Monica Berg was always destined for great things. We knew that when we met her seven years ago. Back then she was pretty much running the bar scene in Oslo. Now? Well, she’s pretty much doing the same but only now she’s influencing bartenders all around the world. So were we surprised that she was awarded International Bartender of the Year at the recent Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail? Of course not. We’re not bloody idiots!
Despite balancing the day-to-day running of Tayer + Elementary, the brilliant bar that she opened with partner Alex Kratena just over four months ago, creating new products and judging cocktail competitions both home and abroad, Monica took time out of her hectic schedule to talk through the music and drinks that shape her career.
Let’s set the scene Monica, where did you grow up and how would you describe your younger self?
Vestby and Oslo, Norway. I think I was very boring as a teenager but at the same time, very social. Looking back, I think I was quite naive, in a way that you are when you grow up in a quite protected environment. I loved school until I got bored.
Tell us a little bit more about this time, were you fond of it?
Of course, but at the same time, I would never want to go back. However, I appreciate the lessons learned, and I’m very grateful that I grew up in the times that I did – I think if I’d grown up in today’s society, I’d find it very overwhelming! One of the things that I remember is being restless – wanting to see, live and experience everything
Tell us about a drink that reminds you of this time?
I have to say beer. In my younger days, I used to love beer, so much so that I used to work at a brewery doing tastings and trainings.
When did you first start bartending?
When I finished school, I packed up my stuff and jumped on a plane with my best friend and spent six months living in Greece, working in bars. We weren’t old enough to work in bars in Norway, but felt we’d found a great solution!
What made you start working in a bar?
I like the social aspect of it – the fact that you can play a part in peoples’ lives; that you can make someone’s shit day turn into great night. I really enjoyed this period of my life, I was living in Crete, working in the rowdiest dive bar you can imagine – and then some!
Is there a song that sums up this period in your life?
Bon Jovi – It’s my life. All the sparkles came out when this song came on!
And what about a drink that sums up this period for you?
I was very sophisticated back then so I’d have to say Absolut Kurant and Sprite 🙂 for the sole reason it was the only spirit that wasn’t fake. I later moved on to Gimlets – which might explain why it’s taken me a decade to get back to that drink… Oh, and I mustn’t forget Fernet Branca. Always Fernet Branca…
Travel has played an important role in your life. Is there a specific drink that you associate with being on the road?
A frozen Cacao Mucilage. This goes back to a few years ago when we were exploring and going off on adventures. The Cacao Mucilage is super fragile and often can only be drunk in areas where the cacao fruit grows. For me it was a time where you discover what’s important to you.
I consider it to be the perfect drink. It’s simply the membrane inside the cacao pod, but you need to take it immediately. I’ve only drunk it when I’ve been in the Peruvian Amazon areas, so obviously it also holds sentimental value, but it’s so delicious – sweet, tart, fruity – it’s nature’s perfect cocktail. You put it in a blender, and freeze it, then drink it as a slushie – perfection!
What song would you attribute your travel to?
Moving on to more recent years, what are the most invaluable lessons that you’ve learnt so far?
The older I get, the more I understand how important it is to continue to educate yourself. Nothing in life will ever guide you better than your own instincts, but knowledge will make sure you’re prepared to make the right choices. My parents always urged me to do what I believe is right – not what others tell you – and although it can be difficult and challenging to speak up at times, or to challenge conventions, I think that the important matters are always worth it in the end. The cost of not questioning the status quo is far to great in the long run.
Is there a song that echoes this sentiment for you?
Human by The Killers. I’ve always tried to ‘fit in’ and do what’s expected of me – people always told me I had to be like this or that but in the end, you realise you need to be you. As the song references, we need to be willing to step out of line, to be different, make mistakes and ultimately be free. I think the last few years leading up to today has been that time for me, when I’ve stopped trying to live up to others expectations and just live my life and do what I want.
What about a drink?
What we need is not always the same as what we want, and for us to understand that can sometimes be difficult, but not impossible. In my opinion, you need to educate to innovate – and only when you deeply understand something, can you change it. The drink here is very much within the scopes of a Martini, but still completely different as it adds another layer with the acidity gained from the cultured butter we use. It’s a Martini which is fat washed with cultured butter. We had it on the menu here at Tayer but I’ve done it a few times in the past, too. I would say that it’s quite recent as well – it’s more what it represents in the sense you need to do what is important to you, and stick to your convictions, and to be afraid to be different. We can, and shouldn’t all aim to be the same, however, only with experience and maturity are you able to come to that conclusion.
And where are you in your life now?
To sum up where I’m at right now, I’d say Lil Moss – How Are You?
Which drink best captures this period in your life?
Champagne. Both the drink and song are chosen for the sole reason they make me happy – which would also be where I am right now in my life.
The opening of Tayer + Elementary is probably the biggest thing that’s happened in my life, and the fact that I’m lucky enough to do it with Alex [Kratena] is truly amazing. We have been really lucky to get such a great team around us too – and I honestly feel my life is so rich thanks to Lucas, Greg, Aili, Colson, David, Matthew, Angelo, Mariela, Jesse, Meng and Ana!
If you could only have one spirit that you had to have while stranded on a desert island what would it be?
Right now, I would say blanco tequila. But it would need to be something like Calle 23 or Fortaleza, or something equally nice.
If you could only have one cocktail that you could have on your desert island what would it be?
Difficult to say – French 75 maybe?
What would be the one song that you would pick to accompany you on your desert island?
Maybe Dark Polo Gang, Cambiare Adesso – I have no idea what the lyrics are, but I really like it!
What luxury item would you take with you on your desert island?
Ice cold sparkling water.
Want more tunes from Monica? Check out her playlist here:
Visit Monica at Tayer + Elementary, 152 Old Street, EC1V 9BW. tayer-elementary.com
Interview by Miles Watson