Mampe, the elephant in the room

The Berlin distillery has been through a lot. But not even corona can stop Tom Inden-Lohmar - he’s only just getting started.

Mampe boss Tom Inden-Lohmar has gone full-on digital.
Mampe boss Tom Inden-Lohmar has gone full-on digital.TeamNoir

Berlin-“Help,” cries David Bowie and falls over. Two men prop him back up, two others burst out laughing. Bowie is stuck in a man-sized bottle of Halb & Halb, a walking advertisement. It’s the era of Babylon Berlin, the Golden 1920s.

To this day, Berlin booze brand Mampe is proud of the scene in the 1978 movie Just a Gigolo starring Bowie. Movie stills line the walls of the Kreuzberg distillery alongside other historical images, like one of 'Mampe’s gute Stube', a kind of showroom where you could get a taste of Mampe and a bite to eat.

There were once 20 such tasting rooms across Germany, says current Mampe owner Tom Inden-Lohmar. He loves to spin a yarn about the old days: “It looked like how you imaged the parlours of the one per cent at the time: little tables with Delft tile tops, wood panelling, ornate stucco ceilings, chandeliers.” With their tasting rooms, Mampe was already pioneering franchising in 1916, aeons before McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The last room, on Kurfürstendamm, closed its doors for good in 1984, when Mampe declared insolvency.

By the early 1980s, Mampe had begun to fade into irrelevance. Until Inden-Lohmar dusted off the brand - that at the time belonged to the drinks firm Berentzen - and gave it a new lease of life.

“I was running an ad agency in Cologne, but had grown tired of the industry,” the businessman recalls. “I received an attractive offer from the Berlin agency that had the Berentzen account and was looking for a creative director. So, in 2010, I moved to Berlin. And the universe sent Mampe to me.”

The drink’s glamorous history - all the episodes and anecdotes - fascinated him. “I googled Mampe and all these images came up, including the film still with David Bowie.”

The Berlin newcomer didn’t dither. In 2012, he secured the rights to the brand and set up a company with a partner. They relaunched  in 2013, with an expansion of the product line. Alongside Halb & Halb came a dry gin and a vodka.

Inden-Lohmar set up a craft distillery in a former brewery in the Bergmannkiez neighourhood in Kreuzberg. The concept worked, a real comeback. Then came 2020. Even though alcohol consumption has risen during the corona pandemic, Mampe’s sales collapsed.

Corona comeback

“Even someone like me who likes to drink spirits chose to drink three glasses of wine on those many nights at home rather than two gin and tonics,” Inden-Lohmar says. “Still, we haven’t been hit as hard as our colleagues that supply mostly bars and restaurants.” Retail accounts for 70 per cent of Mampe’s sales, bars and restaurants just 30 per cent.

Inden-Lohmar used the corona slump for new projects: “For us it triggered the creativity we needed to reinvent this place once more. We took everything out of the drawer and watched whether things could function better.” They completely revamped their web shop. Thanks to online sales, Mampe turned over as much booze in the first quarter of 2020 as over the entire previous year.

The Mampe distillery and showroom in a former Kreuzberg brewery.
The Mampe distillery and showroom in a former Kreuzberg brewery.Mampe Spirituosen GmbH Berlin

“The Ginspirator is a new digital product,” the Mampe boss explains. The widget on the brand’s website lets you compose your own highly personalised gin. You can choose the alcohol content and the strength of juniper aroma before creating your own custom flavour – with options like raspberry, cinnamon, coffee and Earl Grey. Of the 26 aromas, customers should chose no more than three to five, otherwise the mix will be confusing, Inden-Lohmar says. If you’re unsure what fits together, just go for normal ice-cream flavour combos, he advises, like that harmonious classic, strawberry-basil. Once the flavours have been selected, you can personalise the label, and your very own blend is ready – at a €44 price tag.

Indem-Lohmar has more tricks up his sleeve. Even if he’s left advertising once and for all, he still thinks like an ad man. His next project is already in the pipeline: “From October 2020, we’ll offer casking. It will be possible to store a spirit of your choice - for example gin, grain brandy or caraway schnapps - in 30-litre wooden barrels.”

Black beauties: Mampe bottles before labelling.
Black beauties: Mampe bottles before labelling.Sabine Röthig

The price of a barrel, enough for about 50 bottles, will lie between €1,600 and €2,500, depending on the spirit.

“We’ll be the first ones doing that with gin in Germany,” he says proudly. To his knowledge, casking can be found here for Scotch whisky, but not for gin.

“We experimented with it for nearly two years. With whisky, a virtually neutral tasting distillate is stored in casks and the taste is created by the casking. Gin, however, already has its own taste,” which is altered by the casking process. Some flavours disappear, other new ones emerge.

Here, at the Kreuzberg location where the casks will be stored, is also where products from the craft line are produced, bottled and shipped. The dark stone bottles – alongside the glass bottles sold in department stores and cash and carry shops – are the company’s calling card.

“We have over 80 historical Mampe recipes that we can adapt for the modern era. We’ll be distilling them right here. Anyone can come by and take a look,” Inden-Lohmar says.

Mampe’s bestseller is still Halb & Halb, the traditional liqueur made from herbs and bitter orange that Bowie advertised in Just a Gigolo. Inden-Lohmar says the sustained popularity of the drink is mostly due to sentimental associations people have about the brand.

No, it's not a robot: one of Mampe's distillers. 
No, it's not a robot: one of Mampe's distillers. Mampe Spirituosen GmbH Berlin

“Younger people associate us with gin,” he adds. And of course the brand’s mascot, the little white elephants hanging from the neck of the bottle have always played a key role in the drink’s history. In the 1920s, Mampe bought and paid for the upkeep of two elephants in the Berlin Zoo. The last Mampe elephant is still alive, but is no longer cared for by the company. “I’d rather support the conservation of elephants in their natural surroundings,” says Inden-Lohmarr.

Mampe Distillery - Mampes Neue Heimat, Aufgang 2, Am Tempelhofer Berg 6, 10965 Berlin-Kreuzberg,  tel. +49 30 20 84 844 70

Adapted from the original German version for Berliner Zeitung English Edition by Maurice Frank