March 5, 2008 -- 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:
Viva vengeance! Don't tell Fidel (or Raúl), but 4-month-old Cuba! is the most decadent new club on the scene. This cavernous space is grungy and the Latin house music is groovy, but the gimmicks are what spur the rebels. There's a cocktail menu highlighted by $11 "Guantanamojitos," with names such as "Bloody Communist," "Missile Crisis" and "Sparkling Revolution." For $2,175, a group of up to 10 can rent its own "Personal Jesus," who dons a robe and a long-haired wig and keeps serving those cocktails all night. Folks in need of further stress relief also can pay to destroy things: $725 for a chair, $1,450 for a table, and $725,000 for the entire interior. To date, Personal Jesus has been hired twice, and just one chair has been sacrificed. "Smashed in the stairwell," says managing partner Riku Stenros, referring, presumably, to the chair.
Cuba! Address: 4 Erottajankatu Website: cubacafe.fi
Chill factor: One could attempt the pickup line "Hey, baby, nice umlauts" at Arctic Icebar, but it won't melt any hearts. That's because the temperature is kept at 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Catering mostly to tourists, the 12-seat space in the rear of a Spanish restaurant is housed in a freezer and features a bar and tables sculpted from ice. Customers pay $14.50 to enter (one drink included) and are given a hooded thermal cape to wear while sipping cocktails such as the Raspberry Frenzy (raspberry vodka and cranberry juice).
"It's really fun to see how people connect," says bartender Esteri Löppönen, who notes that the bar draws about 80 customers daily, most staying for about 20 minutes. Just long enough to break the ice.
Arctic IcebarAddress: 5 Yliopistonkatu Website: arcticicebar.fi
Sweat shop: At the other end of the thermal spectrum is the Sports Academy. Armchair jocks who think America rules the sports-bar genre haven't talked trash in this handsome two-story mecca, which has three bars, 66 video screens and a grill. But the coolest and hottest space in town is upstairs in the rear behind one-way windows: a sauna that seats 12. For $435 for two hours, groups of fans can get naked and bake while they munch on squid sticks, sip terva schnapps (a distillate of pine tar and honey) and watch their sport of choice on a 42-inch plasma-screen TV. The downside is that those choices might include ice hockey, soccer, snow-boarding and equestrian but not the Super Bowl (which came on at 3 a.m., just past closing time).
"We sometimes have a derivative of baseball (pesäpallo), where the pitching is underhand," says duty manager Jesse Stenius. "But I don't want to talk about it."
Sports AcademyAddress: 8 Kaivokatu Website: sportsacademy.fi
Cold war room: Oh, those artsy types. Finland's two most famous film directors, brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, are partners in a beloved lounge/cinema/pool hall complex where bohemians have moped for 15 years. At its heart is the 26-seat Kafe Moskova (or Mockba, depending on the translator), which is designed to evoke the cold old melancholy era of Leonid Brezhnev. That means a square room painted deep red and decorated with kitschy Russian dolls, a Jussi (Finland's equivalent to the Oscar) statuette, Soviet army hats and a vintage Rigonda-Bolshoi stereo console that plays vinyl records from Russian pop artists.
Patrons once threw shots of vodka against the walls for kicks, but now the drinks of choice are neatly sipped Eastern European digestives and Champagne.
Kafe MoskovaAddress: 11 Eerikinkatu Website: corona.fi
Plastic playground: Vinyl is a cool little concept that combines a lounge with a record store. The mostly young crowd can order a music-themed cocktail, choose a vinyl album from a wall rack, have the DJ give it a spin, and then buy it. The cocktails are named after pop songs, such as the Puutarhassa (by Finnish singer Pekka Streng), made from cloudberry jam, vodka, orange liqueur and apple and lime juices. "We create the drink, then we try to figure out what type of song is the drink," explains co-owner Matti Sarkkinen.
But the most intriguing offering is the $7.25 Fisu shot, found throughout the city. It's a blender drink made by mixing chilled vodka with pastilles of Fisherman's Friend, a menthol-flavored cough drop. The result looks filthy brown-black, but the taste is all fresh, Arctic icy burn. It has supplanted in popularity the similar but far more vile salmiakki shot, made from vodka and salty licorice candies.
VinylAddress: 8 Yliopistonkatu
Staar struuck: In the karaoke bar in the Royal Onnela entertainment complex, Jari Turja is celebrating his 27th birthday with a bottle of Champagne and a spurt of bravado. He has just wowed the crowd and wooed girlfriend Annika Seppä by belting out Sen Eki Teki Vaan by Kari Tapio. It borrows the melody from Achy Breaky Heart and melds it with new lyrics about a guy who Turja says "drinks away all his money. A regular Finnish guy. But it's not sad. It makes fun of these kind of people."
(Warning: After several Karhu III lagers, one can find oneself with a microphone in hand, singing Rakkautta Ja Piikkilankaa by Uniklubi. God knows you'll flub the chorus.)
Royal OnnelaAddress: 48 Fredrikinkatu Website: ravintolaonnela.fi
Memo to club owners: Have you ever thought of adding a Scrabble night?