There's More to Reykjavik Than Just Fire and Ice

Battle of the Continents at the Reykjavik Art Museum
Battle of the Continents at the Reykjavik Art Museum

All photos by Roman Gerasymenko.

I’ll be honest. When thinking about cocktail communities in the Nordics, icy Reykjavik wasn’t on the top on my list. Stockholm? Copenhagen? Absolutely. But that tiny city on a sparsely populated island made from volcanic rock which looks like the moon? No. Imagine my surprise when in the early days of 2015, several contacts from top bars in New York, Paris, and Stockholm inquired if I was headed to Reykjavik in February for the Bar Summit. It would seem a small group of bartenders had been quietly building up a community and rewriting the rule book for how a bar event can be done.

Iceland is still feeling the aftershocks of Prohibition which started in 1915. While different types of alcohol became legalized slowly over the next 74 years, regular beer (above 2.25%) only came back to market in 1989 and most still remains in the lighter category. Cocktails, understandably, have been a little slow in making an appearance with most people contentedly sipping spirit/mixers or adding a shot of Vodka or their native spirit Brenivinn into their light beer.

Over the course of the last couple of years however, things are slowly changing. Ásgeir Már Björnsson, Food and Beverage Manager at Slippbarinn, knew there was something more when he moved to Copenhagen several years ago to learn and explore. There he experienced the mixology renaissance taking effect, realizing that cocktails are as much about creating a feeling, invoking a memory, as the actual liquid. He returned to Reykjavik, filled with ideas for passionately made drinks, convinced that this level of quality could not only be accepted, but should be expected.

The journey was slow and hard. With no other cocktail bars in town, there was no guide book, only the common goal that drove the team forward. It all paid off; soon guests came to broaden their drinking horizons and others in the bar community started to experiment on their own, further strengthening their small scene.

In 2013, Ásgeir, along with Urður Anna Björnsdóttir and Henrik Hammer began to think of a way show the global bartending family how Iceland was changing, as well as for the people of Reykjavik to see how the rest of the world did bars. Thus, the Reykjavik Bar Summit was born. Over the next year they worked, wanting to create an event that could encompass everything they loved about the industry, without any of the pretension or biased attitude seen at some gatherings. Choosing to forgo any official branding, they invited some of their favorite bars from the U.S. and Europe for a 3 day summit, that was more then just a competition or a bar show. It was a chance for everyone involved to embrace the best aspects of the industry and share what they loved.

Oskar Johansson and Johan Evers from Corner Club, Stockholm
Oskar Johansson and Johan Evers from Corner Club, Stockholm

15 bars were represented, with very different styles and techniques, but all with a driving passion for what they did:

Door 74 - Amsterdam: Timo Janse and Tess Posthumus

Corner Club - Stockholm: Johan Evers and Oskar Johansson

Broken Shaker - Miami: Gui Jaroschy and Randy Perez

Victory - New Orleans: Danielle Gray

Linje Tio - Stockholm: Ludde Grenmo and Jimmie Hulth

Dutch Kills - New York: Jan Warren and Richard Boccato

Worship Street Whistling Shop - London: Jess Cheeseman and Filippo Piccin

Candelaria - Paris: Jennifer Foulard and Carlos Madrid

Strøm Bar - Copenhagen: Mikael Nilsson and Jonas Andersen

Cane and Table - New Orleans: Nick Detrich and Kirk Estopinal

Employees Only - New York: Dev Johnson and Milos Zica

Gilt - Copenhagen: Peter-Emil Nordlund and Peter Altenberg

The Gilroy - New York: Jon Kraus and Eric Holloway

En Raus Bar - Trondheim: Jorgen Don and Erik Andresen

Attaboy - New York: Dan Greenroom and Brandon Bramhall

Sure, technically there were competitive elements: a Battle of the Continents where each team had to make drinks from a set list of ingredients for a massive party at the Reykjavik Art Museum; the Big Sweater Whisky Sour Competition with two team members making drinks using one hand each while stuck in one massive shirt; and of course the main competition where each bar had to present versions of a Daiquiri, a Martinez, and something from a mystery box of ingredients, while showcasing the ethos of their bar.

The people of Reykjavik cast their votes for the Battle of the Continents, while the media team attempted to keep straight faces assessing the Big Sweater Competition (at 11am, no less), but the hard task of judging the main event fell to some of the best:

Stanislav Vadrna - Brand Ambassador for Nikka & founder of Analog Bartending institute

Dan Priseman - Managing Director of Bitters & Twisted Ltd. & Brand Ambassador for Four Roses

Jonas Andersen from Strom Bar
Jonas Andersen from Strom Bar

Ólafur Örn Ólafsson - Foss Distillery founder and Former of the Icelandic Sommeliers Association president

Saga Garðarsdóttir - Icelandic Actor and comedian

The US won the Battle of the Continents despite the best efforts from the European team - there may have been some dancing on bar tops involved - however the overall sense of camaraderie made most forget they were competing. The Big Sweater Competition saw Corner Club from Stockholm win the fastest time; The Gilroy in New York for the best taste; and Linje Tio from Stockholm for best show - although an honorable mention has to go to Gilt from Copenhagen. Most of the sours turned into flips, but no one was complaining while gasping for breath amongst the laughter. For the main

competition, Dutch Kills won for best presentation and public vote for turning the stage into a tiki paradise (“Are they a tiki bar?” someone asked me. “Not even a little bit,” I assured them), but it was Strøm from Copenhagen who walked away with the inaugural puffin trophy for truly showcasing what makes their little bar so special.

Yes, those 3 days were informative, interesting, and fun with everyone putting their best forward, but ultimately, that wasn’t the point anyone was trying to make. This was a celebration of everything that makes it a joy to be part of this community; not to say it was just a party - although there was plenty of that to go around. Thanks to the open eyes and efforts of a curious few, it looks at though Reykjavik is about to blossom. It’s still a very young scene, but well on it’s way to join the rest of the globe in world class drinks and hospitality.