When Odd Strandbakken was asked to join the team at HIMKOK, he said no thank you. Twice. After leaving his home country of Norway to work in bars around the world, he had no plans to return to Oslo—or to Scandinavia at all, for that matter. Plus, after a year in Berlin, he felt established, happy.
“I was honored, of course, and very impressed by the team and the bar,” he explains, “but I had good coworkers and a great salary. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave.”
It was only after returning home for the holidays to visit family did he decide to venture down the Oslo side street to the 19th-century brick building where HIMKOK is located. He wanted to see it for himself, quickly realizing that this was, in fact, the place he had to be.
So he moved, and brought with him not only his spirit of innovation and refined expertise, but also an intimate familiarity and affinity for Norwegian flavors that can only come from having grown up there.
“My family has a long history of hunting, fishing and gathering,” Strandbakken tells us. “It’s a unique part of who I am as absolutely, 100% Norwegian. So I wanted to showcase all the bright and amazing flavors that you can find in Norway, because it would be a shame not to show it off.”
So Strandbakken began experimenting with local ingredients—red currants, Norwegian walnuts, truffle seaweed, plum wine. And over time, HIMKOK developed its identity as what the World’s 50 Best has lauded as “a true bar with a conscience.”
Fast forward to today and HIMKOK, the number 19 bar in the world, serves upwards of 200,000 cocktails a year. They boast an on-site micro distillery where up to 80% of the spirits are produced, in addition to making their own wine, bitters, liqueurs and mead. And just last year, they were awarded the inaugural Ketel One Sustainable Award—a recognition of the bar’s local ethos as much as its innovative partnerships designed to minimize waste.
Take the local cheesemaker, for example, who may have residual whey but not enough to market it as a powdered supplement. In that case, he’ll gift it to Strandbakken, who’ll promptly repurpose it into a cocktail for the benefit of its lactic acid, a replacement for an all-too-common bar ingredient that Strandbakken explains would be “insane and unsustainable” to fly in every week from around the world: lime.
Or maybe there’s a case where he just needs the liquid that comes in the chickpea can (known as aquafaba) but not the actual chickpeas. Why not partner with a local restaurant?
Strandbakken even tells us that he has a cousin who runs a sourdough bakery and vacuum-seals any residual byproduct for HIMKOK to infuse in their signature sourdough bread toasted cocktail.
“These are some of the most interesting ingredients we have,” Strandbakken says, referring to the fruits of his neighborhood partnerships. “It’s all about looking at it from different angles, because we are in a luxury industry. Nobody needs cocktails, but it’s important for people who want to celebrate or taste something they’ve never tried before. So we try and look at it from different angles.”
Having created his first non-alcoholic cocktail at age nine, Strandbakken has had quite some time to hone his style as a bartender.
“My mom made an apron for me with a sailing boat on it, and all I wanted was to have a cupboard full of drinking straws,” he recalls, laughing. “Because everything’s better with straws… at least for a nine-year-old.”
Strandbakken went off to school to study English Language and Literature as well as religion, which he approached from a social anthropological perspective: why people are religious and how this “greatest invention that is manmade” has been the root of both love and hate in the world, both bringing people together and tearing them apart.
It was during this time that he got his first job as a bartender. Arguably another expression of this same fascination with human connection, it brought him out of his shell, allowed him to meet new friends—”even a few girlfriends,” he jokes. And he became hooked.
Determined to pursue a career in the industry, Strandbakken decided to move to the North Pole—or at least as close to the North Pole as you can go—which meant Longyearbyen it was. This town, nestled deep inside the Arctic Circle in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, has a population hovering around 2,500 during high season… of humans, that is. The number of polar bears at any given time? 3,000.
And yet, Strandbakken insists that his destination of choice wasn’t quite as shocking as some may assume. Norwegians were the first in the North and South Pole; it’s a significant part of their cultural history and something that everyone learns about in school. Plus, as Strandbakken explains, it’s easy to have a good life living up north and earn enough money to see the world.
So after four years running two hotel bars and marveling at the beauty of the Northern Lights, he did just that.
His first stop was London, then backpacking through the Scottish Highlands. He spent time in Ireland to learn about distillery and beer making before heading off to America, spending half the year in California and half on the East Coast. From there, the Caribbean, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, Mexico and France. He spent a few months volunteering in Sri Lanka before his friends eventually convinced him that he needed to go to Berlin. So he gave it a try, and a year later found himself in the unlikeliest of final destinations: home.
Today, if you venture into HIMKOK, you’ll be greeted by a bar devoid of any brand loyalties—an intentional decision on Strandbakken’s part to avoid subconscious persuasion one way or another.
“We want you to be open and talk to us. Do you want something refreshing, bitter, boozy, herbal? It’s about the conversation,” he explains. “If the only cocktail someone has loved is a mai tai, of course they’re going to ask for a mai tai. But that doesn’t mean that’s always the right choice, and it’s our job as bartenders and bar managers to create something interesting and sell it.”
Experimentation is the modus operandi at HIMKOK, but that doesn’t mean every cocktail Strandbakken dreams up is a success—an inevitable byproduct of an inherently creative process. Recalling a time he made a green onion and charred leek cocktail, Strandbakken tells us, laughing, that “everyone had bad breath after drinking it.”
“I miss that cocktail so bad, and people still come in and ask if it’s on the menu!”
Strandbakken has a theory that the quality of the water in any given country affects the taste of the cocktail. Drawing from the concept of terroir—which is typically used in reference to the grape harvest to denote the combination of factors both geographic (i.e. climate, soil, topography, horticulture) and abstract (i.e. culture, relationship with the land) imparting a unique taste profile to wine—Strandbakken is keen on applying this same principle to cocktails after noticing that none of the drinks he made outside of Norway tasted the same. “Not better or worse,” he says, “but different.”
Indeed not many cities rival Oslo in proximity to nature, where a 15-minute tram ride brings you into the forest to fish, gather mushrooms, pick wild berries and access natural sources of what Strandbakken tells us is “amazing, crystal-clean water.”And with ice as the most important ingredient in any cold drink, used both for dilution and chilling, it stands to reason that a signature Norwegian cocktail made with the same precise measurements would taste different when made at a New York bar, where the water “has a slight chemical taste—very clean, but not naturally clean,” Strandbakken observes.
But then again, he wouldn’t go to New York (where the cocktails come with “big, bold, punchy flavors”) in pursuit of the same light and floral cocktails he’s made in Norway, and not just because the quality of the water renders flavor consistency impossible.
“I want to try the local things,” he says. “I’m not going to Japan to have pizza, for example. I want to go to Italy to have pizza. And the same goes for cocktails. I’d never focus on Mexican flavors in the Nordics because I won’t get the best produce, or even the best tequila or rum. I’d go to Mexico for that.”
Itching to try one of Strandbakken's signature cocktails for yourself? Let your Journy trip designer know, and s/he will be sure to include HIMKOK in your custom-built itinerary.
For more Scandinavian cocktail inspiration, check out these five cocktail bars worth a trip to Copenhagen.