Welcome to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
A version of this article first appeared on MUNCHIES Germany.
Tom Zyankali is very serious about his cocktails, which include ingredients like chicken skin, smoked lamb, blue cheese and fermented fish. And don't you dare order a beer from him.
I try to steer clear of hyperbole, but Zyankali makes it hard: He is truly one of a kind. The chemical-engineer-turned-bartender has been slinging drinks in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighbourhood for over 25 years now; his eponymous bar is Germany's oldest owner-run craft cocktail bar.
Tom, how'd you go from chemical engineer to bartender?
Often in life, if you want something good, you have to do it yourself. In the late 80s, there weren't any cocktail bars in Berlin that weren't hotel bars, and I've never been a fan of hotel bars. One night I was having drinks with a friend, and we were both annoyed by our jobs. We decided the solution would be to open a bar where we'd make scientifically-inspired drinks that we'd serve in test tubes. And so I did. I opened Zyankali in 1991.
How did you teach yourself to bartend?
I've always enjoyed cooking and playing with flavour, and I treat it just like my work in the lab. I used to do trace analysis on environmental toxins. Basically, there's no difference between extracting environmental toxins to analyse them, or extracting aromatics to use them afterwards. It's the same extraction technique. I simply have to use non-toxic solvents instead of petroleum ether or acetone.
You talk about a drink's "optimum" a lot, can you tell us a little bit more about that? I want to offer my customers the drink they always wanted, but never knew existed. The perfect drink for their respective tastes, which we figure out in the beginning. We have a very extensive menu—120 drinks. If you're not into any of them, we'll talk about where you like to eat, where you like to go on vacation, what your favourite perfume is. Armed with that knowledge, I'm certain that we can find the perfect, complex drink for any customer.
Do you also serve beer and wine?
Yes, unfortunately. We can't avoid it, though I like to tell customers that "drinking a beer at a cocktail bar is like going to a brothel to jerk off in the toilet." You're missing the point. We have one red and one white wine on the menu, which we sell reluctantly. To me, wine is like alcoholic pedophilia—it's not distilled. There's one important step missing.
To me, wine is like alcoholic pedophilia—it's not distilled. There's one important step missing.
Who's your perfect customer?
I prefer working with people who know what they like and order accordingly. I don't need to listen to your sad life story; I have one of those myself. But anything regarding our beverages, flavour profiles, our bottled cocktails, and manufacturing process, I'm happy to talk about for days.
How many steps does one drink entail?
First, I figure out a basic flavour, maybe from something I picked up at the farmer's market or something I ate or drank. Then, I figure out what flavours usually go with it. Can I use those? Do I want to?
For example: let's say I want to make garlic chocolate. The combination of milk chocolate and garlic isn't going to be very pleasant. But both coffee and garlic have sulphur compounds that are also found in roasted cocoa beans. So mocha garlic chocolate might work. I build bridges like that, and then I figure out how to get those flavours into a liquid form.
What's the favorite part of your job?
I like watching customers' faces when they're holding an amazing drink. They slowly start to smile, often in surprise at what's ended up in their drink: their drink might have been made with chicken skin, smoked lamb, blue cheese, or fermented fish. The drink might be clear or have a completely different colour to what they'd expect. We have one drink on the menu that's made with Gosling's Black Seal (a very dark rum), absinthe, mango and passionfruit juice. Freshly made, it looks like spinach diarrhoea—you'd never want to drink it. Once it's been clarified, though, it turns into this beautiful dark emerald green and looks so much better!
With all the knowledge you have, are you able to enjoy other bars?
It's difficult. There are a few people whose cocktails I'll happily drink. Out of curiosity alone, I will always drink whatever Arnd (Arnd Henning Heissen, Bar Manager at the Ritz-Carlton's Fragrances and The Curtain Club) puts in front of me. Same goes for Berlin's Schwarze Traube bar. I think that a good bartender needs to know flavours, have a creative approach to combining them, and needs to think outside the box. Open the refrigerator or take a look at the vegetable garden instead of staring at your back bar. I make a liqueur out of vegetables that I grow on-site. That goes far beyond "simply" local. It's cultivated, processed, consumed, and peed out all under the same roof!
Do you have a project that simply won't work?
Clear milk that doesn't sacrifice its flavour. But that cannot work. I've clarified coffee, which means I can make a completely white White Russian. I'd also like to make a KGB (or, now, a FSB), a translucent White Russian. But it won't work because when you remove the egg white from the milk, you're left with a greenish liquid. That's whey and no longer tastes like milk, because milk needs fat and protein and they have colour.
That's your Mount Everest?
Yes, but it simply cannot work.