If you’re looking to uncover some of the more inventive, interesting cocktails out there, book a trip to Helsinki, Finland. If you go soon, you’ll probably get lucky and see the Aurora Borealis. If you don’t, don’t worry: You’ll have plenty of bars and cocktail lounges at which to drown your sorrows. Helsinki stays light most of the day in summer and is dark almost all winter—both great excuses to get out and drink.
Historically, Finns have loved their long drink, traditionally a lower-ABV canned or bottled cocktail mixing gin and grapefruit juice, with new variations having emerged in the last few years. But thankfully, with the proliferation of cocktail culture around the world, Helsinki hasn’t missed the boat. A number of young teams have popped up and introduced proper cocktailing to the city. Many had taken inspiration from global trends, but lately bartenders are looking toward Nordic culture and ingredients to create really interesting takes on drinks combining all sorts of spirits with foraged goods, like cloudberry and birch.
You can spend a week bar hopping in Helsinki and still find more to drink. Below is just a sampling of hot spots to hit around the city. And the best part? Helsinki is so small that walking everywhere means you don’t have to worry about driving.
Whether or not you’re staying at the beautiful and sophisticated Hotel Lilla Roberts, be sure to pop into its lobby bar. Lilla e. takes cocktailing to a new level. Yes, you can get a beer or glass of Champagne, but this four-man team makes drinking a total sensory experience.
Take the Nordic Breakfast. Meant to reflect a traditional breakfast in Finland, it has three components: Napue gin that’s infused with malted rye and sour whey; a piece of hard cheese; and a cup of hot black coffee. Or the Midsummer’s Eve that has birch-infused Tanqueray gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and a floater of sparkling wine. It’s then finished off the smoke of freshly burnt birch leaves. And then there’s the Bedrock by the Sea with Lillet Blanc, cava and sorrel with a sea-salt rim. It’s literally served “on the rocks” as an array of sea stones sit on the plate next to the glass.
Set in the city’s design district, this true cocktail bar, and the first of five from the Son of a Punch crew, is a little hard to find, but once you step into the dark enclave, you’ll lighten up when seeing all of the spirits behind the bar. Just a few blocks away from the intimate and casual Michelin-starred Chef & Sommelier, Liberty or Death makes a perfect Manhattan. And if it still has the Helsinki cocktail, made with gin, Bols genever, lemon and egg white and garnished with a basil leaf, get that for a refreshing drink in winter.
Where Liberty or Death might feel like a speakeasy, Trillby & Chadwick, another Son of a Punch concept, truly is. This may be one of the harder bars you’ll ever have to find, but it’s worth the, well, detective work. The bar is set down an alley just off Helsinki’s Central Market at the port where you walk into a door, pick up a phone and ask to be let in, then a slot in the door opens to confirm you’re OK.
The menu reads like diary entries from the mythical detectives Trillby & Chadwick. The drinks are intricate, take some time to construct and are definitely intriguing. The Manchester Film comprises Maker’s Mark bourbon, Chambord liqueur, Coke, lemon juice, egg white and, of all things, popcorn. It’s like being at a movie with popcorn and a Coke. If you like your drink with a bitter punch, go for the Mr. Bukowski, made with Ron Zacapa, Punt e Mes vermouth, Pedro Ximénez sherry, maraschino liqueur and Angostura bitters.
Set inside the gorgeous new Hotel F6 in downtown Helsinki, Runar is named for one of the owner’s French bulldogs. The team here plays around with local ingredients and foraged items. If you like a slightly sweeter cocktail, try the Lande, made with Ketel One vodka, elderflower, rhubarb and citrus. Want something a little savory? The Think Green, made with matcha, sorrel, celery, citrus and Martini & Rossi Bianco vermouth, is the way to go. The bar, set off the open courtyard lobby, is modern and comfortable, with leather couches and chairs and a few higher banquettes with tall stools. You can easily kill time here while putting back a few of these quality drinks.
Bar Bronda is the hip lounge at the front of the restaurant of the same name. Set on the Esplanadi, one of Helsinki’s main thoroughfares, Bronda is the fourth (and newest) spot from BW Restaurants, which also has acclaimed Asian-inspired restaurants Gaijin and Farang. This contemporary space with high ceilings, a DJ spinning cool house music and a glass-enclosed wine room separating the lounge from the main dining room brings global flare to Finland.
The bar is not afraid to mix flavors or balance sweet and savory. The Mezcal Lover, served up, takes Nuestra Soledad mezcal, agave, pink grapefruit, lemon and egg white. And then there’s the Chase the Rhubarb, made with Williams Pink Grapefruit gin, St-Germain, rhubarb, cinnamon, cardamom and lime. And if you’re feeling a bitter jolt, go for the Bourboroni, mixing Buffalo Trace bourbon, coffee-infused Carpano Antica Formula and Campari.
Credited with starting the Nordic-drink movement in Helsinki, award-winning A21 Decades is still going strong. The cocktail list has always focused on incorporating Finnish ingredients like various berries, herbs and jams since the bar opened in 2009. Since then, it has added a Boilermaker section to introduce more craft beer to the bar, as well as a section dedicated to perfecting the Gin & Tonic. The “Decades” part of the name pays homage to cocktailing throughout the years, and it’s well represented. Ease in with one of the 1970s classics like the Tequila Sunrise, or jump into local culture with one of the Nordic drinks like the Isokari Sour (Jaloviina cut brandy, sea buckthorn jam, cinnamon, and orange and lemon juice) or the Lapin Jalokivi (black-pepper- and lemon-infused cloudberry jam, Beefeater gin and Lapponia Lakka cloudberry liqueur).
If you like meat, you have to hit Grotesk the restaurant. If you want to just drink and have a good time, head to the Grotesk bar and, even better, out back to the terrace. This outdoor escape offers a bit of a spring break vibe in the heart of Helsinki. And with some of the more cleverly named drinks in the city, how can you not? The Peach Don’t Kill My Vibe marries fermented peach with Rémy Martin VSOP cognac and lemon juice. Lucas the Firetruck (cute, right?) brings together grenache wine with Bols genever, lemon juice and black tea. But if you really want to get that tropical feeling, the #bananaisberry mixes Bacardi Carta Blanca rum, banana, lemon and pure cane sugar.
As the name suggests, you feel like you’ve left your regular life and gone on vacation. Holiday is the newest offering from Richard McCormick, somewhat of a celebrity chef in Helsinki who owns the regarded restaurants Sandro and The Cock. The bar is set along the water on the island of Katajanokka, which sounds more exotic than it is. Helsinki has 300 islands, and this one is connected by a footbridge just off the Central Market. It’s light and airy, decorated with palm frond prints on the walls and with doors that open to its outdoor terrace. The drinks menu changes with the season but also offers a perennial list of Gin & Tonics.