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It was the summer of 2020, and walking into Fahri Konsolos felt like a mirage, like Brigadoon. There were whispers throughout Kadıköy about That Cocktail Bar, maybe the first “good one” in Istanbul. But with the pandemic restrictions on bars with certain licenses, it took a bit of luck to catch it while open. Closed, we would never have glanced twice at the tiny shopfront, it melted so completely into the surrounding bars. If you managed to arrive on a night that Fahri Konsolos was open, however, you were in for a very special treat.

We first managed to grab a cocktail at Fahri Konsolos on a hot night in August 2020, and that initial sip was a revelation – punchy beetroot paired with smoky mezcal, garnished with spicy mustard sprouts, a lemon-slice wedge of beet sorbet and a sour sprinkling of hibiscus along the rim. We’d never tasted anything quite like it, and certainly not in Istanbul – though many of the flavors were completely local. Since then, we’ve made a point of trying the innovative cocktails on Fahri’s seasonal and limited menu. But the memory of that first, named Leb-Ü Derya, has lingered.

The master behind the complex cocktails is Burak Ayaz, who presides over his bar with a mess of curly hair, looking sometimes like a mad Bollywood star and sometimes like a lost poet who’s found a new verse written on the back of a cocktail shaker. Most nights, Burak will wander over to each table, greeting his guests and explaining the story of each drink. Burak and his team, including Eren Sönmez and Engin Baysal, shake and pour like magicians performing a show: equal parts art, entertainment and the inexplicable.

On a cold weekday night this winter, as we sat at the bar to chat about his cocktails, Burak slipped me small treats: a roasted cacao pod, a kumquat plucked from a friend’s garden, an elixir made with “electric flowers” that left my tongue tingling. The space is small, dotted with textures and details that emerge the longer you linger: an old medicine cabinet full of dropper bottles, a strange stain on the wall that seems to resemble Atatürk, the dried gourds and shiny copperware on the bar. The sweet smell of saffron permeates the room. Burak is a mixed-media artist when he’s not making cocktails (or perhaps even more so when he’s doing so), and his attention to aesthetic detail is palpable all over the bar.

Fahri Konsolos first opened its doors on December 26, 2019. The start was slow, but promising. “It was wintertime. … I was saying, maybe there is a hint that it’s going to happen,” Burak tells us. “And then the quarantine started.”

After months of lockdowns and closures, Fahri was finally able to open again in July 2020. “This time, it really happened,” he says. “In September, I was saying, Yes! This is working! And then they closed it again.” During the next year, Burak spent his time on his art, and contemplating whether or not the cocktail bar was worth it. Ultimately, that time gave him the clarity to decide that, yes, it was. Since the last pandemic restrictions fell away in July 2021, Fahri Konsolos has thrived.

“This is the last connection with nature for the city people, right? Food and drink,” Burak says. “We have to know it. So I’m trying to grow that relationship in people with what we’re doing.”

Burak approaches his cocktail with both the precision and creativity he brings to his art. “I was more interested in actually making something with my hands, something visceral,” he says. For him, the individual ingredients are not the key to his creations; instead, it’s about the way he can synthesize all the elements involved.

“With the right balance, it’s actually like music. There is piano, there is violin, they can cooperate so nicely with each other. But if there is no harmony in it, it wouldn’t work, even if they play individually so nicely by themselves,” he says. “So it’s the same in cocktails.”

Burak says he is inspired by the history and produce of the region. One day, he went to visit Istanbul’s archeology museum and was reading a caption about a medicine recipe from the ancient Akkadians. He realized that the recipe was basically a version of ancient Vermouth – and realized that the drink originated in some form in the Middle East region.

“In the modern perspective of the Middle East, there is Islam. Islam prohibits alcohol. But that’s not true! I mean, even the word alcohol is an Arabic word, al-kol, which means ‘The Spirit’,” he says. “Right now, I’m trying to celebrate that, celebrate the fact that this is in that culture.”

Emir Ali Enç, who co-founded Fahri Konsolos with Burak and is the bar’s owner, adds: “[It’s] not just distilling. The history of wine and beer also trace to the greater area that we live in. Our aim with Fahri Konsolos was to … show the quality of our natural produce and how well it historically blends with alcohol.”

All the cocktails at Fahri Konsolos incorporate local ingredients and local cultural concepts. The Martı, named after the Turkish word for seagull, takes its inspiration from a most Turkish combination: simit (a sesame-coated bagel) and ayran (a yogurt-based drink).

“One day I was on a ferry, I was coming from Beşiktaş. It was morning, I was eating simit and drinking ayran, looking at the seagulls, and I thought: This can turn into a cocktail,” Burak says.

Creating the actual cocktail from that seed of an idea turned out to be trickier than he had anticipated. Because ayran is so fatty, alcohol would curdle it and give off a bitter aftertaste, making the concoction undrinkable. “I thought, maybe if I can separate the fatty parts of ayran then it can work somehow,” Burak says. Eventually, he realized he could clarify the ayran, transferring it drop by drop through a paper filter until he had a liquid that would work with his cocktail. Then, he made a syrup of barley malt and roasted white sesame seeds to bring the simit concept into the drink. The finished cocktail is one of the more unusual on the Fahri Konsolos menu, with an almost astringent taste of clarified ayran mixing with the gentle sweet barley and kick of whiskey. The pieces of simit crackers that come on the side are spiked with anise seed. Somehow, the cocktail really is evocative of a gusty day out on Istanbul’s ferries.

“It’s surprising, it’s something that we maybe eat and drink every day. But [when] you turn it into a cocktail, it’s still something simple,” Burak says.

Other cocktails pull in flavors from the region and the season, from sumac to pomegranate, from quince to çay (tea). Burak is particularly fond of saffron, which shows up in one drink on every menu. A recent iteration, the Mücennet, combines sweet dark rum with persimmon and a thick sliver of crispy saffron ice.

The fact that every cocktail ingredient draws on the rich cornucopia of flavors that exist in Turkey and the wider Middle East is very much by design. Unless it isn’t produced or grown in Turkey at all, “I don’t use anything which is not local,” Burak tells us. In some ways, this approach is Burak’s way to counteract the modern-day food culture that severs us from the source of what we consume.

“This is the last connection with nature for the city people, right? Food and drink,” Burak says. “We have to know it. So I’m trying to grow that relationship in people with what we’re doing.”

The focus on the local extends all the way through the name Fahri Konsolos, and its place in the Moda neighborhood. It’s Turkish for “Honorary Consulate,” the sort of outpost that might be established to represent tiny Turkish communities in countries with no official diplomatic residence. For those of us who have been waiting for a truly innovative cocktail bar like this in Istanbul, Fahri Konsolos is our offbeat ambassador.

“If they’re a bunch of people who can understand that, who need that, we’re representing them,” Burak says. “On behalf of them, we choose that name.”

Like so many places in Kadıköy, we are drawn to Fahri, not just because the cocktails are terrific, but because it has become a key part of our social life on the Asian side of the city. As the only cocktail bar worth its rim salt for (thousands) of miles, we are likely to run into people we know at Fahri. It’s the fulcrum for our little neighborhood world. And nurturing those bonds is part of the whole bar’s concept.

“In the end, for me, all the cocktails, all the work, is like the tincture of the friendships. It’s about the dialogue in the end,” says Burak. “I always want to give that positivity to people.”

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Published on February 23, 2022

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