I discovered Open/Closed, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 400 miles north of Stockholm, so accidentally that it seemed predestined. As former protégé to Roger Ailes when he was CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel—a saga now portrayed in The Loudest Voice on Showtime—I had been in London to speak before British Parliament, which was investigating whether Murdoch should be permitted to acquire more media. To assist the inquiry, I was speaking publicly for the first time since I quit working for Ailes (and escaped NewsCorp security in a Hudson Valley car chase—a story for another time).
After detailing the corruption I witnessed, I stood amid the gothic arches of the Palace of Westminster and stared into the churning waters of the Thames. It was a frigid, dreary December day, and I had to get out of London, but I didn’t want to go home. Accepting a standing offer from some Swedes I’d met months earlier in New Orleans, I flew to Stockholm, where I wandered for a week until some locals told me about Kiruna, a town in the Arctic Circle, where the sun disappears until January. The totality of the weeks-long polar night—and the room to think that it would provide—was captivating.
My overnight train rumbled through snowdrifts and deep wilderness until, under the cover of darkness, it arrived in the city of Umeå. With 12 hours until the train to Kiruna, I trekked along a snow-packed boulevard lined with firepits and public benches bedecked with animal pelts until I reached the cozy Stora Hotellet (“The Grand Hotel”), whose dimly lit hallways danced with holographic images of sea monsters and shipwrecks. After a nap, I settled in at the lobby bar, hung with tentacular aqua glass sculptures, had a few drinks, and prepared to catch my next train. But before I could leave, the bartender suggested I investigate another bar, hidden deeper within the hotel. I told him I was pressed for time, and yet he insisted, saying he’d reserved a seat for me there. Amid the strange subarctic twilight, time had already lost its grip on me.
Beyond the lobby, the hotel gave way to a vast, glass atrium around whose perimeter were arranged the city’s library, a bakery, a pizzeria, a fishmonger—and, lo, a pair of glass doors behind which a group of well-heeled people sat eating, drinking and talking. A man wearing a bar apron appeared and ushered me in. “You must be Joe, from America,” he said in a rhythmic tumble. “I’m Wictor. We’ve been expecting you.”
That night, I was swept into the portal of Open/Closed, a place that was always coy about its existential status, a quality that must have resonated within my subconscious. Their motto: “We’re open when we’re not closed.” By day it was a small deli, Duå, run by the identical twins Per and Lars Åkerland, gregarious and thoughtful chefs selling sophisticated food to their city of 85,000. At night, away went the Le Creusets, the French presses and the jars of oils and jams; slabs of wood were pulled back from the counters to reveal bar sinks. Here, five years before, bartender Emil Seth Åreng had forged a concept in which cocktails were served in conjunction with elaborate stories, whose research could withstand a higher level of fact-checking than some of the media outlets I’d previously known. With foraged ingredients, a cadre of high-tech methods and logic-defying flavor combinations, Åreng and his fellow bartenders built the best cocktail bar in the world, known by few beyond the city’s limits.
Installed on a stool next to a deli case filled with cheeses, meats and pâtés, below shelves stacked with jars and tins and boxes, with British folk singer Johnny Flynn’s lyrics floating around me, I ordered a Hyperion—Cognac, lemon, chestnut, mushroom foam, salt and olive oil—whose convoluted mythology I’m unable to recall. A bartender who introduced himself as Karl-Martin Edin delivered it, along with the assurance that I would not be leaving Umeå that evening. A cavalcade of cheese, Arctic raspberries, char roe, three or four cocktails, a nip of this and that, and five hours later I had, indeed, missed my train. For five nights, I remained in the city, returning each evening to Open/Closed, making friends with the staff and regulars, and even attending a Christmas party where they shared with me a bottle of 1977 Chartreuse.
At Duå and Open/Closed, the Åkerland twins strove to bring the world to Umeå. Each year, they flew their team to a culinary destination—San Sebastián, Naples, Rome, Barcelona, Paris—enriching this hidden northern nook with all they’d learned abroad. And, in many ways, they brought the world to me. With their advice, I ate at Manfreds in Copenhagen, drank at Little Red Door in Paris, and discovered Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar in Tel Aviv, where I ran into a bartender I’d sat next to the previous evening at Little Red Door. (Open/Closed had a way of collapsing time and space.) Between the walls of their black-tiled shop, I had my first taste of reindeer tartare, natural wine and pork rillettes. I sang Irish drinking songs with a Swedish pirate folk-rock band, discussed philosophy with university professors and students, and talked politics with a group of Americans and Ukrainians.
So confident in the magic of Open/Closed was I that, over the years, I convinced friends from Stockholm, Kyiv, New York, Washington, D.C, and Phoenix to join me there in the dead of several subarctic winters (to add to its mystique, it was a seasonal venue). Yet despite its daring and ambition, despite its location just an hour’s flight from Stockholm, the alchemy of Open/Closed couldn’t last. The original staff drifted elsewhere. Åreng and Wictor Tengvall now preside at the Cadier Bar in Stockholm’s Grand Hôtel; Edin is up to something mysterious and TBD; bartenders John and Jake work at new venues in Umeå’s now-booming cocktail scene; and the twins continue to run Duå behind the Stora Hotellet.
From its opening in November 2014 to its final day in December 2019, Open/Closed created more than 400 original cocktails, estimates Edin. His favorite was called the Hamburger Sour: vodka, dijon, Gruyère, lemon, melted onion, tomato and cured beef with French fry foam. And though it sounds like a gimmick—just as the concept of Open/Closed might—it wasn’t. It was akin to what the Italians call a “wine of meditation,” enjoyed on its own, for its own sake: nourishing, sincere and surprising, like a good story is meant to be.