Frontier bar towns - Reykjavik

As cocktail fever spreads around the globe, where are the new frontiers? Hamish Smith found one in Iceland.


LAST YEAR NEARLY ONE MILLION TOURISTS VISITED ICELAND. That’s three times the population of the country and some say as many people as there have been Icelanders. In ten years tourism has doubled and is now growing at 26%. Most come for the subpolar sights – not least the stark treeless landscape that on a good day faces up at the Northern Lights – some the exotic, fishy and sometimes fermented cuisine, but all expect a good level of hospitality. That means a lot of beds, plates of food and, for its bar industry, drinks.

Cocktail bars here are as rare as trees. There are a cluster of international standard but only a few (Slippbarinn, Kol, Barber Bar and Hverfisgata 12) do justice to the brilliantly clear bricks of ice available to bartenders. That’s not surprising given that locals tend to drink beer, schnapps (mostly Brennivín) and vodka. But where there is a food movement, a cocktail movement is rarely far behind.  The other Nordic nations are there – just look at the cocktail innovation coming out Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. Across the Norwegian Sea, Iceland could yet be a new frontier for the cocktail industry. But it will require pioneers. Out of the darkness of the Icelandic winter such people have emerged.

“We must react quickly,” says Ásgeir Már Björnsson, food and beverage manager at Slippbarinn at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. “We are facing questions never asked of us before - it used to be stone dead here, now every hotel is booked.” Björnsson saw this coming. He hatched a plan 18 months ago to change things - to show the bar world Reykjavik and Reykjavik the bar world.

With his colleagues convinced (hotel manager Birgir Gudmundsson and Urður Anna) and ready to host this unbranded event, last month the 2015 Reykjavik Bar Summit landed - with a thud. A five hour flight from New York, three from London - there couldn’t be a more neutral ground for a transatlantic battle of the bars. Though its bar industry is under developed, Iceland has form when it comes to summits. In 1986 it hosted Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, a meeting that opened the gate to the end the cold war. A less profound objective, yes, but the Reykjavik Bar Summit also involved minus temperatures and could yet be the start of something meaningful for the city’s bar industry.

It took place over three snowy days and saw 15 bars compete. For the bartenders of North America and Europe, Iceland offered experiences and ingredients unseen before. Icelandic moonshine, birch bitters and sheep brain-infused gin, to name three. For the locals, it was similarly foreign - a chance to engage with and learn from the elite of the global bar industry. 

This was central to Björnsson’s plan. “The first step is for Icelanders to get to know the industry and respect bartenders and know that you can make a career out of bartending and travel the world. It’s about networking on a friendly basis.”

It’s perhaps not surprising Iceland’s alcohol culture isn’t as advanced as its food. Alcohol has not had an easy ride here. Prohibition was enshrined in 1915 (to counter heavy drinking), which inevitably led to the proliferation of moonshine production and clandestine brewing. Prohibition wasn’t phased out until the 1970s – and even then beer was ring-fenced for special attention, its ban not being reversed until 1989.

But a quarter of a century on, the alcohol industry represents an opportunity. In terms of developing its cocktail bars, imported talent could help to kick start the trend, but development in the long term hinges on those home grown. Björnsson says currently their embryonic cocktail industry is “borrowed and stolen” from abroad but that is not a bad strategy for now – a lot can be learned from further integrating into the international bartender community. But eventually, Icelanders need develop their own style using their own ingredients to form an identity. They have every chance - where better for the next frontier of bartending than the land of ice.