HELSINKI, Finland — They're a melancholy lot, these Finns, and they'll readily sigh and say so, even before the first shot is poured.
Radical weather that veers from 24-hour sunlight to weeks of near-constant darkness and arthritic cold, with oodles of gloom in between, warps the soul. So does being squeezed geographically, politically and culturally between those ever-so-fun Swedes and Russians.
Such a doomed legacy apparently drives a people to distill liquor out of pine tar and obscure berries and decorate their watering holes with reindeer antlers and Soviet army gear. It causes them to rumba and rap and ruminate over the connections between native classical composer Sibelius and local heavy-metal meisters Lordi. And of course, it makes them lose control of their ää's, ööö's and üüüü's.
But happily for tourists, it also has inspired entrepreneurs to create a diverse, distinctive and spirit-lifting urban nightlife scene that simply must be ingested to be believed — preferably in the deadest dead of Scandinavian winter. Only connoisseurs of the ödd need venture forth.
If you're flying Finnair, you can ease into your mission on the trans-Atlantic flight, where in business class they offer mini-bottles of Lakka, a golden liqueur derived from cloudberries. What else would you drink at 35,000 feet, if not essence of cloudberry? It's cough-syrup sweet and therefore ideal for washing away the taste of too-ripe smoked salmon.
After touching down (most likely in fog), you can plot your Nordic night-crawl. The options are said to be more glamorous in Stockholm and more exotic in Tallinn, Estonia. But Helsinki, which competes with those nearby capitals for tourists from Japan, Russia, Germany, Canada and the USA, has the edge in numbers. The city's center boasts several dozen out-of-the-ordinary bars, cocktail lounges, nightclubs and performance venues, along with dozens more standard-issue places, all serving a metro area population of 1 million.
"In the past, we (Finland) haven't been too successful in things, but that's changing now," says Anders Westerholm, 26, who, with business partner Matti Sarkkinen, owns a nightlife magazine, a Japanese restaurant and Vinyl, a cocktail lounge/record shop. "During the past five years, people have been putting up many bars, restaurants and design shops — young people doing places for other young people."
Insiders tout the places with the coolest DJs (Redrum, We Got Beef), glitziest interiors (Lux, Ahjo Club, members-only Bläk) and gayest clientele (DTM, Lost & Found). But the uniqueness of the city's scene emerges only if one pokes around the edges: