Crossing the threshold of Berlin speakeasy Schwarze Traube, you’ll spot all the hallmarks of a good bar: high-quality spirits, house-made liqueurs, an array of homemade bitters. One thing, however, is notably absent: a menu. That’s thanks to owner Atalay Aktas, who feels that a standard cocktail list is more limiting than it is helpful.
With a gastronomy career spanning the last 15 years: from working 12 hour shifts as a waiter, to bar tending high-volume club bars and mixing hand-crafted cocktails at popular Berlin bar Salut!, it was during Atalay’s time at Salut! that he came to realise his desire to run a no-menu bar, to do away with the restriction of a set list of offerings. His creativity was constantly pushing him to work outside the confines the menu, no matter how lovingly the selection was put together.
“At Salut! we were always talking about how great it was, and yet it was somewhat restricted. It felt like people had to be dressed up, and there was a menu. My boss was always asking me, ”Try to sell the drinks we have on the menu!” I never really wanted to own a bar where you have a menu, because I think you restrict people to certain flavors. In the end they choose something they already know; they’re afraid to order something new because they don’t understand the constellation of the drink, or they might not know a certain liqueur or bitter.”
Feeding Atalay’s curiosity is especially crucial when running a no-menu bar: his inspiration comes as much from food-pairings as combining flavours – which led to a recent cocktail invention at Schwarze Traube made with fresh avocado, cream cheese, rosemary, pepper and rum. The food influence weighs in from his time as a barman for Bacardi at the grand KaDaWe (Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin, the largest department store in Europe which dates back to the 1900’s, with two floors devoted to “football fields of food” and beverages). Atalay was given free reign of the food counters, as long as he worked the ingredients into a drink.
“For me, finding aromas or building up drinks through crazy combinations is a constant process. I carry it with me all the time. I get ideas while I drink, from a dream, walking around, or shopping at the supermarket.”
Creating a relaxing atmosphere at Schwarze Traube is a top priority, Atalay doesn’t want his guests to have to worry about getting up and waiting at the bar to be served. And without a menu, how do you order? You might be asked, which spirits do you prefer – simple or complex? Then Atalay may ask you for a childhood memory which will inspire the drink that he mixes for you.
To again entry, guests knock and wait to be let inside – proffering a smile is encouraged. Atalay is quick to say that people are not judged by dress, but friendliness and lack of attitude. Once in, you are invited to sit, and when all the seats in the house are taken, no more guests are welcomed until a space frees up, as Atalay’s wish is that everyone inside is at ease, relaxing in a comfortable seat, not standing and shifting around.
“Schwarze Traube is a speakeasy bar, you need to be open to that concept if you come here. Not staring at your phone or opening your laptop, people don’t come here for that. They come here to experience three good things: the lights, music and drinks.”
Usually if the bar is full and guests are turned away, they move on, perhaps asking for a recommendation. But recently, there’s been a change:
“Since about a month ago, people don’t leave anymore, they start a queue to wait for a seat. The bar has been running very well since we opened, but people never did this. It makes me proud because it shows that people understand. People travel a long way to visit us here: they come from Sweden, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and tell us, I came to drink at this bar and I won’t leave until I get a drink here.”
Atalay’s first cocktail experience was a turning point of his career 15 years ago, as a waiter in a large restaurant in a popular tourist area of Berlin. Earning good tips was an attractive aspect of the job, but stepping into the bar in the back awakened his senses to the wondrous alchemy of boozy elixirs. Atalay vividly remembers the moment when the axis of his universe turned and he was offered the job as barman,
“The second I entered the bar to pick up the drink, it was like being in heaven. The music was like angels were singing, like a big Hallelujah – this is what I wanna do. Perhaps it was destiny, but one of the managers chose me over all the waiters, even though I didn’t apply. Maybe she saw how much passion I had.”
In 2013, Atalay won the German “World Class Bartender of the Year” competition run by Diageo, going on to win the title at the Europe-wide level, and finishing as a finalist in the global top 20. Schwarze Traube was already open at the time of his win, so what changed afterwards? “Well the place was always busy, but the crowd became international. It put us on the international map.” Schwarze Traube celebrated it’s third anniversary this past summer.
And what’s coming up next for Atalay Aktas?
“We’re working on a second bar around the corner, more of a café-bar, it will open soon. And right next door, we’ll have a liquor store where we will supply customers, and ourselves, with good booze, and we’ll start to sell small batches of what we produce ourselves. We make infusions as well as small batch liqueur like lavender, coffee, honey, lemon, raspberry-chilli, vanilla, caramel-salt syrup, grenadine. We also make our house bitters – lavender, honey, thyme, plum, lemon, cardamom, roast walnut, coffee, chocolate. We have 6 people working here. For all of us, this is a lab, so everyone is working on things here, not just me.”
Mon-Thu: 7:00 pm-2:00 am
Fri-Sat: 7:00 pm-5:00 am
Sun: 7:00 pm-2:00 am
A condensed version of this article was originally published on Tales of the Cocktail, here.