If I begin a story with the words “Jerusalem and Istanbul,” you might think I am going to write about politics, religion, history or culture. But, I am going to talk about cocktails. Yes, cocktails.
Craft cocktails, making drinks with quality spirits and fresh ingredients, has been a trend that has taken off around the world. In many cities, it is easy to find restaurants and bars that have evolved past the Red Bull and vodka drinks.
But, in the heart of two religious epicenters, craft cocktails are just starting to make a place for themselves. Both Jerusalem and Istanbul have a drinking culture. There are bars and clubs for the 20-something crowd. They drink beer, wine (locally produced in both countries), whiskey and of course, overly sweet mojitos, cosmos and Red Bull and vodka. But, as the 20-somethings become more sophisticated 30- and 40-somethings, where can they go to enjoy a drink? Gatsby, Jerusalem’s very first craft cocktail bar, and Alex’s Bar, Istanbul’s only craft cocktail bar, are the answers.
Gatsby Cocktail Bar, Jerusalem
Bartender Yuval Soffer spent 13 years in the U.S., working at Apotheke in New York and Fraiche, Comme Ca and Neat in Los Angeles before returning home to Israel. When I was visiting in September, after touring cocktail bars with him in Tel Aviv, he mentioned that he was in the process of opening a bar in Jerusalem. So, when we arrived in Jerusalem, we made a point of finding this new bar. I told the driver the address of Hillel Street 18 and was dropped off in front of a building that had a bar and a few other restaurants.
I walked into the bar and asked if it was Gatsby, but the young man working there seemed confused. He told me that it was a new bar but not called Gatsby and invited me in for a drink (made with Red Bull and other unnatural sweeteners). I politely declined and started wandering around the building, hoping I was in the right spot.
One level below this bar was a black door with no sign on it. I opened the door and entered a library where I was greeted by a hostess. She pulled a book out of the wall and the wall of books opened to reveal the dark, underground bar, Gatsby. Named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest work, Gatsby takes you back to the 1920s through the decor and the drinks.
Gatsby intends to be accessible, providing quality and intrigue but no pretense. Recognizing that the local cocktail palates are not yet evolved, they don’t want to serve overly sweet, unbalanced drinks. Gatsby doesn’t compromise on quality. The key is balance, fresh ingredients and showcasing what Israel has to offer. And, they are succeeding.
As I was sitting and enjoying my drinks, the young bartender from upstairs came downstairs to see what Gatsby was all about. He sat at one end of the bar and watched intensely as the bartenders mixed different ingredients and shook their drinks. He tried his drink and smiled, telling me that he had never tasted anything like that.
It’s now been six months since Gatsby opened, and I asked Yuval how it is doing. “Gatsby has exceeded all expectations. I knew it would work but I never expected it to take off as fast as it did. Jerusalem, which had no cocktail scene at all, has adopted it in the most embracing way. So many people told me that Jerusalem was not ready for a craft cocktail bar because they don’t even know what a cocktail is. But I knew that if I build it, they will come. And they did. Now the Gatsby is the trendsetter for Jerusalem.”
Alex’s Bar (aka The Bar with No Name), Istanbul
Alcohol is a controversial topic in Turkey. The government is aggressively pushing prohibition and the cost of liquor is very high. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bars in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, which has a vibrant young community. But, the selection of brands is limited. And the popular drinks are Turkish Raki and of course, Red Bull and vodka and mojitos.
I wasn’t expecting to find a cocktail bar in Istanbul, or anywhere in Turkey for that matter. But, thanks to social media, a friend messaged me to look for Alex’s Bar, owned by an American, Alex Waldman. This was no easy feat. I found a few articles about the bar after a Google search and finally found an address. But, just because I found an address didn’t mean it was going to be easy to find.
I had been befriended by a local in the Spice Market, and he offered to help me find it. He had never heard of the bar but knew the general vicinity of Alex’s Bar because it is located in Beyoglu, the heart of Istanbul’s drinking culture. We wandered down Istiklal, the main street of Beyoglu. A wide street filled with restaurants, pubs and shops, the street was filled with people. The youth and energy was electric and it was hard to believe there weren’t more cocktail bars for this audience. After wandering down the street, we turned off to a quiet side street where on one side was a betting office (for gambling) and on the other side was a tiny little single-room bar. We found it.
The drink menu is succinct with options for gin & tonics, swizzles and rickeys, all around $12-$14 U.S.. And, all of the bitters and syrups are house-made. My local friend who helped me find the bar stayed to enjoy some drinks. He ordered a beer, and I encouraged him to try a cocktail. As he didn’t recognize the ingredients, he was hesitant at first to try them. After a few little sips, he was surprised with how good they tasted and proceeded to enjoy the balanced, not overly sweet drinks, with me. But, he said that as much as he liked the drinks, the cost was a bit prohibitive. For now, this craft cocktail bar is attracting more expatriates in Istanbul. But in time, locals will find it.
There is a market for craft cocktails in cities like Jerusalem and Istanbul. It may take a while for their popularity to grow the way it has in other cites but these two bars are establishing a foundation for the cocktail culture to grow.