A View from the City: Helsinki

13 January, 2017

Hamish Smith speaks to Jarkko Issukka Co-founder/bartender of Lilla e

Tell us about Helsinki and Finnish drinking culture.

When it comes to Finland and especially Helsinki now, we are as modern a country to enjoy a good drink in as any other capital in Europe. In Helsinki alone around 10 years ago we had maybe five decent cocktail bars, now we have around 30-40. The most ordered drink is special Gin & Tonics and there are Whiskey Sours, Negronis and Martinis touching peoples lips throughout the week. Craft beer is as big as everywhere but our ‘national spirit’, vodka is still leading in the sales charts of our alcohol monopoly, Alko.

When did Finns get into cocktails and how developed is the cocktail culture?

We’ve found recipes from 1840 and the first American -style drinks coming to Helsinki with two Danish lady bartenders in 1905. For the Finnish, American cocktails have always been a part of our international hotels’ bars over hundreds of years but we were sipping mixed drinks long before. A big set-back was our Prohibition from 1919-1932 when, like in the States, drinking went underground. Our alcohol has pretty much always been controlled by our monopoly Alko. From the 1950s until early 1990s you had to apply for a licence to sell a specific cocktail with a recipe and price. If it got approved, you got to sell a cocktail. Our alcohol law is famous. For example, we’re required to use 40ml jiggers by law and selling a double is still illegal. Outside hotel bars, a big impact came in 2007 when former London bartender Timo Siitonen opened A21 Cocktail Lounge and introduced fresh ingredients and Nordic flavours. I expect to see next that the whole Nordic bartending community will start to seek their own identity. That’s when the Nordics will truly stand out.

Are there any standout Finnish drinks – who made them and at what bars?

I know my industry will kill me for sharing this, but I think one of the most iconic Finnish drinks is simply Kossuvissy, a local quality vodka Koskenkorva mixed with sparkling water. Another iconic drink in my opinion is cocktail consultant company Son of a Punch’s Kurkku Sour (Cucumber Sour), which came around 2010 in the Grotesk bar. Hendrick’s sour mixed with celery bitters and egg white made the sour category so big that everyone in our cities drinks Whiskey and Gin Sours. Another new drink for the business to watch out for is Eetu Topo’s new Rum Pickle – Bacardi Carta Oro rum, chablis, vinegar and sugar. He’s pushing it to be a new, authentic Nordic cocktail category where you can replace any of the ingredients and still end up with a fresh but boozy drink inspired by one of our food heritage cornerstones – preserving food as a pickle. One part spirit, half a part of lengthener, a spoon of sugar and a spoon of vinegar. Stir and that’s it. To create a new category of drinks is quite ambitious but think about if it actually happened. A category for our own history and heritage.

What are your favourite bars and bartenders in Helsinki?

I enjoy the authentic feeling of history at Hotel Kämp’s bar, which opened in 1887 but I also keep finding myself at Son of a Punch’s venues, such as Brooklyn-themed Liberty or Death or speakeasy Trillby & Chadwick Detective Office. Son of a Punch has six incredible bars known for quality and atmosphere and taking our industry more international than ever. They’ve changed cocktail culture here at Helsinki probably more than anyone else, apart from Timo Siitonen. His A21 made the difference and still after almost 10 years is one of my favourite venues to hang out. In fact, it was Siitonen who inspired me in the first place so he’s kind of a father of today’s cocktail culture in Helsinki for me at least.

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