Joerg Meyer talks about hotel bars, highballs, and Hemingway
Jörg Meyer might sound like a run-of-the-mill name, but this Jörg Meyer – inventor of the famous drink Gin Basil Smash, bar expert, businessman, and connoisseur – is anything but ordinary. COMPANION met the man himself, originally from Lower Saxony, in one of his establishments: the Boilerman Bar in the new building of 25hours Hotel HafenCity Hamburg, and quizzed him on hotel bars, highballs, and Hemingway.
Jörg Meyer perfectly fits into the stylish interior of the Boilerman Bar, opened in March: both are fresh, hip, but a little nostalgic at the same time. Light floods into the room through a large window, brightening an otherwise dark interior. Lots of wood and the mural of an old sailor smoking a pipe give the room a maritime flair – fitting for its location in the Hafencity, Hamburg’s harbor area. Today, bar manager Meyer isn’t behind the counter taking orders, but getting comfortable in one of the elegant leather seats for a change. The 40-year-old is an imposing figure, who can make quite an impression through his bodily presence alone – a very tall, sturdy man with a firm handshake. Meyer is a man with style, self-confidence, and charisma, who radiates what he is: a self-made man, a doer. He modestly waves away any talk of his “bar empire” in Hamburg, but it cannot be denied that he is one of the biggest names in the business – both in the city and worldwide.
After finishing school, Meyer began his career by training as a restauranteur in Hamburg’s Grand Elysée Hotel, where he quickly noticed that the bar was his favorite place to be: “It’s the only place where everyone is always in a good mood. Then I found out that the bar team gets incredible tips – they were earning more than management. And lots of stories went around about women handing over their telephone numbers. I found that very interesting,” he reports laughing. As manager, he doesn’t get tips anymore, and he is happy to forgo the telephone numbers – Meyer has been happily married for 13 years. Despite this, he still loves the bar culture.
Together with his colleague Rainer Wendt, the 40-year-old Meyer opened his first classic bar in 2006 in a small room of the renowned Café Paris in the heart of Hamburg’s city center. Back then, the bar landscape of the harbor city was not as developed, and Le Bon Lion quickly became a Hamburg institution. “The title comes from a short story by Ernest Hemingway called ‘The Good Lion.’ It’s about a good lion from Venice, who is always sitting in good bars, drinking lots, eating well, and being a little snob,” explains Meyer. It is a very fitting story, even if he himself is no snob – he welcomes every guest, as long as they behave themselves.
Eight years ago, the Le Bon Lion moved to the opposite side of the street. One the way, he dropped the ‘bon’ from his name, but the concept hardly changed – it was just a little refined. Le Lion is a classic bar with a closed door. If you want to come in, you have to knock. Anyone who is allowed in can expect to enjoy exclusive drinks, the sound of subtle jazz in the background, and an international crowd: it’s all wonderfully old fashioned. In recognition of this, the Le Lion was named the “World’s Best New Bar” in 2008 at the Tales of the Cocktail Festival in New Orleans, and every year it is chosen as one of the official 50 best bars in the world again. It was also in Le Lion that Meyer created the Gin Basil Smash, one of the best drink inventions of all time.
He was inspired during one of his many trips – Meyer travels with the aim of drinking his way through as many bars as possible, all around the world. On one of his New York trips, he discovered the “Whiskey Smash,” an old classic that was experiencing a renaissance at the time. “A kind of ‘Whiskey Sour’ that you add fresh mint to. Then you get the great sour mint taste. I found it really refreshing and drank a lot of them.” Back in Hamburg he remembered this drink from New York on a hot, sticky, summer’s day, back when the bar had no air conditioning. “We were standing in our rather warm bar and we said: ‘We need fresh drinks!’ So we went straight into the pantry at the Café Paris and asked: ‘What kinds of herbs do you have?’ Then we stole a bit of everything and played around with them in the evening.” Because the combination of basil and bourbon didn’t taste good, the spirit was unceremoniously swapped. “Let’s try it with gin, we thought – it happened by chance.” The rest is history and the Gin Basil Smash has been happily mixed and drank in bars worldwide ever since.
Chance played just as big a role when it came to the opening of Meyer’s second bar, the original Boilerman Bar, three-and-a-half years ago. The location was offered to him and Wendt one evening, when they were sitting at the counter at Eppendorfer Weg 211, and they just had to accept it. It was in the Old Fashion Bar, which had formerly been located there, that they had “learned how to drink” in the ‘90s. The concept only developed later; the establishment was to offer a contrast to Le Lion. But the essential parameters of the sister bar were transferred: good service, high-quality drinks, best products; simple quality. In the sedate area Hoheluft, the aim was to create a cozy local bar. So Meyer created a “dive bar” in 2012 out of Boilerman Bar, a place for hanging out and going under the radar with simple, good-value drinks that invited people in for a taste.
The specialty is highballs, meaning medium-sized, quick, relatively strong drinks, a cocktail category related to the long drink. The name of the bar “Boilerman” is inspired by the origin of the word “Highball.” The term allegedly comes from the start of freight train traffic in America, explains Meyer. In 1840, in a time before the pocket watch (let alone the wristwatch), train workers – engine drivers and boilermen – didn’t know if they were running on time. If a train got to the station late, a ball would be hung high on a pole (a “high ball”) signaling to the boilerman that he had to pile the fire up and get a move on. Thus, the name was created, and it fits perfectly in this context: The Boilerman Bar offers fast drinks in a down-to-earth atmosphere. “And hard work,” supplements Meyer laughing, “we found that fitting.” The concept of this second bar came off perfectly – the establishment runs so smoothly that there is now another Boilerman Bar in the new building of the 25hours Hotel HafenCity Hamburg.
The success of Jörg Meyer’s bars is just down to his great team of staff which he handpicks for each establishment. A sophisticated bar like Le Lion demands a different skill set to a relaxed dive bar like the Boilerman. However, all his bartenders need great composure, people skills, and the ability to work in a team. “We are an ensemble. For me, this is a stage, a theater production,” he says. And different roles have to be filled here – that of the young wild child as well as the experienced gastronomy old timers. Now and then, the boss himself is behind the bar – always sitting at a desk would be too boring for Meyer. “When I do a shift now, I still find it great. Six, eight, ten hours, a thousand things happen at the same time. It’s such exhilaration.”
He certainly hasn’t forgotten how to pour and proves it straight after the conversation, by mixing two of his current favorite drinks, with which are welcome when it’s warm outside. For both drinks, the rum Ron Abuelo Añejo forms the base. On that note, while the original Boilerman focuses on whiskey as its favorite spirit, rum is the main specialty of the second Boilerman. Of course, no one will have to go without classics like Gin & Tonic, Moscow Mules, or the Gin Basil Smash, and, in any case, here every drink is still served with the best knowledge, expertise and hospitality – and in the end that’s what it’s about.
The Boilerman Bar now has a second home: As of March 2016, the highball specialties of Jörg Meyer can be tried – and above all enjoyed – in the new 25hours Hotel Altes Hafenamt Hamburg.