Introducing Odd Strandbakken, Bar Manager at HIMKOK, an Oslo-based bar that features regularly in The World’s 50 Best Bars list (of which we’re proud partners 😎).
As well as being a cocktail-making marvel, it’s possible Odd might just be the coolest person on the planet. If you don’t believe us, just wait until you find out what he did during lockdown!
For the third and final edition of our 'Welcome Back Serve' series, we asked Odd to develop his own special cocktail to celebrate the return of customers to HIMKOK. There was only one rule – the serve had to include Naked Malt. The rest was up to him…
Scroll down to discover Odd’s story and his stunning Naked creation 👇.
So Odd, let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into the industry?
I started at an English pub in the middle of Norway about 14 and a half years ago. It was there I met an Australian bloke who had lived in Leeds and been part of the cocktail revolution. He taught me all these modern cocktails that nobody in Norway had tried before, which got me in a position that I could move to Longyearbyen in Svalbard.
Longyearbyen is the northern most city in the world, deep into the Arctic Circle, where there are more polar bears than humans! I worked there for 4 years and eventually earned enough money to travel and see the world.
I spent 6 months in the UK, 6 months in the US, 2 months in Mexico, 2 months in Cuba, 1 month in Trinidad and Tobago, then went to Sri Lanka for 6 months. From there I went to France, then did a year in Berlin. All of this was just to learn about the process of making spirits or wine or beer, to see different restaurants and experience different cocktail cultures. It was a fantastic journey, I learned so much from amazing bartenders all over the world.
At that time, I felt like I’d kind of said goodbye to Scandinavia forever…
Did you visit Scotland on your travels?
Of course! I had to visit Speyside. I walked from distillery to distillery with all my belongings wearing a watertight backpack and a full length poncho – I knew it was going to rain!
I remember in this one town there was a Scotsman hanging outside a pub with a cigarette in his mouth. He saw me coming through the rain with all my gear and he yelled, “Here comes a Scotsman!” I told him I was actually Norwegian, and he looked at me and said, “Same thing, come in!”
I got to know all the locals and had the greatest time.
How did you end up becoming Bar Manager at HIMKOK?
I was working in Berlin when the owners of HIMKOK wandered in. I speak a little Turkish so attempted to speak to them, and they told me that when I spoke Turkish, I sounded Norwegian.
When I told them I was Norwegian, they said it was impossible because they knew every Norwegian bartender. All except one, apparently! One thing led to another and they invited me to join the team, and I’ve been at HIMKOK for 5 years now. It’s been a great journey.
Tell us about HIMKOK, what makes it so special?
We focus completely on Scandinavian culture and flavour. It’s hard to get products that are considered cool or new or revolutionary in Norway - they usually take about 20 years to get here, if they come at all! So we have to create it ourselves.
We find new solutions and techniques, new ways to make our own substitutes. We have an in-house distillery (pictured below) and produce 85% of the spirits that we use in cocktails on-site, which is very cool.
However, when it comes to good whisky, rum or tequilas, we choose the best, which is why our pouring whisky is Naked.
When we use a foreign brand like Naked, we still try to highlight Scandinavian flavours by taking something we find in the flavour combination and highlighting it. So the spirit actually highlights what we want to showcase, while still representing Scandinavia.
(More on this when we get to Odd’s Welcome Back Serve).
We’re always trying to be innovative and different here. Like, for example, we recently had the first ever NFT cocktail menu, which was a lot of fun. It’s a really exciting place to work, and we’re all very proud of what we’re doing here.
What was lockdown like?
We had 8 months of complete lockdown here in Norway, so it was rough. But we also got the time to calm down, to rethink what we’re doing, to focus on new ingredients and new ideas. This strange time gave me more perspective on what we’re actually doing, what bartending actually is.
I feel like we came out of lockdown a lot stronger.
How did you keep busy?
I started a hot sauce company with my wife. It’s called Alpha Omega (check out the Instagram page here) which has been challenging but brilliant. We’ve currently got two sauces available called Cayenne West and Hadabanero, with a third one coming soon called Godfather.
My wife Alyssa (who we spoke to last year for International Women’s Day) had made fermented hot sauce before for some of her cocktails, and everyone was excited about it. So when lockdown happened, we thought why not? It’s aimed mainly at bartenders, but it’s great on food too. Dash it on your eggs and you’re ready to go.
I also made a citrus juice alternative. It has the same pH level, same sugar level and same protein levels that you find in citrus juice, but it just doesn’t have that lemony flavour that can, in my opinion, ruin a cocktail. The idea is that it lets you acidify a cocktail without that dominant lemon flavour. We’re currently talking to Innovation Norway to see if we can get it backed and supplied all around Norway.
I also took 3 different courses, one of them being a food chemistry course at Harvard which was amazing.
Oh, and Alyssa opened an American whiskey bar called Marlow in Oslo and I helped out there. Because they served food, they could open a month before us, so I helped out with the launch of that. It’s going really well which is great (check out their Instagram here).
Is there anything you didn’t miss during those 8 months?
Nope. I’m so in love with this industry. This is the only thing I want to do. I’ve known that since I made my first mocktail for my mum aged 9. It’s always been about flavour combinations for me, I’m not sure why, but it has.
What do you love so much about cocktails?
It’s the uniqueness of it all. Only being able to have this one drink from one set of hands. I love discovering hidden combinations of flavour, I love meeting people, I love making people smile when they try something I’ve made. I love everything about it.
Do you use Naked Malt a lot in your cocktails?
Yes, it’s the pouring Scotch here. One of the best things, and one of the reasons we all love it in cocktails, is because it has so many flavour compounds due to the double aging. It just works with so many flavours and products.
With that in mind, tell us about your Welcome Back Serve…
It’s called Flora, and it’s a variation on a classic Bobby Burns.
During lockdown, I made a new Amaro based on Norwegian cherries, honey, rhododendron and 8 other botanicals, which all build up under the Naked Malt and red vermouth combo. Together, they have a completely new flavour, which reminds people of their childhood when they drink it.
Sounds amazing! How do you make it?
We take 30ml of Naked Malt, 30ml of Cocchi Torino and 15ml of the Cherry & Honey HIMKOK Amaro, then stir and strain into a coupe glass. It’s then garnished with lemon zest and Maraschino cherry.
It’s on the menu at the moment and proving very popular!
That was our third and final Welcome Back Serve - if you missed the first two you can find them here and here.
You can keep up with Odd’s adventures by following him on Instagram (@oddstrandbakken).
Since this interview was recorded, Odd has embarked on a new journey with Alyssa, so watch this space...
We wish him the best of luck, but judging by his career so far, he certainly won’t need it!
The Naked Team