The Reykjavik Bar Summit 2016: Ain’t No Glacier High Enough
After attending last year’s inaugural edition, MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin returned to Iceland for the second Reykjavik Bar Summit. He finds an event in flux. It’s a bigger beast this time around. Does that make it better?
The inaugural Reykjavik Bar Summit left a definable imprint on last years bar industry calendar. A non-branded event for 16 bars from the US and Europe to compete with one another, the 2015 Reykjavik Bar Summit was a barnstorming success. Nobody knew quite what they were getting on arrival, but on departure – they quite liked it. So much so that many made plans to return – returning bars included Door74, Raus, Cane and Table and winners Strøm – and there were excited whispers and murmurings on social media during the months beforehand.
As I said in my review of last year’s event, it wasn’t much like a Summit – nothing educational was discussed – or a high-stakes cocktail competition. More about bonhomie than battle, it afforded the chance for bartenders to connect, interact and learn from one another, as well as acting as a showcase for the sensational island of Iceland itself. The big question was – how would they build for their sophomore edition? And would it stay the same with expansion?
The 2016 cheat sheet
It seems the organizers, once again led by former Slippbarinn head bartender Ásgeir Már Björnsson, Urður Anna and Icelandair Hotel manager Birgir Gudmundsson, had the same thoughts. This year they came back with a bigger team, bigger venues and a bigger timespan, with 3 days becoming 4 this time around. There was again an impressive judging panel, made up of founder Björnsson, bar and beverage consultant Philip Duff, Speed Rack founder Lynnette Marrero and Berlin bar owner/chemist Tom Zyankali. The four aforementioned returning bars did guest-bartending shifts in some of Reykjavik’s top bars. And 16 new bars competed – an increase of 1 on last year:
- Tiki Tolteca, New Orleans
- Holmens Kanal, Copenhagen,
- La Chine, New York
- A21, Helsinki
- Amor Y Amargo, New York
- Super Panda Circus, Brno
- Orchid, Aberdeen
- Little Quarter, Stockholm
- Dead Rabbit, New York
- Jigger’s, Gent
- The Normandie Club, Los Angeles
- Stranger, Gothenburg
- Little Red Door, Paris
- Up & Up, New York
- Liberty or Death, Helsinki
- Seamstress, New York
Bigger sometimes was better. On the first day, the bartenders, judges and media representatives were whisked up and into the Langjökull glacier on four wheel drives, stopping inside for some tipples at a pop-up Brennivin bar. We then hopped over to the geothermal baths at the modernist Hótel Húsafell, with the Northern Lights – sadly AWOL at last years boat tour – deciding to make a shock debut overhead. The night finished off at the Húsafell with a 5-course meal, adorned with delicate cocktail pairings. Epic doesn’t quite cut it. That’s your first evidence that this Summit had far grander ambitions.
The schedule was packed to bursting point with events, including a talk from the “Merlin of Berlin” Tom Zyankali on cocktail ageing and his shark-infused rum (amongst much more), an excellent lecture on the art of throwing drinks by Dan Priseman and a Rocky-themed competition at the hotel bar, Slippbarinn, in which each bar’s two representatives made a gin sour as quickly as possible whilst one wore Rocky boxing gloves. As you can predict, hilarity ensued – usually related to the crack-the-egg-with-gloves-on predicament the competitors were saddled with.
With little time between events and around 50+ people to ship around, things naturally fell off schedule, sometimes epically. That aforementioned 5 course extravaganza at the Hotel Húsafell started 4 hours late at 12am, concluding around 2.30am, with participants facing a 2 and a half hour journey back to the hotel afterwards. There’s no denying the schedule for some was quite gruelling that by the end, many were on their last legs. An easing of the schedule next year could be in order.
On to the nitty gritty. The Summit once again pirouetted around two central competitions: the Battle of the Continents and the Main Competition. The Battle of the Continents – an event where the two continents took on each other to see who could shift the most cocktails – was again a rowdy affair.
This year the venue was switched to the exquisite Harpa, the iconic Ólafur Elíasson designed opera building at the heart of the Reykjavik seafront. The competition was raucous – the European team came over and flipped one of the US tables over, cue much faux controversy – but undeniably fun. Victory here went to the (mostly topless) European team albeit further analysis seems superfluous. The Battle is a fun event to involve the Reykjavik locals in the Bar Summit, one that the bartenders don’t take too seriously, making it the perfect aside to the Competition.
Toy barbies, aquavit
The Main Competition is the centrepiece event of the Summit, the event for which the bars travelled to the land of fire and ice. All 16 bars did a twenty minute presentation showcasing their bar and made three drinks for the judges – their signature drink, a drink inspired by their local country and a drink inspired by Iceland. This year the event moved to the Kex Hostel and their Gym and Tonic events space. The word hostel is unforgiving here – Kex is one of the coolest places to hang out in Reykjavik, with a top-notch bar/restaurant alongside the lobby.
The Competition itself always rests on the strength of the bars. Once again, there was a broad representation of heavyweight names – Dead Rabbit, Little Red Door – as well as bars lesser-known from smaller countries. I don’t doubt everybody was looking up flights to Brno after watching the presentation of Super Panda Circus, who showed a unique level of chutzpah and served their drinks in unicorn shaped glasses straddled by toy barbies.
The presentations once again impressed. Expanding the drinks concept beyond last year’s Daiquiri, Martinez and mystery box allowed the range of drinks to be wider, more interesting, and to utilize the Icelandic spirits on display, namely those of the Reykjavik Distillery, the Foss Distillery, Eimwerk and big dog Brennivin. This gave the competitors a unique chance to represent their own heritage as well as that of Iceland. Iceland really has a fine new distilling tradition and this year’s Summit really reflected that.
Sex in the…
At the final party, the slick Little Red Door – FYI: the signature drink did incorporate the famed paper syrup – were announced in 3rd place with Copenhagen’s utterly charming Holmens Kanal as runners up. Helsinki’s A21 were deserved winners. Speaking to Lynnette Marrero at the event, she said, “A21 exceeded expectations. The flavor combinations were impressive, unique, and the presentation of the drinks was whimsical and relevant to the topic.” She isn’t lying – their signature Sex In The Forest drink was quite literally forested, decorated with moss and birch.
Any criticisms? The focus was heavily on New York bars, with 5/7 of the US faction from the Big Apple. I spoke with judge Lynnette Marrero after the event for her views. “I hope the event evolves further to include more varied locations,” she said. “From North America it would be great to see Canada and Mexico represented as well. Also from the US, it would be awesome to see bars from Chicago, Texas etc.” Firmly agreed. Plus some German bars please!
The Gym and Tonic space also faced teething issues. With a bar – where Hendrik Hammer mixed Geranium Gin-based drinks – in the same room as the competitors, the acoustics were often a problem. The focus in the room felt split, between the competition on the one side and the socializing going on in parallel. Our comperes Door74’s Timo Janse and Tess Posthumus – on charismatic form as always! – often had to tell people to quieten down.
Once again, everybody had a blast. In the grand scheme of things, any criticisms are merely niggles. The Summit really showcased what’s great about this industry: the camaraderie, the commitment, the creativity. And Reykjavik was once again the perfect host, with jaw-dropping natural scenery on its doorstep and with a cocktail scene that’s really starting to kick off. In addition to harbingers Slippbarinn and Kol, there are buzz-creating joints such as Apótek, Public House and Kitchen & Wine (where none other than Summit founder Björnsson is now behind the stick!).
But is the Summit juggling too many identities? It currently juggles a competition element, some educational elements and a desire to promote Icelandic distilling. As I said previously, the schedule was sometimes packed – overly so. I’m not sure about making it a more serious competition though. Adding real stakes might take this beyond a cult event, but is that a sacrifice worth making? There’s a sense that the competitors are relaxed and without the strict rules and regulations of the more prestigious competitions, there’s undeniably more room for creativity. Here’s one more suggestion from Marrero. “It would be incredible to potentially fuse the culinary week with the bar week and have some extended pairings,” she says. Indeed, this year’s Reykjavik Food&Fun festival begun the day the Summit concluded.
The Reykjavik Bar Summit is currently two years old and has a hell of a lot of ingrained loyalty – more than most events do at this stage. And who knew who they were at two years old anyway? I personally can’t wait to see where this Summit ends up.
Disclosure: Part of flights and accomodation of press trip are covered by Iceland Air. Iceland Air flies to Reykjavik from Frankfurt and Munich. For more information check out our transparency guidelines.