Cocktail chat: Himkok’s Scandi twist
Proudly Norwegian venue Himkok – meaning ‘home cook’ or ‘moonshine’ – is paving the way for Scandinavian cocktail culture. The Spirits Business editor Melita Kiely headed to Oslo to discover more about this boundary-breaking bar.
*This feature was first published in the January 2023 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.
Distillation, bottling, cocktail creation – Himkok does it all. The unassuming exterior of the venue hardly screams ‘world-class watering hole’. But behind the speakeasy-style façade lies the undisputed leader in Scandinavian cocktail culture.
Over the years, the 19th-century building has been home to an assortment of businesses, from tailors and shoemakers to a pharmacy. But when Himkok founder Erk Potur looked to take over the listed address to repurpose it into Norway’s first distillery bar, he faced myriad challenges.
Creating a world-class bar in a market that bans alcohol advertising is far from easy. “It took two years for Erk to convince the Norwegian government to make the bar with the distillery,” explains of Slovakian-born bar manager Maroš Dzurus. “It had never happened before, having a distillery inside the bar with people sitting down to drink.”
Permission for Himkok to be built was finally granted in 2015. There were a multitude of safety measures Potur had to consider, including housing the distillery behind bullet-proof glass. With Potur still at the helm, today the bar is under Dzurus’s stewardship. With a 19-strong team, the bar ranked 43rd in the World’s 50 Best Bars 2022 list.
It’s a multi-layered venue with room for 450 guests that starts at the Distillery Bar, continuing to the outdoor terrace, and upstairs to a space for cocktails on tap – and also a barbershop.
Located on the ground floor, the aptly named Distillery Bar is where the onsite distillery is proudly displayed. Guests can sip cocktails in full view of the pot still and column still that create Himkok’s potato-based gin, vodka, and aquavit.
“We can create 10,000 litres of alcohol a year if the distillery operates five days a week,” says Dzurus. “It’s very cool that we’re producing 80% of our spirits for use in our house cocktails. We see the same potential in aquavit as we see in gin.”
The gin and aquavit are both distilled in the bar’s pot still. “For the aquavit, we macerate caraway inside the still, and put spices in the vapour chamber,” Dzurus says. “For gin, we put the botanicals in the vapour chamber. We’re using the column still just for vodka, but we’re adding vanilla and oolong tea.” The bar conducts roughly one run for gin and one for aquavit each month, creating “around 100 litres”. “Having a distillery here is a curse and a blessing,” however, Dzurus notes. It costs the bar around €18-€19 (US$19-20) to produce one litre of gin, vodka or aquavit – not particularly affordable, even for a country like Norway where prices are notoriously steep. “It’s no cheaper to produce it ourselves, but for us it’s important to have full control of what’s going into the liquid,” he explains. “We have an opportunity to build the gin and aquavit recipe through feedback from our guests at the bar.
“Do you know how much companies pay for that? And we can do that at the bar. This is a unique operation; you can get feedback straight away from your target audience.”
On the back bar, there are no labelled bottles. Everything – from the spirits made in-house to branded products – is presented in the same uniform bottle, a decision taken to remove any brand-influence on Himkok’s customers. For Dzurus and his team, it’s all about flavour. “People can have preconceptions about particular brands, or they can be persuaded to drink something because of the visual effects of the bottle,” Dzurus explains. “By removing these elements, it allows our bartenders to connect with the customer, to talk to them and really understand what they want in a drink.”
This ethos flows through to how Himkok presents its cocktail menu. The most recent iteration, launched in November, and was designed to use Scandinavian produce to evoke memories of Norway’s traditional sweet treats. Each of the 13 drinks centres on one ingredient. For example, Bun is made using a fat-washed Buffalo Trace whiskey and Sazerac to emulate the taste of Skolebrød, a Norwegian pastry. There’s also Honey, made using honey from local producer Bybi, angelica root and Himkok’s gin. Dzurus and Himok’s head of flavour, Paul Aguilar, led the menu development.
The menu also incorporates a digital element, with the help of multimedia artist and photographer Olav Stubberud. Guests can scan a picture of their drink using their phones to reveal further details of the cocktail’s ingredients and methodology. “We love to experiment at Himkok; for example, we’ve aged aquavit in vermouth casks,” Dzurus notes. “We want to give our guests something unique to Norway. Our mission is to always push boundaries.”
This was the goal when Himkok released the world’s first NFT cocktail menu in 2021. The venue teamed up with Norwegian illustrator Esra Røise to make an NFT version of 13 cocktails. Each NFT came complete with a certificate for Røise’s digital artwork, a physical signed copy of the art, and added extras, such as distillery visits or a session with a master blender. “We sold all 13 pieces in two days,” says Dzurus. “We gave 10% of the profits to charity, we paid the collaborating artist; it was a great way to show how we can push boundaries, and take cocktails to the next level.”
Dzurus has observed the Norwegian cocktail scene evolution over his seven years at Himkok. A nation attached to classic cocktails, “Mojitos, Old Fashioneds, Martinis”, is now embracing new flavours.
“I always appreciate old-school bartending,” he adds. “But now we’re going for the next level; we’re pushing boundaries. Himkok has changed cocktail culture. We’ve built that trust with our guests that they will find something new, something Norwegian, and something delicious. And other bars are benefitting from that, and they are also seeing what new flavours they can create. There’s a storytelling process that’s developing, it’s flavour-driven, and it’s really exciting to see.”