I’ll admit it: living in New York City can inflate your food and drink standards so high that you think nothing else can compare. Sometimes, this is warranted (see: Death & Co and Eleven Madison Park). But about half of the time, our friends want us to pull our heads out of our asses and give other cities a fighting chance. Building on our recent successes finding top notch drinks in London and Israel, then, we went into our Reykjavik bar explorations in October with high hopes.
So did Iceland’s capital make the cut when it comes to having an awesome bar scene? The answer, it turns out, is more complex than we expected.
Let’s set the stage: it wasn’t legal to drink full-strength beer in Iceland until 1989.
Stop and think about that for a second. That’s only 27 years ago. As in, the age of my younger brother, Sir Campsalot. So how did this happen in a country that’s progressive in many other areas, from gender equality to renewable energy?
In the early 1900s, Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark. Because the Danes drank a lot of beer, Icelanders associated this drink with their occupiers and frowned upon alcohol in general. Between the temperance and independence movements, it wasn’t surprising that Icelanders voted in favor of outlawing alcohol in a 1908 referendum.
Prohibition in Iceland officially went into effect in 1915. Interestingly, it was Spain that started to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction: they threatened to stop buying fish, Iceland’s main export, if Iceland did not buy Spanish wines. In 1921, this pressure led Iceland to legalize red and rose wines from Spain and Portugal. Eventually, the ban on spirits was lifted in 1935.
But beer containing more than 2.25% alcohol was still illegal in Iceland after 1935. The reasoning behind this was that beer was cheaper than spirits. If beer was so cheap, they thought, it would lead to alcohol abuse and moral corruption.
(Contemporary chaotic frat parties come to mind, eh?)
As Icelanders began to travel more internationally, however, they kept encountering beer, and attitudes started to change. Finally, Iceland’s parliament voted to legalize beer, and in 1989, prohibition officially ended. March 1, 1989 is now celebrated as “Beer Day” in Iceland.
Knowing this, we originally assumed that Iceland’s beer would be watery and terrible, and its cocktails would be mediocre. But that’s not actually what we found. From the first bar we stepped into to the last, we found that Reykjavik is making great strides in the libations department.
Laugavegur 20b, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 858 0104
After a full five hours of wandering around Reykjavik waiting for our hotel room to be ready, we accidentally passed by Kaldi Bar as we shivered in the street. Lured by the prospect of beer and a warm place to sit, we ventured inside.
It turns out we couldn’t have picked a better place to begin our journey into Reykjavik’s bar scene. We received the best hospitality here of any of the bars we visited in Reykjavik; Georg took the time to listen to our preferences and found us some beer that we loved. Plus, he got us to try some brews outside of our comfort zone (sunflower flavors, anyone?). The clientele in the bar were like-minded beer aficionados, adding to the sense of camaraderie as we chatted about what we all were tasting.
Kaldi Bar, which opened in 2012, features several Kaldi beers, along with liquor and other brews. Bruggsmidjan Kaldi, where Kaldi beer is made using Czech brewing methods, traces its origins to 2003, when a fisherman living in northern Iceland suffered a knee injury which rendered him unable to continue fishing. His wife saw a report about a Danish microbrewery on the evening news one night, and voila! Their dream of opening their own Icelandic microbrewery became a reality when Bruggsmidjan Kaldi opened its doors in 2006.
(Note: the entrance to this bar is on Klapparstígur.)
Laugavegur 20a, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 552 2300
After a long day of exploring Iceland’s Golden Circle via tour bus, we arrived back at our hotel too late for most restaurants to serve dinner. (As a side note, be sure to make dinner reservations ahead of time, especially if you’ll be in Reykjavik during the weekend.) Sheer desperation led us to crave succulent, juicy burgers, so we followed our noses around the block and ran smack into Lebowski Bar.
And oh, what a burger. But even more, what a freakin’ cool bar. You’ve got to love a theme bar that goes all in, and Lebowski Bar truly delivers on this front. We felt like we went through a time warp and somehow wound up on the set of the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult film during an acid trip. A page and a half of various White Russians on their menu? A jukebox and retro kitsch decor?
Yeah, well. The Dude abides.
Matarkjallarinn (Food Cellar)
Aðalstræti 2, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 558 0000
As its English name implies, this spot is actually a restaurant–one that’s serving up food on par with New York City. Think slow-cooked cod with green asparagus, smoked lamb, and langoustine hollandaise; crispy pork belly with red cabbage, wild mushrooms, and celeriac; or a scrumptious chocolate dessert with raspberries and hot salted caramel sauce (pictured above).
Ironically, the only reason we happened upon this place is that, yet again, we couldn’t find another restaurant that would take diners this late without a reservation on a Sunday night. (Notice a theme here? Seriously, people, make your dinner reservations in Reykjavik BEFORE your plane takes off.) Our hotel staff suggested Food Cellar for dinner; normally, I take these recs with a grain of salt, but this one turned out to be spot on.
Not only was the meal memorable for us, but surprisingly, so were the cocktails.
We ordered two cocktails from the “Competition Cocktails” section on their drinks list, based on the assumption that these would be the best.
Angelica’s Tradition, pictured below, proved to be one of our favorite cocktails of the trip. It included bourbon, angelica syrup, and Bittermens El Tiki.
I’d heard tales of a mysterious spirit known by the name of “Black Death”–or, more accurately, brennivín–while watching one of Zane Lamprey’s TV shows. This spirit is actually a clear, unsweetened schnapps which is flavored with caraway (i.e., similar to anise).
Once we saw the Black Frog cocktail on the menu, we knew we had to order it. The drink–which featured brennivín, limoncello, and cumin syrup–wasn’t as terrible as we thought it would be. The licorice taste of the brennivín came through aplenty, but didn’t completely overpower the drink, making it quite palatable. Extra points for the frog design, though!
Mýrargata 2, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 560 8080
We had pretty high expectations for Slippbarinn, meaning “Shipyard Bar.” That’s because Slippbarinn holds the distinction of being Reykjavik’s first cocktail bar. But does “first” equal “the best”?
Maybe it was because it was a Sunday. Maybe it was because it was an odd time of day went we went. Or maybe it was because the staff seemed preoccupied with the patrons at the bar instead of the tables, where we sat. But whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed with Slippbarinn on this visit.
The drinks we had weren’t bad; they were definitely tasty. But the trouble began when we attempted to order our drinks. Slippbarinn’s menu (pictured below) is one of the most creative I’ve seen yet. When I saw the ingredients for one drink listed as “bourbon, lemon, ginger, honey, and mint,” I excitedly ordered it. “I’ll have the 2200 drink, please,” I said.
The server stared at me blankly. “What are you talking about?” she asked, cocking her head.
I pointed to the drink I was trying to order. “This one, the 2200. That’s the word that’s listed above the ingredients.”
She scoffed. “You mean the Ginger Gets Honeys,” she said. “2200 is the price.”
Doh. Lesson learned: the drink names are in bubble letters on this menu. (To be fair, the drink menu does change, so when you visit this bar, dear reader, you will likely encounter a different menu. Just make sure to study it carefully!)
Menu difficulties aside, the drinks themselves were good, but we both agreed that they weren’t as memorable as other places we’ve been to in New York or even Reykjavik. Still, we would visit again on a weekend to see if our visit was just a fluke.
Bergstaðastræti 1, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 551 1588
O, Kaffibarinn, we hardly knew ye. We went into thou midst to order a pint, but were banished for taking one measly photo without a flash. While we support bars’ rights to not have pesky photographers afoot and causing mayhem, we do wish that we had sampled more of drinks of thine. Tis a pity.
Austurstræti 16, Capital Region 101, Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 551 0011
In this case, we actually did save the best for last. Apotek served us the best cocktails that we had in Reykjavik, hands down. The staff were friendly and engaging, helping us to find cocktails that fit exactly what we were looking for.
We visited during happy hour, which was a lifesaver for our wallets. All of the cocktails were half price, which allowed us to get two drinks instead of one.
We ordered four drinks:
- Rodaberg – G-wine gin, elderflower liqueur, pink grapefruit juice, lime juice, sugar, strawberry puree, egg white, thyme
- Hekla – Reyka vodka, butterscotch liqueur, pink grapefruit juice, green tea syrup, yuzu
- Dillagin – Dill-infused gin, mango liqueur, lime juice, sugar, and bitters
- Black Cherry Bijou – Red Stag bourbon, avocado, passion fruit syrup, vanilla syrup, lime juice, ginger
The Black Cherry Bijou is a bit more of an acquired taste, as the avocado turned the drink into the consistency of a smoothie, making it harder to drink. But all four drinks were beautifully presented, creative, and delicious. We’d return to Apotek in a heartbeat for some of Reykjavik’s best cocktails.
Final Notes on the Bar Scene in Reykjavik
We encountered both hits and misses during our exploration of Reykjavik’s bars. All in all, though, Reykjavik is starting to catch up to the craft cocktail and craft beer scenes from other cities. Apotek and Kaldi Bar are particular standouts here that we highly recommend.
In the meantime, here are some pro tips to help you get the most out of your time at the bars in Reykjavik:
- Try to hit up happy hour. It’s no secret that everything, from drinks to food and beyond, is expensive in Iceland. Going during happy hour will definitely lessen the impact on your wallet.
- Use the Reykjavik Appy Hour app to search for deals. You can find it here.
- Don’t discount the duty-free store at Keflavik airport. We were able to purchase small bottles of brennivín for a pretty good discount at the airport.
- Bring your own booze. If you’re really ambitious, you can actually take alcohol with you in your checked bag! Check the Keflavik Airport website to see specific regulations.
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