Emil Åreng on Scandinavian cocktail culture

Beyond Instagram and re-posts

Sune and Rasmus - authors of Akvavit - Rediscovering a Nordic spiritRasmus Poulsgaard and Sune Risum-Urth are probably two of the most knowledgeable people in Copenhagen when it comes to akvavit. Their new book Akvavit – Rediscovering a Nordic Spirit just hit the streets. In the book they explore where Scandinavian cocktail culture is heading – partly by interviewing Scandinavian bartenders. 

We have asked Sune and Rasmus to share some of the interviews from the book in length on our blog. The following is the first in the series – an interview with Emil Åreng from the bar Open/Closed in Umeå, Sweden: 

We meet Emil Åreng at Stora Hotellet (literally “the big hotel) for a talk about cynical old men with angry beards and an industry that’s gotten lost on instagram.

After years of working at a classic cocktail joint called Rex he wanted to open up for himself, but being a bartender and not having any money he also wanted someone to pay for it. Finally he found two guys who were opening a deli, and they decided to make something they hadn’t seen before.

At the Open/Close Emil makes simple no-nonsense drinks. They clear a table in the middle of the deli, put up 24 barstools and make 600 drinks a Week. The menu changes every two weeks.

Emil Åring from Open/Closed in Norway“I don’t really do flavour that much, that’s Karl Martin, I am just really good at lying”, he starts out with saying. And the duality is rather profound, on one side he seems hell bent on cutting away bullshit and getting to the actual point, on the other hand he openly admits that sometimes they lie and make up stuff to make ends meet in their cocktails. And if you are honest about lying, is it then such a bad thing?

“We start with the story”, he then says, much to our amusement, “and then build the flavours around that. Like a thing we did mashing up Imagine by John Lennon and Nas’ Illmatic which has nothing to do with each other, but yeah, we got the cognac from Nas, but not Hennessy, that’s nasty, and then changed John’s last name to lemon because the only fruit he sings about is a strawberry and Nas is a fucking poet so he doesn’t need fruit, and you know, then Yoko Ono sort of destroyed John’s life and Yoko means sparkle in Japanese, so we destroy the drink with sparkling water, and it’s still a good drink but would have been better without the bubbles and … it sounds really pretentious saying it out loud, but it’s a really fun way to work. It’s hard, right? Going just by flavour is too easy. We don’t like easy.”

The story is created first with a base in the theme, and then the cocktail has to evolve from that. And there are rarely any garnish as Emil, in his own words, is unable to cut anything nice from a lemon. The snide sarcasm covers something much deeper though. A thorough river of conviction running through his words when he speaks.

“We got so caught up in instagram and facebook, we forgot where we came from. Why do you care what someone likes on instagram? We’re so busy dressing things up nicely and taking pictures and posting and reading magazines about what is trending and I hate that word, it’s obnoxious, that we forget what the guest in front of us want, you know? What do I care what some idiot in Sidney or Singapore thinks is trendy? They have different stuff, it doesn’t matter to me!”

Forgetting where we come from, it’s a reoccuring topic in Emil’s stream-of-conciousness talking. We should talk to our elders, go chat with our grandparents, and reinvent the flavours and smells of your childhood.

It’s the whole going away to get inspired thing that gets on his nerves. He wants us to go backwards in time instead, go inward, reinvent ourselves. And akvavit is a natural step as a bartender in Scandinavia. He sees the fading of the borders between chefs and bartenders as a means for salvation here. All the flavours in the Nordic kitchen flow into the Nordic spirit, and we can utilize those in cocktails.

Akvavit, to Emil, is something quite special. The herbaceous notes are more complex and rich than the exotic profile of a gin, and the sharp notes of dill and caraway is something very different from the vanilla and toffee of a whisky. He starts making an old fashioned on Linie Akvavit. Tells a story about how Umeå burned to the ground in 1888 and was rebuild using only birch. And the birch syrup he uses for sweetening is made simply by reducing birch water using very low heat, from 100 to 1 litre. The price tag is astronomic but the taste is rich and sweet and the flavour enhancing properties in birch water is enhanced. He adds a dash of salt and a healthy measure of Linie Akvavit onto a massive chunk of ice from a bit north of here, and either it is hand harvested and trucked in for the express purpose of this very drink, or something he just had lying around, depending on what mood he is in.

Bold Fashioned - aquavit based cocktail from the bar Open/Close in Umeå, SwedenBold Fashioned

60 ml Linie Akvavit

15 ml Birch Syrup

2 dash Angostura

Add all ingredients to rocks glass with large ice cube. Stir until properly diluted.

For Emil it all boils down to connecting with your heritage, with the soil beneath your feet. And the future has to anchor itself in the past. We need to look past trends and what looks nice in a post everyone forgets immediately. Emil dreams of a bar that uses only Nordic ingredients, without shortcuts. A massive movement for Nordic spirits, the abandonment of lemons and basil. Emil swears and dreams and shakes his long black beard. And in his foraged weird little bar his guests can forget about instagram and reposts for one night at the time.

This interview is from the material behind the book: Akvavit – Rediscovering a Nordic Spirit.

In Denmark the book can be acquired online at Saxo.com or in Magasin, and specialized shops like Juul’s Vin og Spirits, Den Sidste Dråbe and Shoppen.

For aquavit enthusiasts outside Denmark it will be available on Amazon very soon. 

Stay tuned for more interviews from the book coming up on our blog soon! In the meantime you can immerse yourself in the basics with our free e-book on aquavit cocktails.

Akvavit - rediscovering a Nordic spirit - book cover

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Cocktails of Copenhagen
Cocktails of Copenhagen is a tribute to craft cocktails, trendsetting bars and creative bartenders. we feature inspiring cocktails from the Nordic bar scene every week and offer a sneak peak into the creative thinking of Scandinavian bartenders with beautiful photos and intriguing recipes.