“A lot of the bartenders in Copenhagen are great nerds,” says Thomas Raae, who just days ago opened Holmens Kanal near the Royal Danish Theater. It’s his third bar in Denmark’s capital (Frederiksberg’s cocktail outpost Salon 39 and whimsical tiki bar Brass Monkeys are his, too). “They are really dedicated—attending [cocktail] seminars and schools all the time.” At Holmens Kanal, behind a 40-foot mahogany bar surrounded by one-of-a-kind lamps imported from Portugal, Raae’s bar nerds are sticking to classic beverages his guests can trust: like a solid Sea Breeze or a nightcap-ready Negroni.
That Copenhagen is now swimming in cocktail bars and devoted mixologists might come as a shock, considering the city’s (and Denmark’s) beer-swilling reputation. The idea that a Dane would pay more than twice the money for a drink that’s usually less than half the size of a bottle of Carlsberg was a laughable one. But fortune favors the brave, and this cocktail explosion might not have ever happened if not for Kirsten Holm’s drive around Scotland. “I thought it was odd that a tiny town in Scotland [like Perth] could have at least one cocktail bar, and Copenhagen being a capital did not have a proper one at all,” says Holm, the founder of what is considered Copenhagen’s first cocktail bar K-Bar, which opened back in 2004.
Her low-slung lounge’s martinis, Old Fashions and the like, attracted the expat community along with well-traveled Danes who needed a break from malt and hops. The rest—as they say—is history. Since Holm started K-Bar a decade ago and before Raae opened his third location last week, many more highly lauded cocktail destinations have popped up all over Copenhagen. Some credit this to Danish travelers who drank cocktails in London or New York; while even more attribute the rise of mixed drinks to Mad Men, where advertising hotshots always hobnob with cocktails in their hands.
“Mad Men became super popular in Denmark, and suddenly we bartenders started getting requests for Old Fashions,” says Phillip Binau, who worked behind the bars of Copenhagen restaurants before taking on a managerial post at Balthazar (pictured above), a glamorous Art Deco-inspired, jazz-playing champagne bar—the first in Denmark—that opened in April 2012 in a space adjacent to then-renovating Hotel d’Angleterre. It’s been a hit with the international media set as well as affluent locals who come for fizzy cocktails that marry upscale champagne from the likes of Ruinart, Guy Charlemagne and Benoit Lahaye with fruits, herbs and liqueurs.
Balthazar opened at the height of Copenhagen’s culinary boom, when boundary-pushing restaurants exposed Danes to newer and newer food and drink concepts. “Traditionally, Danes may not be champagne drinkers,” Binau says. “But the increasing visits to restaurants over the last four years have turned them into amateur specialists in both wine and food. [Plus,] doesn’t everyone love champagne?”
If you don’t, head to year-old Vesterbro bar Lidkoeb’s just debuted seating-only area on the third floor that specializes strictly in whisky-based concoctions. It’s in fact the most straight-forward section of the bar, which is housed in a difficult-to-find 18th-century apothecary behind a supermarket. The first-floor, a design-driven space, is perfect for pre-gaming with a pretzel as you lounge about by a lightly blazing fireplace. The second floor offers up a cocktail-only menu and features a broodier ambience. The whisky bar up top is done up real dark, with minimal lighting, vintage leather couches and pharmacy bottle displays—it’s like a private club for mustachioed doctors and Lidkoeb’s pièce-de-résistance. “With the whiskey bar, we basically just went a little selfish and created something we would love ourselves,” says general manager Morten Raun. “And what’s better than a whisky boozer, Tom Waits on the stereo and a nice and cozy atmosphere?”
That Lidkoeb is always impossibly crowded is no surprise as it’s the brainchild of the folks behind another Copenhagen cocktail institution: Ruby’s, a six-year-old speakeasy-type inside an old Town House decorated with Chesterfield sofas and hanging chandeliers, is largely regarded as the best bar in town. Here classic potions are matched by seasonal cocktails like an intriguing Fall 2013 find, the Pistachioso, a nutty and potent medley of grappa, chocolate liqueur and pistachio puree.
Ruby has been a real gem for Copenhagen’s buzzing cocktail culture as many of its star bartenders have now gone off to strike out on their own boozy projects. In April 2013, Kasper Riewe Henriksen opened Duck & Cover, a subterranean boite five minutes away from Lidkoeb. Henriksen’s menu changes every three weeks (sometimes sooner) and boasts drinks with very few things going into it. “A good cocktail with two to four ingredients has always impressed me more than one with 10 odd ingredients,” he explains. To that end, try one of his bestsellers, Zacapa Enhanced, which has no more than three components: Zacapa 23 rum, port reduction and 100% arabica coffee powder.
Holmens Kanal 7
Drink this: The Flamingo Fizz, a gin-based drink with pomegranate juice, fresh lemon, orange flower water, cream, egg white topped with grape soda, and then garnished with raspberries and rose petals.
Ved Stranded 20
Drink this: Black White Russian, a licorice-y twist on the classic.
Ny Østergade 6
Drink this: Downtown Abbey, a combination of champagne, vodka, passion fruit and licorice.
Drink this: Lille Fortun, a shaken mixture of Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, lemon juice, simple syrup and sage then topped with Evil Twin Pale Ale.
Drink this: Rapscallion, one part PX Sherry, two parts Talisker 10 with just a dash of pastis.
DUCK & COVER
Drink this: Zacapa Enhanced, featuring Zacapa 23, port reduction and 100% arabica coffee powder.