Reykjavik and the Rise of Icelandic Cocktail Culture

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Much like in the United States, Iceland had its own version of alcohol prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, prohibited the sale, production and transportation of spirits in the US. American alcohol Prohibition only lasted from 1920 until 1933 when the act was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment. Prohibition lasted quite a bit longer in Iceland, though. Starting in 1915, all alcohol was illegal. In 1935, spirits were reintroduced, but for some reason beer remained illegal until 1989. The affects of prohibition are still seen in the drinking culture of Iceland today.

For years, the extent of cocktails consisted of mixing vodka or Brennivin (a clear, unsweetened schnapps) with Coca Cola. “Four or five years ago, the vodka culture has been growing because high quality vodka has come into the market,” says Reyka Vodka Head Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson. One of the strangest habits beer prohibition created was the practice of dumping a shot of vodka into non-alcoholic beer. Many older Icelanders still enjoy the drink today.

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When visiting Iceland, a visitor can witness the infancy of a cocktail movement in this country of only 300,000 people. In the last decade, many bars and restaurants have have moved past the Pina Colada, Tequila Sunrise, Mojito, and Grasshopper into more complicated territories.

“The first time I tried a cocktail that really made me go ‘damn’ was in Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland, when I was on holiday snowboarding,” says mixologist Kari Sigurosson of Reykjavik’s Lavabar. A popular bar had set up a booth in the hotel and they where preparing a small selection of drinks, a winter sour with black cherry bourbon and nutmeg and a basil gimlet. “They were better than anything I had tasted before, and the first time I really got the feel that making drinks is as complex as cooking with enough attention put into it.”

“A lot has changed in the last few years,” says Mixologist Orri Gunnsteinn of Reykjavik’s Sushi Samba. “In the past, cocktails were not popular, and the ones that were offered in bars were simple and the same in every place.” He has noticed that bars are starting to become more ambitious with their cocktails and are striving to invent their own, personal styles. “Icelandic bartenders and mixologists have also started following new trends in other big cities, such as New York where the craft cocktail movement is currently so strong.”

As an American looking in, Iceland’s cocktail movement has a long way to go. The prohibition of beer has had and will have lasting affects on the culture. Not just on the beer industry, but the mixology movement as well. It’s hard to go from prohibition to advanced drinking culture in only twenty-five years. Sigurosson and Gunnsteinn both see signs of change and both have pride for their home and the direction it is headed. “Iceland is a great place to go out of your comfort zone and try something new,” says Sigurosson. He added, “People here are friendly and if there is any place in the world where I would have to pass out in the streets it would be Reykjavík.”

Sushi Samba’s Strawberry Gimlet 

“This cocktail is an all time favorite of mine, and is very popular here at Sushi Samba in Reykjavik,” adds Gunnsteinn. “It’s easy to make at home and the perfect drink to enjoy while watching the sunset with friends. I prefer using Reyka vodka in the Gimlets I serve up as it’s so clean and crisp and gives off a smooth vanilla finish that pairs very nicely with the strawberries and basil. And during the Solstice here in Iceland, I like to top the cocktail off with champagne.”

1 1/2 oz Reyka Vodka
3 oz of Fresh  lemonade
4 Strawberries
Strawberry for garnish
Basil leaves 

Muddle the strawberries in the bottom of a tumbler or old-fashioned glass.  Add ice, vodka, and lemonade.  Garnish with strawberry slices and basil. 

More Information: Cocktail bars to visit in Reykjavik:

  1. Loftid Bar 
  2. Sushi Samba
  3. Bunk Bar
  4. Boston
  5. Slippbarinn
  6. Kaffibarinn
  7. Vegamot 
  8. B5

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