Norwegian rhapsody: exploring the bars of Bergen

The harbour in central Bergen, with the Scandic Strand hotel in the background - home to Femte i Andre bar
Bergen harbour and the Scandic Strand hotel
Juan P Reales has worked at top London bars including Lab and Roadhouse but, much to the delight of Scandinavian cocktail lovers, he is now in Norway’s second city, Bergen. He is bar manager at Soho Kitchen & Lounge, a sushi and tapas restaurant in Håkonsgaten that serves up classic and original cocktails.

With its plush purple and black colour scheme, including black candles and banquettes, Soho’s stylish décor wouldn’t look out of place in Soho in London. The drinks list features plenty of classics such as a Clover Club and a Sazerac plus some modern classics including the Earl Grey Martini created by Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club in SoHo, New York City.

Juan’s original cocktails include La Chica Rosa made with pisco, house-made raspberry syrup, lemon juice, sugar, egg white, rhubarb bitters and a brulée of aromatic bitters on top. Another is a Green Samurai, based on a Lychee Martini and made with lychee-infused sake and lychee liqueur with muddled lychees, sugar, lemon, apple juice and a touch of eucalyptus.

This level of cocktail-making is rare in Bergen but there are a handful of good places if you look hard enough. Tonga Bar is hidden behind a tiki-decorated door above a touristy restaurant in Torget on the harbourside. It serves up good classic cocktails, with a rum bias – again thanks to a bartender who worked in London: New Zealander Tom Mountjoy.

The long-established unpretentious Femte i Andre bar at the nearby Scandic Strand hotel is renowned for its drinks, especially whiskies and brandies, but the hotel has seen better days. It has a cocktail menu inspired by Bergen-born crime writer Gunnar Staalesen, whose best-known character is the private detective Varg Veum. Examples include a cocktail named after his 1971 novel, Fortellingen om Barbara (Stories of Barbara), made with rhubarb liqueur, vodka, lemon juice, sugar, cranberry juice and Sprite lemonade.

The list at Femte i Andre includes cocktails made with Scandinavia’s national drink, aquavit, a schnapps-like spirit that is rarely seen in the UK, let alone used in cocktails. The bar’s simple mixing ideas include Blues For Amalie Jensen, which combines Bergens Aquavit with lemonade, and 1950 High Noon, which mixes Mack Aquavit with Angostura Bitters and a slice of apple.

Another product that is big on the Norwegian bar scene is fernet, the bitter spirit mainly produced in Italy and Argentina. Normally drunk as a shot, it is found behind every bar, helping to make Norway one of the biggest markets for fernet in the world.

The No 1 Balkongen Bar at the Radisson Blu hotel
No 1 Balkongen Bar
In Bergen, the cocktail scene is starting to grow, with newcomers such as the luxurious No 1 Balkongen Bar at the Radisson Blu hotel. With snake-patterned wallpaper and lamps shaped like high-heeled boots, the refurbished lounge bar has a burlesque, decadent feel. It serves up well-made twisted classics, such as a Bacon Old Fashioned using Maker’s Mark bourbon infused with smoked and dry-salted bacon, stirred with maple syrup and bitters. The No 1 Cocktail is loosely based on a Mojito, made with Smirnoff Black vodka, fresh lime juice, eucalyptus bitters, mint and sugar.

The newest arrival is Biblioteket Bar on the first floor of a complex that overlooks the harbour. Its list features “forgotten classics” as well as modern creations by the world’s top bartenders such as Dick Bradsell’s Stimulant and Jörg Meyer’s Gin Basil Smash. There is an interesting section encouraging customers to explore styles of rum, offering Daiquiris with a choice of seven different brands from Ron Millonario Solera Reserva Especial from Peru to Sea Wynde Pot Still from the Caribbean.

Opened in 2004, Café Contra Bar in the central square, Ole Bulls Plass, is another fashionable bar, with a drinks menu that changes through the week. Its bar team includes Therese Storebø Østervold who won the Norwegian and northern European legs of the 2011 Diageo World Class competition to compete in the global final in New Delhi in July. (The overall winner was Manabu Ohtake from Japan.)

The bar at Jacobs Bar og Kjøkken
Jacobs Bar & Kitchen
But, aside from cocktails, Bergen is home to lots of friendly bars, from the funky retro Vamoose! in Håkonsgaten to Elefanten in Vaskerelven. If you like beer, head for the new quirky-looking Ujevnt in Christiesgate which stocks beers from around the world including Norway’s own Hansa. For wine, check out To Glass Vinbar next to the funicular railway station in Vetrlidsallmenningen, or Jacobs Bar og Kjøkken in Kong Oscarsgate, where they hold regular wine tastings.

For late-night glamorous partying, there is Calibar in Vaskerelven – a stylish, club-like venue with a strict dress code. The cocktails look designed to appeal to the ladies, from the rum-based Honey Caipirissima to fruity Martinis and an Airmail made with honey, rum and champagne. My friends and I were not fashionable enough so went to the more laid-back Elefanten down the road.

However, Britons will be stunned by the prices, boosted by taxes and the exchange rate: expect to pay at least £6 for a beer and £8 for a glass of wine – although you won’t pay much more than that for a good cocktail. Even for Norwegians, this makes for an expensive night-out and has led to more drinking at home. They even have a term for what we called “pre-loading” – “forspill” (or sometimes using the German word, “Vorspiel”), which literally means “foreplay”. And after you’ve been out to a bar or two, you head back home with friends, old and new, for “nattspill” drinks, meaning “night play” (or in German, “Nachspiel”, meaning “after play”). Despite the government’s efforts to reduce alcohol consumption through heavy taxes over the years, Norwegians still know how to go out and play.

A shorter version of this article appears in the October 2011 edition of Bar magazine.

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