You’ve heard a life story like that of busy mixologist Monica Berg a million times. She’s just another Korean-born Norwegian who opened her first bat at the age of 11 before developing her own unique menu in bars from Oslo to Reykjavik.
We caught up to Berg just after the holiday season as she wrapped up work at Pollen Street Social in the heart of London. The British Capital is her latest stop, and Pollen Street was her first full-time gig upon moving to the UK. Owned by celebrity chef Jason Atherton, the bar and restaurant runs every night somewhere between full and completely full — and part of that success is the cocktail menu set by Berg.
Born in Korea, Berg’s Norwegian parents adopted her at the age of four months — sending her on a worldly path of multicultural mixology.
“I opened my first bar in Norway when I was 11,” Berg explained while mixing cocktails behind the Pollen Street rails. “It was nothing official. I just ran it quietly for my friends from my parents’ house. My first real gig once I was of age was working a 35 seat cocktail bar for a big group in Norway operated by a former boss of mine who started with nothing and made himself into a massive success with hotels, restaurants and bars.”
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Since then, she’s worked gigs around Europe as a guest or event bartender — including a run at an ice bar in, of course, Iceland.
“My favorite part of that job was working the chainsaw. You have to carve your own bar out of the ice, and I think I ended up doing pretty well once I got the hang of it.”
Moving to London from Oslo, Berg found a more experienced cocktail crowd: “London is the city to go to for cocktails. There are great bars in Berlin, Paris, Barcelona and such, but London is a focal point.”
Whether she’s working the bar or mixing her way to the top of bartending competitions, Berg keeps her eyes on trends running through the mixology world.
“I think bartending is following in the footsteps of celebrity chefs,” she explained. “Some are big enough to be brands. I’m not sure if that’s the right way for me to go yet. To be a brand, you have to step out from behind the bar to run the business. And I still enjoy service.”
While behind the car, Berg puts extensive care and design work into her signature creations. She spent 10 months on her signature cocktail, reaching around the world for the right ingredients for her Empire of the Sun.
“Creating that drink started when I was in Thailand for Christmas, 2012,” Berg said. “I loved spicy coconut soup and wanted to create a cocktail version of that soup. It seemed like it would be easy, but I didn’t want it to be heavy. I couldn’t find the right ingredient to give it the right consistency. Coconut milk or cream wasn’t right. I couldn’t figure it out. I tried different ingredients, different ways — almond milk, soy milk.”
“Finally, after 10 months, I was working in Mexico and tried Horchata. That worked, and there’s nothing better than finding that secret ingredient.”