Brunost, or “brown cheese,” is a Norwegian delicacy little seen anywhere else in the world. It is a caramel-colored block of sticky and sweet whey cheese, best eaten in thin shavings like parmesan; it’s certainly not something one expects to find in a cocktail. But for Monica Berg, the woman behind HIMKOK‘s new “Flavours of Norway” menu, it was essential they find a way to translate this highly esteemed regional specialty into a drink.
HIMKOK—whose name means “moonshine” or “home-brew” in Norwegian—is one of Oslo’s leading cocktail bars, paving the way in both cocktail technique and sustainable innovation. The concept for the bar, which opened in April 2015, began with the micro-distillery (no small feat in a country where the government still controls consumer wine and spirits sales) and grew from there. Today, it occupies a roughly 7,500-square-foot, 19th-century brick building in Oslo where, on entry, you’re confronted with a gleaming copper still enclosed in a glass chamber. In addition to Tap Tails, Himkok’s high-volume draft cocktail bar, there’s a cider garden, a greenhouse and, finally, a more classical 40-seat cocktail bar.
“Flavours of Norway,” which launched in March of this year, is representative of the thematic menu concepts that Berg hopes will become the norm at the bar. For this particular iteration, Berg spent ten months on research and development, sourcing distinctly Norwegian ingredients from independent farmers and small producers across the country. Each of the 13 cocktails on the list is built around one regional ingredient and assigned a bunad—an elaborately embroidered national dress corresponding to the region in which that ingredient is produced. “We wanted to tell the story of Norwegian craft, notably in gastronomy, but also everywhere,” explains Berg. “We want to support the people fighting to keep the local traditions and flavors alive.”
For Berg, this undertaking wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the nation’s beloved brunost, first invented by milkmaid Anne Hov in Gudbrandsdalen around 1863. For its namesake cocktail, Berg first tried distilling the cheese, which worked well. But it was a technique she had already used to make a dulce de leche gin, and she didn’t want to repeat herself.
She opted instead to infuse the cheese into simple syrup over a period of 72 hours, which would offer both sweetness and funk. Then, she bolstered those flavors with a measure of dry vermouth infused with prim—a soft, brown spread and precursor to brunost. For the lead spirit, she opted for aquavit (fittingly, Christopher Hammer, the godfather of Norwegian aquavit, lived not far from Gudbrandsdalen, where the cheese originated) then rounded it out with Armagnac for something “stronger, stirred, not too sweet, but quite rich.” Garnished, of course, with a piece of brown cheese, the resulting Brunost cocktail is rich and decidedly unusual. “It’s one of those drinks, you either love it or hate it,” Berg says, “but people are curious enough to order it.”
The other cocktails are similarly based around a range of typically Norwegian products: plum wine, or plommegløgg, is sourced from Skott Gård, a farm an hour outside of Oslo; whey, whose lactic acid acts as a replacement for citrus in cocktails, is sourced from the Bygdøy Royal Estate; and trøffeltang, or truffle seaweed, is found on the coast in Trondheim and harvested by one of Norway’s leading chefs, Heidi Bjerkan.
In some instances, these native flavors are paired with a bespoke spirit, often reverse-engineered to create a pleasing compatibility; the on-site micro distillery offers the bar team an unprecedented level of control in cocktail creation. “It unlocks a whole new world when you can design spirits specifically for the cocktails,” Berg says. “We can get flavors we didn’t think were possible. It makes life very adventurous.”
While HIMKOK is garnering international accolades for its work, it remains deeply rooted in Norway, part of a collaborative local culinary scene where foraging and farmers markets are de rigueur. “HIMKOK is very much a bar for Oslo,” Berg says. “It reflects the place and time that it’s in.”