Booze craze Berliner Luft: The minty liquor that saved a Berlin distillery

Berliner Luft is a peppermint liqueur that's the toast of the German capital — and an accidental success story spanning wars, borders, near bankruptcy and hipsters.
Low-rent but high-fashion.

Just a few short years ago, Berlin-based distillery Schilkin was on the verge of insolvency. Today, the family-owned company is making record sales thanks to a tipple called Berliner Luft — “Berlin air” in English.

Germany has recently seen a peppermint schnapps revival. Berliner Luft — and other sweet, minty liqueurs, collectively referred to as Pfeffi — is the "toothbrush of nightlife." No need to worry about your breath while drinking if the drink itself tastes like mouthwash. It's an age-old drink that was so uncool that it's become cool again. Berliner Luft has become a breath of fresh air for Schilkin.

In the 1920s and 1930s, almost all spirit makers in Berlin were producing peppermint liqueurs. But after World War II, production mostly stopped. Schilkin was the last distillery to keep making it and trademarked the brand and the taste.

The Schilkin distillery has an even longer history. In 1921 founders Natalia and Apollon Schilkin fled the Russian revolution for Berlin, where the vodka makers started their own distillery in the eastern neighborhood of Kaulsdorf. The facility was destroyed during World War II, but when Mr. Schilkin returned to rebuild it in 1945, the Russians were in control, and they had no trouble getting back into the vodka business.

A drunken tourist fave.

The East German government took control of the business in 1971, but Natalie and Apollon's son, Sergei Schilkin, a colorful character known as “Berlin’s vodka king,” was allowed to keep running it until he retired in 1981. Peppermint liquor was popular during the Cold War era too, locals say. In 1992, after German reunification, the Schilkin distillery was re-privatized and management returned to the family: first Schilkin’s son-in-law, Peter Mier, and then the grandson, Patrick Mier.

Unfortunately, business wasn't as good as it used to be. Gas and grain prices increased, and the company’s bottling contract for a major supermarket chain ended. By 2014, the small distillery was uncomfortably close to insolvency.

But trademarking the Berliner Luft brand all those years ago paid off unexpectedly. A former beer division manager from grocery giant Oetker, Erlfried Baatz, joined Schilkin’s management, and the Berliner Luft brand got a light redesign. Nobody had any idea it would become such a runaway hit. Marketing it to the cool kids was not part of the plan, but the cool kids liked it anyway, perhaps in the same ironic way that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer became a hipster favorite in the US in the 2000s.

The Milwaukee-based Pabst brewery, which had also been in financial doldrums, became fashionable because it didn’t market itself in any obvious way. It fitted into the retro trend and its non-mainstream, unfashionable blue-collar associations made it seem authentic and down-to-earth.

Minty fresh.

And so Berliner Luft has gone from being a dusty brand in your grandparents' bar to something you order willingly at a bar. Sportswear maker Puma in conjunction with trendy sneaker store Overkill released a Pfeffiboys shoe in the trademark green of Berliner Luft. An “underground” edition of the liqueur comes with labels designed by local graffiti artists. A cult Italian spray paint company produced a Berliner Luft special edition color.

Another reason for the success, according to Mr. Baatz, is a more modern management style that takes an idea and runs with it. That's what happened with a new Berliner Luft flavor last year: It’s called Glitter Night and it sparkles. Within four months, Schilkin had sold 430,000 bottles of it — more than the brand's entire sales in 2013.

Berliner Luft itself now comes in many varieties, including chocolate orange and pineapple-coconut flavors as well as extra-strength versions. Bottles shaped like the Brandenburg Gate or Berlin's TV tower are particularly popular with the tourists. It also happens to be gluten- and lactose-free, vegan and made of all-natural products.

Today Berliner Luft accounts for about two-thirds of the Schilkin distillery’s production — it also makes gin and vodka. Sales of the basic product rose 138 percent, year on year — 2.3 million units were sold in 2017. Schilkin’s own turnover rose from €6.1 million in 2016 to €10.1 million in 2017. And they’re on the way to toasting even better results this year, having made €7.7 million during the first half of 2018 already.

This story was adapted into English from a piece in Handelsblatt's sister publication, the Berlin-based daily newspaper Tagesspiegel.