Near the heaving crowds and constant roadworks of Karl-Marx Strasse, tucked between Döner shops, gambling dens and shabby-chic hipster dive bars, there’s a hidden gem of a cocktail bar. As you enter, the softly glowing sign above the door announces the name of the bar, Velvet.
Inside, this haven of art deco elegance is as understated as a whispered secret and just as alluring. We were met at the bar by Ruben Neideck, an impeccably dressed man with just a hint of the geeky, childlike energy that true aficionados can’t help but exude. Indeed, Ruben is a man who knows his cocktails, and a lot besides. Listening to him discuss the art of a drink is like being taught by some ancient alchemist. It’s half science, half magic.
Ruben gets right down to business, walking us through the cocktails he’s whipped up. The first two drinks we try are a sibling pair, The Prinzessinnengarten Smash is a botanical blend of seasonal herbs, sourced straight from the famous urban garden, mixed with alpestre and a good gin.
Its sister drink is The Princessinnengarten Milk Punch, which uses the same herbal blend, but combines them with a clarified milk in a recipe that dates back to the 18th century. While the techniques back then required days of filtration through fine cloth, Reuben and his team have sped things up with a modern twist, creating a crystal clear clarified milk using a centrifuge. The resulting liquid gives the drink a subtle, creamy texture without the danger of curdling. The sweet, floral blend of late summer herbs in both drinks remind me of a Victorian era walled garden; I’m almost convinced that drinking could be medicinal.
If the first two drinks remind me of the kind of place a Victorian gentleman might recuperate, the second cocktail, dubbed The Cannondeck, makes me imagine what he might be recuperating from. It’s a complex blend of sherry, gin, rowanberry shrub (like a syrup, but it uses vinegar to preserve the ingredients longer), and smokey scotch. It tastes like the end of a gothic tale, as if you were drinking a bottle of the finest port amongst the smoking ruins of your family’s mansion.
Another standout cocktail is The Muffin, a delightful pink concoction made with fresh, local blueberries. As a fan of the dark, weird and spicy in food, I’m not usually impressed by a sweet cocktail, but The Muffin has just enough tartness and complexity to satisfy both the sweet toothed and those looking for depth.
Ruben and his team really do craft a story of flavour. Velvet was started as a place for the team of friends to experiment, to push their cocktail expertise further than they ever had, and it shows in the menu. There’s no trend chasing in their menu, and the only flavour of the month you’ll find is what’s in season. In fact, the bar has decided to move away from the pun filled trend of cocktail names, and their newest menu offerings are simply named after the featured ingredient, letting the flavours speak for themselves. The Velvet team are obviously in it for the love of the art.
As he leads us back to their secret laboratory style kitchen, we get to see the true heights of their skill and dedication. In this clean, white-lit room, the shelves are filled with carefully labelled bottles, jars and fermentation crocks. He shows us their equipment, a laboratory grade centrifuge, a vacuum still that most artisan distillers would sell their own mothers to use. As I admire the sleek, shiny machinery, Ruben lowers two crocks and carefully lifts the lid, inviting me to smell the brewing elixirs inside.
“These are our wild fermented fruit wines. It’s so hard to find good, organic berries here, so we have to do something special with them when we do.”
He pours us out a few glasses, and though they’re not quite quite finished fermenting, the flavour is remarkable: it’s rich, deep, sweet and sour, with the wild, yeasty notes of the natural fermentation still lingering at the end. Ruben tells me it will be ready for the autumn menu, though he hasn’t yet decided what to blend it with. It’s part of the excitement of Velvet, a menu that’s always changing, always new, and always exciting and unique.
Back at the bar, a couple is chatting to the bartender on duty, soliciting drink recommendations. Like any good cocktail bar, the best way to drink here is to leave yourself in the capable hands of the staff. After a few questions about their preferences, he starts to mix up some fabulous concoctions for the pair.
“It’s just us bartenders here, we make the drinks, we serve them, we make the menu, we even clean the toilets at the end of a shift, we’re a small crew.”
Indeed, if there’s one way to sum up Velvet, it’s a place run by cocktail lovers, for cocktail lovers. It might not be the place you go for a quick beer with an old pal, but when you want to make a drink an experience, it’s the perfect choice.