Behind the Bar
Iceland's Up-and-Coming Cocktail Culture
Thanks to tourism and intrepid bartenders, the remote island is undergoing a spirited shift.
“It was sad.” — Iceland’s cocktail scene described in three simple words by Kári Sigurðsson, distinguished bartender and creative consultant in Reykjavík.
Six years ago, Sigurðsson, then a broke art school student, jumped from restaurant to retail store in search of a job. Eventually, he was hired as a bar-back at the former Faktory bar (now closed due to gentrification). Sigurðsson watched the nonexistent cocktail scene evolve into what it is today. “There was one place that was making half-decent mojitos — that was cutting-edge,” he describes. Other downtown bars would serve tropical choices: Piña Colada, Sex on the Beach, and Tequila Sunrise were common choices, since general consumers preferred overly sweet drinks with citrus hints.
Sigurðsson worked at several bars and restaurants, persistently learning from others and improving his knowledge of the craft. He went on to become the head bartender at Apotek Kitchen + bar, a vibrant restaurant styled as a pharmacy (hence the name). They refer to their bartenders as “pharmacists” and offer a strong selection of exquisite cocktails listed as “painkillers,” “stimulants,” and “tranquilizers” to suit every mood. In its third consecutive year, Apotek holds the title of "Best Cocktail Bar" in Reykjavík.
Sigurðsson was fortunate to tend the bar before and after the influx of tourism in Iceland. “We were not the tourist destination we are now,” he states. “[Before] the drinking culture was all about getting sh*t-faced. We had two beers on a draft: lager and something fancier.” Since then, the cocktail scene exploded for locals and visitors alike, drawing in guest bartenders from all over into Apotek. “We’ve built up a reputation [at Apotek]. People want to come see us.” Consumers often return to enjoy whatever Sigurðsson is formulating.
Named after Skógarfoss, a waterfall in the south of Iceland, his Skógarfoss Sour is crafted with Brennivín Aquavit, dill syrup, lemon, and tarragon tincture. “It’s super easy [to make]. Squeeze a bunch of limes; add simple; take fresh dill, put it in a blender plus a bottle of liquor — gin, Brennivín, etc. and strain it,” Sigurðsson instructs. “When using dill [or other herbs], throw it in the freezer immediately; the faster it cools down, the more green it stays.”
Brennivín, often considered The Original Icelandic Spirit, dates back to 1935 when Prohibition lifted in Iceland (but continued to ban beer and wine until the late 1980s). Today, the caraway-flavored aquavit continues to rapidly expand outside of Iceland, touching down in retail locations and restaurants throughout North America.
Although the traditional Icelandic way to drink Brennivín is by way of a chilled shot, straight from a bottle in the freezer (or snow bank), it’s also delicious in craft cocktails, or with a splash of tonic or soda and lime wedge. “I try to keep it as simple as I can — it’s sort of my thing,” says Sigurðsson.
Slowly but surely, Icelanders are turning to craft cocktails. “It's picking up — more and more I'm seeing people order Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Negronis back home, so that’s the change I’m really happy to see going on — that’s what I drink,” Sigurðsson notes. His personal take on the Negroni is the Reykjadalur, made with Iceland’s Reyka Vodka, Aperol (instead of Campari), sweet red vermouth, and a blueberry-crowberry tincture.
Although it’s challenging to find certain ingredients in Iceland, there’s an abundance of wild berries in the countryside. Berry season begins in late June and lasts until late September. “I really love the color blueberries give off,” Sigurðsson admits. More recently, neighboring distilleries have been producing blueberry liqueur, which he notes is an excellent addition to vanilla ice cream, or enjoyed neat.
Crowberry, another small, blue-black berry, is bitter in taste and best used for making a type of sweet Icelandic wine called Kvöldsól. Because berry picking is a popular summer outing for Icelanders, it’s rare to see wild berries sold (unless it's for an exorbitant price) in Iceland’s supermarkets. “We have a mafia in Iceland — they import goods, sell it at very high prices, and make a lot of profit. You’d be ashamed of our grocery stores…but we did get a Costco!” Sigurðsson notes.
As a remote island, Iceland relies on pricey imported goods like lime and mint from Africa and strawberries from Mexico (or in frozen cargo holders during off-season). Sigurðsson aims to incorporate fresh produce into his mixology from here on out. “I want something picked the same day,” he demands.
Overall, Iceland’s cocktail culture is blossoming into what you see in the States — less sugar content, more spirit-forward — and more Negroni, Aperol Spritz, and French 75 options. “A ‘trend’ that is thankfully happening,” Sigurðsson chuckles.