Behind the Bar Stick People

Selma Slabiak on Aquavit and Hygge

Beth Kleinpeter

Hygge is arguably the hottest buzzword of the moment—a Danish word meant to evoke the coziness of home and loved ones. It’s not often a word associated with nightlife, but it’s just right for the undeniably homey Edda Bar, located beneath Brooklyn’s lauded Scandinavian restaurant, Aska.

Here, Selma Slabiak, the head bartender for both Aska and Edda, has created an unusual space. For starters, it’s one of the few bar programs in the U.S. with a heavy focus on aquavit. It also has no proper bar space, just a kitchen hidden behind a curtain and a few bottles on the wall, while Slabiak flits from table to candlelit table, making conversation and dropping drinks like a host at a dimly lit house party, while guests snuggle into the sofa cushions.

Edda Bar. Charlie Bennet

The Denmark native grew up in Thurø, an island in the south of the country that she describes as “very rural and traditional.” There, her family has worked in the hospitality industry for generations, she says, with many working at castle in Denmark’s countryside for well over a century. “My great-grandparents met there, my grandparents work there, my mom still works there,” she says.

After attending art school in Denmark (while she also worked at restaurants and bars), she moved to New York City, spending four years working at Donna in Brooklyn. When chef and owner Fredrik Berselius re-opened his acclaimed Nordic-influenced restaurant, Aska, in July 2016, in a spacious new warehouse space near the Williamsburg Bridge, Slabiak was brought in to oversee the bar.

The Gefion, made with Ramazzotti amaro, sparkling wine, nasturtium leaves and fermented bedstraw. Charlie Bennet

At Aska, it’s about creating cocktail and nonalcoholic drink menus to complement the Nordic-by-way-of-NYC fare. The local, seasonal focus extends from the kitchen straight through to the bar, and Slabiak accompanies the chef to the farmers’ market three days a week to scout for ingredients.

Compared to the grand open room and marathon-like tasting menu experience upstairs, Edda Bar is deliberately “more laid-back,” says Slabiak. “Our vision for it would be to have a feeling of you going to someone’s house and they’re cooking for you and making drinks for you—a living room kind of feel.”

Aquavit at Edda Bar. Beth Kleinpeter

In general, the experience enjoying food and drink with good company in a cozy, candlelit space is “a very Scandinavian thing,” she says. “We have a word for that: hygge. You’re in the moment and enjoying this now with good people. It’s a feeling of sitting down and everything is just right. We’re really trying to bring the feeling of hygge to everyone.”

In part, that’s accomplished by removing the physical obstacle of the bar. Instead, Slabiak prepares ingredients ahead of time in a small kitchen space, such as roasting and juicing beets or other fruits and vegetables, pre-mixing cocktails and setting them in the freezer to chill.

“We don’t work with anything that’s not either indigenous to this area or to Scandinavia, so there’s no citrus,” she says. “ All of our cocktails are stirred or mixed together. I freeze all my cocktails for a beautiful texture and mouthfeel that I personally enjoy in cocktails.” Preparing the drinks ahead also gives her time to “host,” she adds—a telling word to use in this living-room-like space.

The Edda cocktail. Charlie Bennet

Another hallmark of Edda’s drink program is its emphasis on aquavit, Scandinavia’s caraway-accented white spirit. In addition to a wide range of commercial bottlings, such as Iceland’s Brennivín and Norway’s Linie, about 20 custom infusions are on offer, made with ingredients ranging from earthy pine mushroom (“it tastes like the forest right after it rains in the fall,”) to tangy orange-tinged sea buckthorn to amaro-like black walnut. Many of these are used in cocktails, such as the Martini-like Edda cocktail, made with Brennivín aquavit infused with liquefied Baltic amber, along with Perry’s Tot Navy-strength gin, Dolin blanc vermouth and Björk birch liqueur.

“Amber has been known as Nordic gold and used medicinally in Scandinavia for thousands of years,” says Slabiak. “We found a distillery that helped take 22- to 30-million-year-old amber from the Baltic sea, where I grew up, and liquefied that, distilled that into a liquid, so we could put that into a drink. So you’re drinking probably the world’s oldest cocktail.”