It’s been almost 10 years since I first ambled across Copenhagen’s charming cobblestone streets in search of the original Mikkeller bar and other lesser-known microbrews. Since then, my stops in the Danish capital have grown in frequency and length, and my ventures have taken me deeper into the depths of Scandinavia, with me always learning from more knowledgeable peers.
In that time, modern Scandinavian culture has continued to entice individuals from across the globe. From mid-century design aficionados to fashion lovers and, most recently, foodies, the influence and impact of the simplicity and functionality born from Scandinavian creativity grew an audience of visitors.
Now, Scandinavia finds itself influencing the drinks world, too. Forget images of Viking hordes skolling mead after a bloody raid. Modern Scandinavian drinking culture is based on building community. Ask around about how to drink like a Scandinavian, and you’ll find that from Oslo to Jutland and beyond, the culture prides itself on socializing and local ingredients, along with the type of cozy comfort often associated with the Danish word “hygge.” Here, we explore what it truly means to drink like a Scandinavian so you’re ready when you finally book that trip.
Start with Skål
There are many toasting traditions around the world, and Scandinavia is no different.
“In Denmark, Sweden and Norway we have many words in common, both in spelling and in pronunciation,” explains Alex Munch, co-founder of Danish whisky distillery Stauning in Skjern, Denmark. “Skål is one of them and is our word for cheers.”
He explains that skål is supposedly derived from the word for a kind of bowl and goes back to the time of the Vikings. “They fill it with beverages and let all drink from it so they can have their own skål,” Munch says. “Originally the toast belonged to the pagan festivals where the Vikings sacrificed their livestock to the Nordic gods.”
He continues, “At [modern] parties, it is common to propose a toast. For the just married couple, for the birthday boy or birthday girl or just for a happy life. The skål is very inclusive, leaving nobody behind because—in drinking—we are all equal.”
There’s a very specific way to skål with your drinking partners when sipping in Scandinavia: “The ritual of skål-ing where one raises a glass of akvavit with panache, look[s] intently at their drinking companion, down[s] the glass and return[s] to eye contact is almost its own mode of communication, expressing many things without uttering a word,” says Lars Williams, co-founder, CEO, chef and distiller of Danish-American flavor company Empirical.
Drink with Community
It’s rare you’ll find a Scandinavian sitting at a bar solo. Group outings are the way of life and sharing your glass with those you love is essential to the Nordic experience.
“The key word in drinking like a Scandinavian is community,” says Munch. “We love to drink together with our families, friends or colleagues and we look forward to it for many days, not to say weeks.”
And this desire to pour a beverage with your community extends into all social outlets, too. “Companies organize Friday bars for their staff to unwind at the end of the week,” explains Williams.
Paul Aguilar, head of flavor research and development at Oslo’s Himkok adds, “overall, drinking like a Scandinavian means enjoying a drink in a social setting.”
Embrace Designated Drinking Days
In American culture, weekends tend to be prime drinking time, but Scandinavian imbibers don’t limit themselves to Friday and Saturday nights. Another great Danish term is lille fredag, which translates to “little Friday.” This refers to “Thursdays that feel like a Friday, and when it is therefore deemed acceptable to have a few drinks without guilt,” explains Williams.
Additionally, the European region even has designated days to celebrate together with beers in hand. “One of the most important dates on the Danish calendar, J-Dag, is the day celebrating the yearly launch of the Christmas beer,” says Williams. “The whole country gets giddy, dressed up and celebrates in the bars and streets.”
Cozy up with Hygge Spaces
At the region’s top watering holes, it’s apparent that designing homey, welcoming spaces guests want to return to again and again is a priority. There’s a “focus on creating a comfortable and inviting atmosphere without clutter or unnecessary embellishments,” says Aguilar.
Bars often concentrate on the use of natural materials such as wood, stone and leather to help create a warm and inviting vibe that feels connected to the surrounding environment. This follows the Danish concept of hygge “that roughly translates to ‘coziness’ or ‘comfort,’” explains Aguilar. “This can be achieved through the use of warm lighting, comfortable seating and natural elements like plants or artwork.”
Copenhagen-based bar Ruby executes this principle flawlessly.“Ruby is set in an old apartment and as such, it has to have an element of coziness,” General Manager Michael Hajiyianni explains“The key to the design is having no bad seats, every table has something to look at whether that be a cabinet, art or furniture.”
Order Like a Scandinavian
Once you have the right space, a community to celebrate with and the proper skål down, it’s time to order like a local.
The Scandinavian culinary and drinks world focuses on sustainability and local ingredients. Many bars establish relationships with local farmers, foragers and producers, which provide them with fresh, high-quality ingredients that are unique to the region. Hajiyianni adds that you should try “Scandinavian spirits and produce as much as possible. There are now many great producers of many different spirits and aromatized wines.”
Aguilar notes that his bar also sources spirits and liqueurs from local distilleries and breweries to support the local economy and reduce its overall environmental impact. When selecting ingredients, he prioritizes local and fresh produce, as well as foraged ingredients like berries and herbs that are abundant in the Norwegian countryside (think dill, parsley, tarragon, horseradish, elderflower and more).
A similar approach can be found at Ruby. “When it comes to our menu, we work mainly with local farms and we have a forager who sources ingredients for us,” Hajiyianni says. “We try not to use too much citrus juice from outside of Denmark. Instead, we like to use apple and sea buckthorn juice. We also make fruit vinegars, using fruit when it is at its peak and extending the shelf life. We love using whey, which is the by-product of yogurt production. It adds a lactic acidity to a drink and is great for sours.”
When it comes to brands, options like Danish whiskey producer Stauning highlight area ingredients. All ingredients used for its products, except yeast, are local or come from other places in Jutland.
“Water comes from the nearby water plant and when it is possible we reuse the water,” says Munch. “All our grains are coming from two local farms and for our smoked whisky we use heather and peat from Jutland—the peninsula where we are situated. Last year we put up solar cells to make renewable energy.”
In addition to Stauning, Hajiyianni likes to feature Empirical and many fruit wines from Cold Hand Winery on Ruby’s shelves and in its cocktails.
More important than any item on this list? Being kind to your drinking partners, which is the most Scandinavian trait of all. Remember, “Drinking like a Scandinavian is being together and sharing,” reminds Munch. “We’d rather pour the last drops in the bottle to others than drink them ourselves.”