Friday, October 24th, 2008
After attending and presenting at the Bar Convent Berlin in September, I felt like taking a few days off and not blogging. I know it sounds like whining, but I needed a break even if it meant that I didn’t get to write up the tail-end of my trip to Germany. So I’m going to assume this is a better-late-than-never situation and give you a full report of one of the finest bars in the world. Here goes:
I left Berlin on Wednesday morning following a long night of revelry after the awards show. There’s nothing you need after a long week at a bar conference more than sparkling water, sushi, and a big TV in front of a comfy sofa, so I made a quick visit up to the port town of Kiel on the Baltic Sea to visit an old friend from college. Kiel is a really beautiful little town, I can highly recommend taking a walking tour through the city in the blustery rain – just wear the right shoes. Might I recommend you do not wear an old pair of Chuck Taylors with a hole on the side like I did? Just a suggestion.
Anyway, I then made my way back down through the gorgeous German countryside to Hamburg, which is easily one of the most incredible cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The lake, the city center, even the train station. It was there in beautiful Hamburg that I settled in for a long night at Jörg Meyer’s bar, Le Lion.
I first heard about Le Lion in July at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, where they were presented with the award for Best New Cocktail Bar. Knowing at the time that I’d be in nearby Berlin in September, I made quiet plans to visit.
When I arrived at Le Lion, I was greeted at the door by Herr Meyer and his brilliant bartender, Mario Kappes. I was seated at the bar next to some friends, given a hardshell-bound cocktail menu, and asked what I’d like to have first.
And this is where I have to back the story up: Berlin, Monday night.
A big group of us went to dinner at Schnitzelei, a modern schnitzel and German tapas house, and I had the great pleasure of being seated next to Gonçalo de Sousa Monteiro. Gonçalo is something of a legend in the German bar scene; his drinks are on menus all over Berlin, he participates as one of the Traveling Mixologists, and most recently helped set up the drink menu at Le Lion.
We talked extensively about bartending, our philosophies regarding mixology, and of course, cocktails. I sat and listened to him wax poetic about a journey of discovery with the old classic, the Blood and Sand. Like myself, Gonçalo had never really cared for the Blood and Sand until reading about it in Ted Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Accepting Dr. Cocktail’s authority on all things cocktailian, Gonçalo went on a quest for the best ingredients and most balanced proportions to perfect this drink. And by the end of his story I was drooling from one corner of my mouth – I had to try his Blood and Sand once I got to Le Lion.
I confidently placed my order for Gonçalo’s Blood and Sand, and it arrived expertly-prepared by Mario with Laphroaig 10-Year single-malt Islay scotch, Guignolet de Dijon black cherry liqueur, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and fresh orange juice. The construction and balance of the drink was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced from a Blood and Sand and I quickly realized I was in for a long, luxurious evening of cocktail mastery. Yeah, uh-oh.
The drinks started coming hard and fast, and we began passing Mario’s masterpieces up and down the length of the bar. There was a Straits Sling with gin, Benedictine, eau de cerises, lemon, Bitter Truth bitters and soda. The Contessa was nearly identical to a Late-Summer Negroni Variation we’ve been doing at Bel Ami, with gin, Aperol and Carpano Rosso vermouth. I braced myself for more, feeling smug that I’d opted for the steak at dinner.
Once we began to settle in, the ante was upped yet again. First was Robert Hess’ Trident cocktail, made with Drei Ling, a rye/wheat/spelt aquavit, Cynar, sherry and Fee Brothers’ Peach Bitters. Then came the Green Fly: gin, lemon and green Chartreuse finished with a few drops of orange blossom water.
Mario then gave us a short respite with a perfectly-executed Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength gimlet made with fresh juice that was simply about balance and showcasing the gin, and the now-famous Gin Red Basil Smash that has been appearing on cocktail menus all over Germany this summer.
At this point, Jörg came around to check on us, and offered us a tour of another bar they keep relatively quiet about, an elegantly-appointed little concept bar that was the birthplace of both Le Lion and the Traveling Mixologists. We followed him there and soon fell into a deep trance as he regaled us with the history of this exclusive little four-seater bar and applauded when he produced a round of Richmond Gimlets for the group.
Back at Le Lion, the hour was getting late, but there was no way I was going to leave without trying one of Mario’s creations – and a new favorite for myself – the Professor Langnickel. Made with kirsch, Pedro Ximenez, Guignolet Cerise, a lemon twist and Maraska cherry garnish, it was rich, sophisticated, balanced, and reminiscent of a classic cocktail, like a Manhattan without the wood and spice.
With my head swimming from the dizzying array of world-class cocktails at Le Lion, it was soon time for me to step out into the chilly Hamburg night and bid farewell to my hosts. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and stop in for a drink at Le Lion – the finest bar I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting and a new inspiration for me. And thank you, Jörg, Mario and Gonçalo. I hope to see all of you again very soon.