local favorite. The bartender told me that most “better cocktail bars” knew how to make it. His was one of them.
Stagger Lee, in contrast, doesn’t give a hoot about Berliner history. It’s done up like the well-upholstered parlor in a high-quality bordello in an American frontier town. Swinging doors lead to the restrooms. The menu focuses on classics, but with a house twist: Lee’s Boulevardier, Stagger’s Mai Tai and so on.
The ghostly image of Samuel Beckett’s face in a window is the only indication of Becketts Kopf’s location. The darkened bar is filled with deep armchairs ripe for deep discussions, and the menus are tucked inside of out-of-print copies of a German translation of a book on Beckett written by the American theater critic Mel Gussow.
If the place has a sense of humor about itself, it’s so dry as to be imperceptible. After entering, I was asked if I had a reservation. I looked around at the near-deserted bar. Were all the seats reserved? “No,” the young bartender said. “But there is a reservation at 11.” It was 7 p.m. I sat down.
All chilliness was forgiven, however, upon first sip. The laconic bartender bent over his work, and the care he took showed in the excellent results. All were accompanied by an exceedingly small glass of water, another peculiar earmark of Berlin cocktail bars.
The ultimate exemplar of Berliner bar quirkiness, however, has to be Rum Trader. The bunkerlike storefront, on a quiet corner in a residential neighborhood, offers no indication of the unique lunacy within. About the size of a key-making shop, it has maybe 12 seats. The single table was occupied by four cigar-puffing men. Soft jazz played. The bartender inquired if I wanted a rum drink or a gin drink. When I said rum, I got a Hemingway daiquiri. When I said gin, I got something with gin, lemon juice and crème de cassis.
At the bar, a garrulous man nursed a blood and sand. “The are no cellphones here,” he said. “You’re not on the clock. You’re here for talk.” And talk (and talk) he did.
Within its four walls, Rum Trader felt completely cut off from the rest of Berlin, or the world for that matter. It is a love-it-or-leave-it kind of place. I kind of loved it for its insistently odd attitude. But after two drinks, I was ready to leave it. I kept the smoke for a souvenir.