Bar am Steinplatz - Interview with bar manager Willi Bittorf
“If someone had told me a few years ago that my first menu was completely alcohol-free, I would have flipped them the bird”. Instead, Willi prefers to show the non-alcoholic menu, or rather the small works of art that are painted on the tables of the Bar am Steinplatz. The sophistication of his non-alcoholic drinks, the attention to detail and the crazy names of his creations almost knock us off our (bar) stools.
We are guests of Willi Bittorf in the Bar am Steinplatz. Germany's first hotel bar with a non-alcoholic signature menu, which includes drinks such as Let's talk about sparkling wine, Baby and A winning horse named Julip.
But more on that later. When you hear hotel bar, you might think of sprawling leather chairs, a piano player, ties and rather unimaginative spirits on ice? Except for the chic leather armchairs, nothing applies here. You can take a seat with your sneakers in the Bar am Steinplatz, around the corner from the lively Savignyplatz in Berlin's west. In the team around bar manager Willi, the focus is on having fun with good drinks and a casual, friendly atmosphere. Sophisticated and at the top level, and yet far from stiff and aloof. Launched in summer 2020, the new bar menu was only available for four months.
“We give people who can't or don't want to drink alcohol the opportunity to have an awesome experience - that's what counts.”
Willi knows all about great experiences. He is 32 and, after a classic restaurant apprenticeship, has found a taste for the bar world “with the cool guys behind the counter”. He explored the world of spirits at Shangri-La in London, Regent Berlin and Waldorf Astoria. Now he is the new bar manager at the Hotel am Steinplatz and is responsible for the disruptive, sensational menu.
It was clear to him that he wanted to do something very special. A strong concept for a renowned bar that has been named “Hotel Bar of the Year” several times and won the Mixology Bar Award. He has Germany's first hotel bar with a non-alcoholic signature menu, which just a year ago featured ten clear drinks that all looked the same. Willi tells us how much tinkering is necessary to conjure up creations that impress with sophistication and depth as exciting alternatives to classic drinks.
How do you create non-alcoholic drinks?
“The approach is exactly the same as with alcoholic cocktails. You have something in your head that you have already drunk, you know a great product that you would like to use, or there is a dish that something has to go with. An example: There is a totally delicious salted grapefruit lemonade. I immediately think of umami, dried seaweed, coconut syrup and lime water. The distillate should not be too strong. A wormwood supports the umami character. When everything is shaken, you get a salty, subtle result with the heartiness of seaweed. A harmonious sweet and sour combination.
In the end it's a lot of tinkering, a lot of trying and a lot of collapsing. Also dump a lot. I often had to get on my colleagues' nerves to taste it. The fun thing about non-alcoholic drinks is that the staff can also stand behind the counter and drink.”
“This is all new territory.”
What did you learn while working with the non-alcoholic drinks?
“There are many brands and products that I don't understand or like and working with them was a challenge. This was all new territory. It was all a process and it took time. Quite often we had drinks that were good and somehow “OK”, but in the end they were nothing more than a better soda. It just didn't have the complexity and the interest to make me take my time with it like I would with a real drink and not just drink it away. And that caused a lot of frustration at the beginning. My biggest learning: Alcohol is a flavor carrier. Getting a heavy and broad note in is the hardest part. But we managed to do this very well with essences, kombucha or vinegar.”
What surprised you the most?
“My concerns that the map would be too monotonous were not confirmed. Overall, I was totally pleasantly surprised because I didn't think that so much was possible with the texture and taste. The basic building blocks are the same as for alcoholic drinks, but the properties and characteristics can change completely. I am sure that the mixological level will continue to increase with the spread of non-alcoholic distillates.”
How is the concept received?
“In the beginning there was a lot of headwind and skepticism, including from colleagues. That's why I put a lot of work and effort into it to nip the criticism in the bud. Looking back, there was a lot of pressure to convince everyone and not confirm their prejudices. It's the first bar menu I've released on my own. For me it is ultimately a success if I receive positive feedback. There was a lot of enthusiasm among my colleagues. I can still remember the surprised face of my colleagues when they tried the Garden 108 Smash for the first time and the comment “That intense note of ginger really hits your face.
“We don’t want to be exclusive. Our idea is to bring everyone together at the table.”
There are critics who don't understand the concept. I had to learn that. It is important to recognize the type of guest and respond to it. For example, if someone wants a classic nightcap. Business people who want a beer and Negroni during the week. That’s what you get from us too. It's a challenge to have a two-pronged approach: keep the top alcohol content and expand it to be non-alcoholic.”
How do you respond to non-alcoholic critics?
“The most important thing is the communication and the wording: “If you are interested and want to stay alcohol-free, we recommend you…”. In the end, the taste is convincing. For everyone else, there is also alcohol on the back of the card. We don't want to be exclusive. Our idea is to bring everyone together at the table. Everyone can drink whatever they want. It's a bit like the old days with vegetarian food. If someone in the tavern where I learned told them that there would eventually be purely vegetarian restaurants, no one would have believed it.”
What are your favorite drinks?
“I like the Ramos 0.5% with its slightly creamy texture, which is very refreshing. We use Ayran and non-alcoholic IPA, which gives the drink a hoppy feel. Also citrus flavors, a little cream and aquafaba, no egg white. You have to shake it a lot, so it takes a while.
“Let's talk about sparkling wine, baby”
Also great, a fresh aperitif with enough acid and therefore a great alternative to champagne cocktails. You really feel like eating something afterwards. For the show effect we use a flavor blaster to flavor the champagne glass. The smoke remains in the champagne glass and the guest can fully absorb the aroma. A total eye-catcher. A winning Horse named Julip is based on self-made rose water and an alcohol-free bitters. It is fruity, tart, sour. The most beautiful anecdote is about the drink Who is Frank “Palini” Baum. Frank Palini Baum was the best-known guitarist in the German-speaking world for Hawaiian Tikki music. We asked ourselves whether Tikki could also be alcohol-free and rethought it with black cherry, sea buckthorn and carrot. A fruity, earthy drink and the story is an absolute icebreaker for conversations.”
What tips do you have for mixing yourself in the home bar?
“I think simple and tasty drinks make sense for at home. When mixing there are a few little things that can make a lot of difference. A pinch of salt enhances and enhances the flavor, just like when cooking. The interplay of sweetness, salt and acidity is why drinks become broad, deep and very exciting. As simple as it sounds: the most important thing is the ice cream. If the ice cubes are too small, the ice cream will be watered down. It is the key to our cocktail menu. If they weren't 3.2 cm, the drink and the taste wouldn't be watered down for as long. At home, it is important to make sure not to use the broken, leftover ice cubes, but rather the whole ice cubes. I like to make ice cubes myself using a muffin tin. Also good: turn down the freezer so that the ice cubes are really cold. In the end it might be boring if people can do everything so easily at home, then we won't be needed anymore.”
Has your relationship with alcohol changed after focusing on non-alcoholic?
“Even before we designed the menu, I relaxed and gave up hard drinking. Negroni and Old Fashioned are nice, but I've never been one to drink a lot of hard stuff. Otherwise, I drink relatively little alcohol in my private life. More in company. And unfortunately it's been too long since the last game night with friends. My favorite drink at home is tea. For me it is one of the most exciting drinks in the world because it has so many different tastes. Smoky to strong, sweet to floral. Nevertheless, I still enjoy my after-work beer and other drinks like before.”
Any final conclusion?
“The nice thing is that we have an option for everything here. It just so happened that we can create great non-alcoholic drinks. That's the bottom line.”
Are you really craving non-alcoholic drinks? Then try our alcohol-free Gin & Tonic - a classic that is easy to mix. You can find the recipe here.
Photos: Bar at Steinplatz