Where to drink right now? Himkok is where the big boys play!
I love a well balanced cocktail and you don’t have to travel that far back in time to find they were hard to get by. Now there is a cocktail revolution going on in Norway and I just visited the guys behind the bar at Oslo’s newest and coolest hangout. Craft spirits is the shit all over the world right now and Himkok is the first micro distillery in Norway. In a good speakeasy tradition, Himkok can be a little hard to find, as the anonymous entrance, placed between an Asian supermarket and a hairdresser, has no sign. But it is so worth it when you find it and enter. A wall of colorful pickles meets me inside, a spoof on the Prohibition era when illegal cocktail bars were camouflaged as small shops selling anything but alcohol. A hostess leads me through the heavy curtains and I enter the world of fun and sin. (At least if this was in the old days – it’s easy to get carried away.)
Shaken or stirred
Behind the glass wall that meets me inside, in the tiny distillery, a tall man wearing a white lab coat is turning on knobs and checking details on the shiny copper topped pot stills. Matt Ensor (34) has traveled the world making wine and whisky in different venues, but the native of New Zealand jumped on the first plane to Oslo to be a part of this adventure as soon as he got a whiff of the plans. Now he is the king in his own playroom where he is going to produce gin, vodka and aquavit, but of course he lets the other guys and girls come in to play as well.
– We play together! All of the people working here are involved in the different stages and products. I collaborate closely with the bartenders to create spirits perfect for their creations, says Matt letting me taste the house vodka as I move over to the bar. It is crisp, clear and has a smooth aftertaste.
The craft bar is dark and elegant with big booths and soft barstools. It is a good place to be. In the end of the room hydroponic turbines are displayed growing herbs to be used in the cocktails. The handsome guys behind the modern bar dominating the room, are throwing, shaking, stirring and rolling cocktails with names like Barberer Sørensen, Fjellbekk-san and Monkey butter with great precision. The lowered bar makes it feel like your sitting around a kitchen table, inviting you to talk to both the bartenders and the people next to you. Himkok feels automatically like a popular meeting place and even though the ambitions are sky high the atmosphere is relaxed and cozy.
– We want to introduce people to something new. We are thinking outside the box of what a bar can be, but are keeping it humble. The happiness and satisfaction of our guests are always our main focus, says head bartender Thomas Stenbäck. Together with head bartender Joachim Olsson he leads the team of apprentices and bartenders at Himkok.
Taptails and a shave
On the wall behind the bar lots of small bottles of tinctures and bitters made from different herbs, roots and spices are displayed. A drop from one of these will take your drink in a new direction and are used to make customized cocktails quick and easy. There is also a range of pre-bottled cocktails, perfectly balanced, that are ready to be enjoyed on the rocks. Yes, we Norwegians love a good crafted cocktail, but our impatient can be a challenge.
– We want to give the taste of good quality to everyone, says Alex Ruas, one of the renowned bartenders in the consulting firm Behind bars which has helped with getting the bar up and running.
– The challenge of today’s craft cocktail bars is the long wait to get a drink. It’s usually a long process for the bartender to make it and people get impatient and end up ordering something else and missing out on a bigger experience. We want to change that, but making craft cocktails mainstream doesn’t mean we will compromise on quality. We have made some well thought out solutions and gotten equipment that makes the service faster so you don’t have to wait more than a couple of minutes for one of our drinks.
The bar, owned by Erk Potur, has just opened up the second floor. There they will serve cocktails on tap, taptails, as well as food. Outside in the back they will serve quality ciders on tap from a container and in the back of the upstairs you find the barbershop Pels Pels. Every weekend between 7 pm and 10 pm, male guests can enjoy a cocktail and a shave. It is so cool I am considering growing a beard.
Oslo style gin
First out of the micro distillery is Himkok’s house gin and vodka. Later it will be aquavit, from white too aged, and after a while they will make seasonal spirits and small batches of custom made variations for specific cocktails.
The house gin, a London dry style gin, distilled one time and watered down one time, has a bold character with both citrus and green notes.
– We will play around with Norwegian local herbs and plants and use it in the gin to make local variations. Call it an Oslo dry style gin, says Matt with a big smile.
He is still working out what he defines as the Norwegian taste profile, but admits to be taken by our fascination with “bolle”, the traditional sweet bun.
– You guys cannot get enough of it. The sweet dough with cardamom and cinnamon seems to hit the spot in lots of ways, both in terms of taste and the nostalgic and comforting feeling. These elements are fun to play with.
We probably won’t see a gin with the taste of ”bolle” bottled up, but in the cocktail menu, designed as a polaroid photo album, you find some unusual ingredients. The fun behind the bar continues into the cocktails, and if Elvis were in the building he would definitely order the Monkey butter with peanut butter, whisky and banana syrup. For the ones already having a hangover I can recommend Green Lizzy, a Bloody Mary inside out with aquavit, celery and apple juice or The beta cocktail, a spoof on Vodka Red bull, with vodka, ginseng and juice of carrot, grapefruit and horseradish. Health in every drop! And then there is In the weeds.
– The seaweed cocktail was a hard nut to crack. After lots of failed trails we spent hours at the library reading old books on herbs and medicine and at the end it was a book about licorice that solved the puzzle, tells Thomas and adds:
– Licorice pairs well with whisky, seafood, lime and coffee, so that is now a signature drink.
The Norwegian drinking culture is evolving steadily, one quality bar at the time. We have moved from getting wasted on moonshine and shoots to the ability to appreciate quality spirits and craft cocktail. More and more people now want to sit down and enjoy a well-balanced drink, one sip at a time. But are we really ready for cocktails with ingredients like seaweed and peanut butter?
– Yes!, the guys answer, and after tasting the drinks I agree. Matt explains:
– In creating original drinks we have to think like chefs. Chefs and bartenders are a lot a like in the way they approach the ingredients. We play with it and in order to evolve we must push the boundaries for what we know. It’s the only way too come up with something new.
They work hard to incorporate the ingredients in a perfect balance with the spirit so that the experience becomes whole and harmonic.
– We’ve done a lot of mistakes along the way, but that makes us better, tells Thomas and can conclude that rakfisk, Norwegian fermented fish, is one ingredient that will not work in a cocktail. They have actually tried.
Success is in the details
In the late 1800s the old building at Storgata 27 was an industrial warehouse for amongst other things, pharmacy appliances. The link to the pharmacy, which also is a big part of the cocktail history, is apparent in both the white lab coats worn by the bartenders and in the logo. The walls of the place are left exposed and the old traditions mixed with new technology makes this bar feel as well balanced as the drinks.
– You have to go all in and make sure all the details are well thought of. It’s hard work, but the only way to get the quality our guests deserve, says Alex.
Even though they work hard to please us, they are having a lot of fun, so much fun indeed that they also spend their day off in the bar. And the enthusiasm of the great people working here is contagious. At Himkok you find happiness both behind the bar and in front of it. It is greatly addictive. You are now officially warned.
4 cl Himkok aquavit
1 cl Yuzu sake
2 cl spruce syrup
Build the drink in a glass with ice. Top with tonic and garnish with spruce and dried lime.
The beta cocktail
4 cl Himkok vodka
8 cl juice (carrot, horseradich, grapefruit)
2 drops ginseng
Have all the ingredients in a shaker and throw the drink about 4 times. serve over ice and garnish with a horseradich slice and dried orange.
In the weeds
4 cl scoths whisky
3 cl lime juice
1 cl orgeat
3 cl seaweed syrup infused with coffee, liquorice and orange
Have all the ingredients in a shaker with ica and shake well. Strain over crushed ice and serve with dried seaweed and orange.
If you wonder about how the syrups are made, just ask the bartenders at Himkok. They will give you the whole story.
Himkok, Storgata 27, Oslo, Norway