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 given them the fuck.” Instead, Willi prefers to show the alcohol-free menu, or rather the small works of art painted on the tables of the Bar am Steinplatz. The sophistication of his non-alcoholic drinks, the attention to detail and the wacky names of his creations almost knock us off our (bar) stools.
We are guests of Willi Bittorf in the Bar at Steinplatz. Germany's first hotel bar with an alcohol-free signature menu, where you can find drinks like Let's talk about Sekt, Baby and A winning Horse named Julip.
But more on that later. When you hear Hotelbar, do you think of sprawling leather armchairs, a piano player, ties and rather unimaginative spirits on ice? Except for the chic leather armchairs, nothing applies here. In the Bar am Steinplatz, around the corner from the lively Savignyplatz in the west of Berlin, you can take a seat with your sneakers. In the team around bar manager Willi, the focus is on having fun with good drinks and the casual, friendly atmosphere. Upscale and at the top level, and far from stiff and unapproachable. Launched in summer 2020, the new bar menu was only four months old.
"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 developed a taste for the bar world “with the cool guys behind the counter”. He has explored the world of spirits at Shangri-La in London, Regent Berlin and Waldorf Astoria. Now he is the new bar manager of the Hotel am Steinplatz and responsible for the disruptive, eye-catching menu.
It was clear to him that he wanted to do something very special. A strong concept for a well-known bar that has received multiple awards as »Hotel Bar of the Year« and the Mixology Bar Award. He has Germany's first hotel bar with an alcohol-free signature card, which a year ago adorned ten clear drinks that all looked the same. Willi tells us how much fiddling is necessary to conjure up creations that convince with sophistication and depth as exciting alternatives to classic drinks.
How do you make non-alcoholic drinks?
"The approach is exactly the same as with alcoholic cocktails. You have something in mind 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 soda. I immediately think of umami, dried seaweed, coconut syrup and lime water. The distillate must not be too strong. A vermouth supports the umami character. When everything is shaken, you get a salty, subtle result with the heartiness of seaweed. A harmonious interplay of sweet and sour.
In the end it's a lot of tinkering, a lot of trying and a lot of tipping. Also dump a lot. I often had to annoy my colleagues to taste. The funny 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 a lot of brands and products that I don't understand and don't like and working with them has been a challenge. This was all new territory. It was all a process and took time. Quite often we had drinks that fit and were kind of “OK” but ended up being nothing more than a better soda.It just lacked the complexity and interest to make me take my time like I would a real drink and not just sip it. And that caused a lot of frustration from the start. My greatest learning: Alcohol is a flavor carrier. Getting a heavy and broad note in is the hardest part. But we managed it very well with essences, kombucha or vinegar.”
What surprised you the most?
“My concerns about the map becoming too monotonous have not been confirmed. Overall I was totally positively surprised because I didn't think that so much is possible with the texture and the taste. The basic building blocks are the same as alcoholic drinks, but the properties and characteristics can change completely. I'm 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 opposition and skepticism, including from colleagues. So 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 to confirm their prejudices. It's the first bar menu I've brought out on my own. For me it is ultimately a success if I get positive feedback as a response. My colleagues were very enthusiastic. I still remember the surprised face of my colleagues when they tried the Garden 108 Smash for the first time and the comment “This intense note of ginger is really in your face.
"We don't want to be exclusive. Our idea is to bring everyone to one 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 to respond to it. For example, if someone wants a classic nightcap. Business people who want a beer and Negroni during the week. You can get that from us too. Being two-pronged is a challenge: keep top alcohol content and expand alcohol-free.”
How do you deal with 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 to one table. Everyone can drink what they want. It's a bit like it used to be with vegetarian food. If you said in the tavern where I learned that there would be purely vegetarian restaurants at some point, nobody 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 that hoppy flavor. Also citrus flavors, a bit of cream and aquafaba, no protein. It has to be shaken a lot, so it takes a while.
"Let's talk about sparkling wine, baby"
Also great, a fresh aperitif with enough acid and thus a great alternative to champagne cocktails
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 big difference. A pinch of salt brings out the flavor and supports it, just like when cooking. The interaction of sweetness, salt and acidity is the reason 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 will water down. It's the key to our cocktail menu. If they weren't 3.2 cm, the drink and the taste wouldn't be watered down for so long. At home, make sure not to use the broken or leftover ice cubes, but to use the whole ice cubes. I like to make ice cubes myself with a muffin tin. Also good: turn the freezer down so that the ice cubes are really cold. But in the end it might be boring if people can easily copy everything at home, then you don't need us anymore."
Has your relationship with alcohol changed after focusing on alcohol-free?
“Even before we designed the card, I relaxed and gave up the hard drinking. Negroni and Old Fashioned are nice, but I've never been one to drink a lot of hard stuff. I also drink relatively little alcohol privately. Rather in company. And the last game night with friends was unfortunately too long ago. My favorite drink to take home is tea. For me 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 beer and other drinks after work as before.”
Any final conclusion?
"The nice thing is that we have a chance for everything here. It turned out that we can create great non-alcoholic drinks. That's the bottom line."
Are you in the mood for non-alcoholic drinks? Then try our non-alcoholic Gin & Tonic - a classic that is easy to mix. You can find the recipe here.
Photos: Bar am Steinplatz.