Tell someone you are about to embark on a trip to Iceland, and the standard response seems to be ‘Ooh, I’d love to go there.’
These were my exact words when an invitation to the Reykjavik Bar Summit, taking place in February 2015, arrived in the BarLifeUK inbox, so I jumped at the chance without really knowing what the Summit was or who else would be going.
On receiving the trip itinerary, it turned out that the Reykjavik Bar Summit wasn’t a bar show as I’d first thought, but a competition.
Harking back to cold war days, when American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik’s Höfði House to discuss Détente, the Bar Summit would bring some of Europe and America’s best bars head to head on neutral soil. A Ryder Cup for bars, if you will.
On departure day, and having downed the traditional early morning airport-breakfast-pint, we flew out. In my mind’s eye, Iceland was a faraway, mountainous land but in actual fact it’s just a three hour flight, and one of the flattest places I’ve seen. The drive from Reykjavik airport into the city takes you through desolate, icy lava fields that stretch for miles on one side of the road. On the other side is the kind of cold sea that would kill you in minutes if you fell into it. If you like rugged, wild scenery, you will love Iceland.
Our base for the next three days was Icelandair’s Marina Hotel, a very nice, boutiquey place situated, as you would imagine, right in the heart of Reykjavik’s marina. To be accurate, our base was actually the hotel’s bar, Slippbarinn. Not your usual flash hotel bar, Slippbarinn is a party joint, and as teams from all over Europe and the States began to arrive, things got predictably loose.
Later that night, we were shepherded onto a large boat and taken out beyond the marina walls in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, which coincided with a storm rolling in from the Arctic Ocean. Cloud cover hid any light show that might have been happening above us, and it was generally a bit blowy. It was a good decision to put this excursion on the first night of the trip, because anyone nursing a hangover would have struggled. That said, for those who braved a stint outside on the bow of the boat, crashing through huge waves in driving snow and wind was an amazing experience.
The next two days were devoted to the competition, which was held in an old theatre next to a frozen lake, outside of which a block of ice for hand cutting had been left on the pavement. You know it’s cold when you don’t need to keep your ice in the freezer.
The bars were given a simple brief for the comp – give the judges a sense of what it is like to be in your bar, while making your takes on the Martinez and Daiquiri, and a third drink from a mystery box.
The judges in question were Dan Priseman, Four Roses Bourbon Ambassador; Stanislav Vadrna, Bar Guru (whatever that means), Saga Garðarsdóttir, a statuesque Icelandic comedienne and actress; and Ólafur Örn Ólafsson, a local sommelier with an awesome beard.
The bars competing were:
Victory Bar, New Orleans; Employees Only, New York; Attaboy, New York; Cane and Table, New Orleans; The Broken Shaker, Denver; Dutch Kills, New York; Gilroy, New York; Raus en Bar, Trondheim; Linje Tio, Stockholm; The Worship Street Whistling Shop, London; Ström, Copenhagen; Candelaria, Paris; Corner Club, Stockholm; Door 74, Amsterdam; Gilt, Copenhagen.
That’s a pretty impressive lineup in anyone’s books, and the teams didn’t disappoint, with every bar putting in a great performance. As ever though, a few stood out from the crowd.
The chaps from Dutch Kills came on stage with a blender, wearing tiki shirts. Their mission was to bring “the spirit of a hot island to a cold island.” Richard Boccato’s very dry, acerbic sense of humour, along with very professional bar craft won them a lot of public votes.
Ström wanted to show the different vibes their bar possesses at different times, which started of as a display of serious drink-making, and ended up with everyone on stage, dancing to techno with glow sticks. The audience thought as one that a Friday night at Ström would be epic.
Employees Only were as slick as you would expect. One of the biggest laughs came when Milos Zica said of EO “It’s hard to get a job here. But it’s even harder to get fired.” A glint in his eye spoke to the truth of that statement. And then towards the end of their presentation, a burlesque dancer appeared, which I understand is quite standard for these guys.
The lads from Gilt talked a lot about using Scandinavian ingredients, and in addition to the drinks they had to make as part of the competition, they knocked up a few of their specialities for the media to sample. Their Birch Martini was the stand out drink of the trip for me, it tasted like a forest in a glass. Peter-Emil Ruud Nordlund shared the recipe, and if you find yourself in Copenhagen, go and try it for yourself.
The Birch Martini – Gilt Bar, Copenhagen
- 45ml Geranium Gin
- 20ml Birkir Bitter (Foss Distillery, Iceland)
- 1 Dash of Amber Bitter (a reduction of a distillate on dusted amber and neutral spirit)
In addition to the two days of competition, an evening event had been laid on for the teams to bartend. Some of Reykjavik’s pretty young things had been invited to a party at an art gallery, in the middle of which a huge island bar had been built.
The guests were given tokens to spend, the continent who accumulated the most of which would be deemed the winner. Team USA opted for smashing out drinks quickly and professionally. Team Europe opted for taking their clothes off. The most successful strategy would be revealed on the last night of the trip.
Before moving on to the results of the competition, it’s important to say something about what it felt like to be there. The Reykjavik Bar Summit shares quite a lot of DNA with the 42Below Cocktail World Cup finals in New Zealand. They are both team comps, set in truly beautiful locations. But more than that, on both trips you get the sense that everyone involved in organising things really cares about you having a good time. Anyone who has done the 42Below trip will know that this comparison gives high praise to the Reykjavik Bar Summit, and next year you should without question enter your bar.
The first part of the final night of the Reykjavik Bar Summit was spent in a very plush hotel restaurant, eating dinner and learning the competition results. As I don’t have the words to describe quite how tasty the lamb was, I’ll go straight to the winner list:
- Battle of the Continents: America
- Public Vote (competition spectators voting): Dutch Kills
- Best Presentation (judges voting): Dutch Kills
- Best Martinez: Worship Street Whistling Shop
- Best Daiquiri: Broken Shaker
- Best Mystery Box Drink: Employees Only
- Grand Winner: Ström; Copenhagen
After the cheering and celebratory laybacks had subsided, we were bussed to the shabby headquarters of a local art collective for a gig, and the launch of a new moonshine brand. I’m reliably informed this turned out to be a great night, and if the previous three are anything to go by, I’mm sure it was.