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NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Finns drink hard" confides Timo Siitonen, bartender and managing director at A21 Cocktail Lounge (www.a21.fi/) in Helsinki. This is especially the case during the long summer days, when the midnight sun encourages tipplers to go for the long haul.
Cocktail culture is still nascent in Finland's capital, where denizens are fond of beer and the ready-mixed "Gin Long Drink" (Lonkero) originally developed for the Helsinki Summer Olympics in 1952. The canned mix, which some liken to gin blended with carbonated grapefruit soda, is "the world's first alcopop," says Siitonen.
However, in Siitonen's opinion, "Cocktail culture is growing rapidly, which is changing the landscape of the whole drinking culture."
On a cocktail crawl in Helsinki, expect to find Finland's two iconic spirits, Koskenkorva (or Kossu), a clear spirit distilled from barley, similar to vodka, and Jaloviina (cognac cut with water). Typically, locals enjoy these liquors with soda water (Kossuvissy) or Coca-Cola (Jallucola). Siitonen notes that "These are not cocktails, but drinks."
A handful of Helsinki bars, including A21, are finding more creative ways to use these spirits. Housed within a restaurant, this venue takes a culinary approach, utilizing traditional Finnish ingredients such as birch, sea buckthorn and cloudberry jam to transform stalwart Jaloviina into the more contemporary Sea Buckthorn Sour (see recipe below), and Kosenkorva into the acclaimed rhubarb-spiked Rhuba Martini.
Elsewhere, Siitonen recommends Kämp Bar (here), a tranquil café/bar space located in the opulent Hotel Kämp, and Grotesk (www.grotesk.fi/), a stylish bar and restaurant housed in the former home of a Helsinki newspaper (the name is a type of font).
American Bar (here) at Sokos Hotel Torni (Helsinki's oldest landmark and the only "skyscraper" in the city) also makes his shortlist. It's known for well-made but particularly pricey cocktails as well as wines and Champagne: Bring the corporate credit card. But business travelers may find one aspect of this bar particularly welcoming: It opens at 4pm, one of the few to do so.
"There is no real after-work culture in Finland," Siitonen explains - a foreign concept for many accustomed to unwinding with colleagues after a long workday.
RECIPE: Sea Buckthorn Sour
(Courtesy of Timo Siitonen, A21 Bar)
Sea buckthorn (sometimes spelled "buckthorne") is a plant with vibrant orange berries which have a tart-sweet flavor some compare to sour oranges mixed with pineapple. They're also said to be rich in antioxidants and other nutrients. 3 bar spoons Finnish Sea Buckthorn jam 4 cl fresh orange juice 4 cl Jaloviina (traditional Finnish cut cognac) 3 dashes orange bitters
Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into rocks glass. Serve over fresh ice. Garnish: Orange slice or fresh Sea Buckthorn berries
Editing by Peter Myers and Paul Casciato