November 23, 2017
During the holidays many of us will journey to far-flung hometowns to share meals with our families, and drink regrettable Jack-and-Cokes with our high-school classmates at townie dives. If, like me, you hail from one of the 14 states that still permit smoking in bars (real cigarettes, not those undetectable Juuls), you’ll need to accommodate a hefty dry cleaning bill in your travel budget.
A few weeks ago I had a preview of this phenomenon while on vacation in Berlin, a city rarely compared to my native Auburn, Alabama. Friends had kindly pointed me in the direction of what is reportedly Berlin’s best cocktail bar, Buck and Breck. Like many in Europe, this bar was modeled after the speakeasy trend that took NYC by storm over a decade ago (and is now considered cheesy by a lot of us).
There was a flashing “Closed” sign in the window and a buzzer on the door. Several prospective patrons actually walked away, understandably assuming the place was closed. In reality this sign was a ruse, signaling the bar was open for service, and that a press of the buzzer would lead to entry (provided they had space and your party was small). Mine was a party of two, so I felt fairy certain we would gain admission. I almost wish we hadn’t.
When we rang, the door opened and we were greeted by a gentlemen who instructed us to come in quickly and quietly. For even the most jaded New Yorker, there is still something about the speakeasy gimmick that works. You feel a bit special. You’ve made it, you’ve been selected, and therefore you don’t ask a lot of questions or put up much of a fight when they show you to whatever stool or seat you’re lucky enough to get.
That’s why when I first encountered the cloud of smoke within this bar, I didn’t say anything. Smoking has been outlawed in NYC bars and restaurants since 2003. Hasn’t everyone realized how much more pleasurable it was to enjoy a drink with friends without choking down stale air or reeking of smoke when you left? Apparently not in Berlin.
The city officially outlawed smoking in 2007 and 2008, but several Berlin bars sidestep the ban. (Apparently 21 percent of Germans above the age of 15 are daily smokers.) Legality and lung cancer aside, I think we can all agree that smoke-free bars are a force of good in this world.
Since smoking bans began rolling out across the United States in 2003, we’ve realized a few things. One is that smoking is not just a health risk for users and those around them. It also mutes the experience you have with your cocktail or food. Scientific studies have proven that cigarette smoke interferes with your senses of smell and taste. In fact, you can only smoke in Berlin bars without working kitchens.
The current cocktail movement focuses on fresh ingredients and flavor profiles just as complex as many food menus. Why mute them by allowing cigarette smoke? At this particular Berlin bar, cocktails were 16 euros. Instead of leisurely enjoying our thoughtfully crafted drinks, my companion and I gulped them as fast as we could. There was no way to enjoy our drinks or appreciate their craftsmanship. All I smelled every time I put the cocktail to my lips was the overwhelming aroma of smoke.
If you want to smoke, feel free! But do so in your home or your car or someplace else where a lot of people aren’t paying to taste something purportedly “craft.”
In this day and age, if you want to be the sort of bar with drinks serious enough to merit a 16-euro price tag, then it’s your job to create an environment where customers can appreciate them. If you aren’t banning smoking for the good of public health, then ban it for the simple fact that you want your guests to have the best possible experience with your menu. If you don’t take your cocktails seriously enough to prohibit smoking, then why should we?