Looking at the Nordic: Helsinki

As Nordic bars increasingly draw more attention from the global bar community, Haley Forest looks at what makes the cities unique, pushing the boundries and inspiring both the local scene and the broader drinks landscape.

Finland is notoriously an expensive country with Helsinki at it’s peak causing guests historically to drink only on weekends and then with a mission to get drunk. With a handful of bars slowly integrating themselves into the city’s culture, consumers are becoming more interested in new flavours, ideas and experiences. Bars like A21, Liberty or Death, and Trillby & Chadwick are busy, boozy and welcoming, showing the Finnish people bits of the world beyond their city limits.

Kitchen infiltration

As beverage programs become more advanced and experimental, kitchen ideas and ideals are seen more and more in the bar world. Foraging has been seen, especially with cultural relevance in the Nordics, for a while now, but many bars are investing in their preparation time with sous vide, rapid infusions, milk and fat washes, and carbonating systems, making a foundation of extra effort to really improve the guest experience.

When it comes to modern cocktails that border on art, London has the Artesian, Chicago has The Aviary, and Helsinki has the newly opened Lilla E in the Lilla Roberts hotel. Led by a group of bartenders – several of which also function as brand ambassadors for major liquor companies – they are really focusing on taking bartenders to that next level by involving them with every step, making most ingredients in house, having in depth trainings and bringing creativity always to the table.

“We play with aromas in our bars,” says Jarkko Issukka from Lilla E, “Menu papers, textures, weight, and as well sounds are the thing we are rolling with. We want to make drinks with a similar point of view that chefs have and in service give even more focus on hospitality.”

Finnland’s first Golden Age of Cocktails

There are very serious bars doing very serious drink programs and yet around that, there are also places that are looking to remind consumers – and bartenders alike – that this be a very fun industry to be around.

“At the moment I feel like we are living the golden age of cocktail bars in Helsinki,” observes Sami Benamed, part of the powerhouse creative bartending agency Son Of A Punch. “We finally have a positive variety of different kind of concepts and most importantly the consumers knowledge towards cocktails has risen to the right level. Now is the moment to be brave, ballsy and experimental with flavours. Now its the time to have fun with cocktails and not take them too seriously.”

This kind of attitude is very apparent in their recent project 100 Dogs, a cocktail bar which serves chinese snacks and hot dogs in a dive-y setting that looks straight of out „Blade Runner“, and drinks that have just as much process behind them as the best. It’s a relaxed and easy atmosphere, with their plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor (their poster is a sketch of a sumo wrestler squatting from behind and the words Shitty Drinks, Bad Service, Average Food”) and lots of anime.

Juniper Rising

Tends are like an earthquake, with an epicenter of concentration and after effects that ripple across the globe hitting different areas a later times. While cities like London, Barcelona and New York have been experiencing a modern “gin craze” for a while and are starting to look to the next spirit, Helsinki is still very much in the throws of the boom. Consumers are reveling in the differentiation of the category as it expands with small batch, craft, barrel aged, and more, looking for that extra story that makes a brand unique

Bars are becoming known for having extensive Gin collections like Grotesk, a meat focused restaurant with a solid cocktail program (with the amazing bar motto of “before meat, with meat, after meat, without meat”) and the largest gin collection in the city with nearly 80 different bottles on their back bar. More then just a gimmick, they use these at a platform to guide guests to more interesting drinks.

Think Global, Act Local

As bartenders travel more, they see outside influence and bring it home in a very inspired way. Mika Koivula, partner at Son Of A Punch says “Finnish bartenders like to see more of what is happening in global terms rather than just in Finland. For us is more ‘think global, act local.’”

This outward look from within the industry to starting to change the drinking habits across the board. Guests are seeing what more there is and demanding better ingredients with more exploration to create a higher experience – they want more for their money.

While the rest of the world may have moved on to the stirred down, brown and boozy prohibition style of cocktails, Helsinki is happily drinking their lighter, shaken sours while starting to play with bitter flavours like amaros, vermouths, absinths and fernets. It’s a slow journey to develop a markets flavour preferences, but perhaps this might be that change.


Foto: Helsinki via Shutterstock

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