Kasper Riewe Henriksen: Inclusive Oasis

Kasper Riewe Henriksen: Inclusive Oasis

Kasper Riewe Henriksen set out on his own after working at Copenhagen’s highly regarded cocktail institutions. As a result, he opened Duck and Cover, a hideaway named after the 1951 American educational film teaching kids how to survive a nuclear attack. The underground enclave is meant to offer a space devoid of pretension and fuss. He shares what locals and visitors are talking about over drinks, and we discuss the widely misunderstood local spirit aquavit, a drink that's wrought havoc on Danish holidays for centuries but is given a new lease of life in his inclusive oasis.  

What's the drinking culture like in Denmark? 
The drinking culture used to be that you would go out on the weekends and you would get shitfaced and that was it. The goal was to drink and to party. Some people would have wine at restaurants and you always had connoisseurs, but the drinking culture has developed alongside the gastronomical culture. 

People started to care about what they drink and eat. They care about the quality of the product. It’s a whole different perspective and that is giving us a chance to do something. It’s not just about going out and getting drunk, but something you can do on a Tuesday night.

It has become "in" to know about gastronomy and food. Sometimes it’s actually a little annoying. For example, sometimes I say it would be easier for me to be a brain surgeon. Probably not easier to become a brain surgeon, but to be one because people would shut up and listen to what I had to say. Here, everyone has to challenge my opinion, which is cool—it only makes me better. So, in that case, it’s a great thing that’s been happening for the last 10 to 15 years now. 

So what’s the most popular drink? 
We use a lot of aquavit here. It’s a Scandinavian spirit. Aquavit means like, "water of life." We like working with aquavit because it’s traditional. 

People go for Christmas lunch or Easter lunch and have it with pickled herring. The rest of the year, you don’t usually drink it because people will say they get too drunk with it.

It’s like an open myth. It’s not like you get more drunk with aquavit than any other spirit but if you’ve been downing 20 shots of it, of course, you are going to feel bad the day after.  But it’s still declining in sales. If you look at sales it’s declining because the consumers are basically dying, to be honest, they are older. It’s been hard to get the young people to drink it. We’ve been using a lot of it in cocktails. It’s easy for us to sell aquavit to guests or tourists in cocktails than it would be to locals because they have these experiences like, “Oh, that’s for Christmas.” However, people come down here to experience what we do so they start to put a trust in what we do. 

How have you seen the food and service industry in change in Copenhagen?
I moved to Copenhagen 12 years ago and there’s a lot more going on now. People used to come to the bar and ask where to go for dinner on a Sunday or Monday night or even a Tuesday. It was practically impossible to advise them anywhere good. Places are open in Tivoli but you don't want to go there and now you can make a list. You get a lot of really good food and there’s so many at decent prices as well. I think that’s amazing. There are public markets popping up and urban gardening and rooftop beers and all that. But in general, there are a lot of creative forces in the city—more than there used to be. 

Do you know why or where this change is coming from? 
Copenhagen wants to be a big metropolitan city, but we’re not. We’re the world’s smallest big city. You can walk around the city center within 20 minutes and you can practically see all the sites. 

What I like about Copenhagen is that it is sort of starting to split up among different areas. It’s sort of begun to spread out and every neighborhood has their own thing.

Especially Vesterbro. It has its own identity. I love having a business in Vesterbro.

Can you explain the Duck and Cover menu and what’s most popular? 
We change the menu every two months and some of the items we leave on there. And then we change it quarterly, each season. 

At Duck and Cover, it’s dark spirits. If you go on the street people will say gin. Gin is crazy right now. A gin and tonic is something that has become ridiculous because I think the beauty of a gin and tonic is that it’s so simple. It’s gin and tonic and a slice of lime.

A lot of people choose gin by the packaging and the marketing not by the excellent flavors because nine out of 10 can’t really taste the difference, especially with tonic in it. But here, we serve a lot of dark spirits like whiskey and rum. American whiskey is probably our biggest seller right now. Old fashioneds and Manhattans. We have a drink here that is like a slight take on an old fashioned. But instead of sweetening the whiskey with a little bit of sugar, we sweeten it with roasted almonds. It has a little bit of salt water on top so you get that salt water taffy taste.  

What’s your break down of customers local vs. visiting? 
It has been 50/50 over the summers, more visiting than local because a lot of locals tend to go away over the summer. Every year the percentage of tourists increases as people find out about us. There are a lot of Swedes visiting Copenhagen. And Americans and Japanese. 

What’s the atmosphere like?
It’s seating only. I mean we can be a little flexible at the bar. But you won’t be sitting with a drink with someone right behind you and in your face because that’s not really nice, or cozy. 

We wanted to create a space where you could come down and relax even on weekends because a lot of the really popular bars in the city, which are great bars, tend to let in too many people, in my perspective.

If you need to wait half an hour or 35 minutes for a drink, you need to reconsider if you’re getting a second one. It creates an unnecessary stress in the bar that we didn’t want here. We wanted to keep the waiting time to an absolute minimum. Of course, it takes time—they’re crafted cocktails, it’s not just something that we pour, but when you sit down you have your drinks within 10 minutes. 

Duck and Cover bar

Previously, you worked at a bar that was more fast-paced, somewhere with those long lines?
I tried that, yes. The place I worked before is Ruby. It is a quite known place in the city, at least within the cocktail industry, and it still is. I really, really enjoyed working there. I learned a lot. I came to Ruby after being in the industry for seven or eight years. I wouldn’t say it was the beginning of the rise of the cocktail culture in Copenhagen but it was at the very start of it. Ruby got very busy and very crowded but it’s a big place and it suited that place. But working that way and working in nightclubs years back—I wanted to create a relaxing place with music that doesn’t get any louder than you could speak and drinks you can enjoy and you can enjoy your company. 

What is it about you or what you were feeling at the time that inspired you to create a place like this? 

I wanted this relaxed atmosphere—a place where people can order a beer or a gin and tonic and not excuse themselves for what they order.
Duck and Cover spirit shelves

The whole cocktail culture got a little stiff. The whole cocktail thing was sort of alienating people who didn’t know about spirits and bitters, and that’s not why we’re here. We want people to have a good night and I thought you’ve come to the wrong place if people are apologizing for what they order. If you want a gin and tonic, you should have a gin and tonic—that’s very important to us. Or you ask us a stupid question which is of course not stupid, the bartender will know the answer. We’re not dressing up in shirts and bowties or anything like that. We work in dark jeans, sneaks, and whatever shirt we feel comfortable just to not have that distance. 

So the cocktail culture that started in Copenhagen or Denmark became pretentious? 
Not only Denmark. I think in general, cocktails just became beards and high hats at some point. Not everyone, but a lot of bartenders took that direction with it. 

They lost focus on what the service of the industry was really about. That’s what the name Duck and Cover refers to. It’s the 1951 infomercial from the United States teaching people to seek shelter or duck and cover if a nuclear war was to break out.

So there’s a time reference to the 1950s and 1960s with the decor but also that we’re a shelter or somewhere you can seek shelter or hide away from everyday stress. A downstairs bunker where you can leave everything out there. 

So it’s a homage to American culture in some ways? Are there American influences? 
There are. I mean the cocktail culture is an American thing and it spread all over the world throughout the years, but it comes from America. So definitely and we do a lot of classic drinks here. We do a lot of our own creations, but we do a lot of classics: martinis, old fashioneds, flips, and cobblers.

I used to be a bartender and you could really gauge the pulse of the city based on what people are talking about while having drinks. What are people talking about now in your bar? 
In general, that’s hard to say. I think it’s such a mixed crowd down here so the conversations will be mixed as well. 

From one end we had the MAD food symposium in Copenhagen and the whole gastronomics —the impact that such a small city has done on the gastronomic scene has been crazy. And, that’s something that has a spillover effect on the bar industry. We have a lot of foodies and gastro-tourists or whatever you call them. There’s a lot of those visiting us and they talk about the Copenhagen food scene, the Copenhagen bar scene, and what has happened over the past 10 years. That’s one crowd. 

Then we have a lot of locals. We aimed to create a community bar so we have a lot of locals talking about their jobs, politics, American politics, the IQ test of the United States, which they are very close to failing in my perspective. That’s quite a topic at the moment but it could be anything. It’s not that much about whiskey and distillation and stuff. 

Kasper Riewe Henriksen portrait drinking

How is what you're doing here different than what's going on in say, Japan or the United States?

In Japan, it’s a lot about the service. It’s in order, strict. It’s very correct. We’re probably a little more rough-edged here but it’s a different way of tackling the industry. There are cool places in New York, but I can be surprised by the new, cool places in Copenhagen as well. Of course, there will be bars, a couple bars in London where I’m very impressed by the way they rethink the whole thing, but it’s not necessarily because they are in London. They have a bigger audience, but it could happen anywhere people sort of experimenting with these things. 

There are bars in the United States, London, Berlin, and sometimes Copenhagen popping up, changing the industry, doing something a little different.

The first time I went to New York, I was blown away by the service and the bars because we didn’t have anything like it in Denmark. But at this point in time, 10 years later, I definitely think we are on the same level.
Kasper Riewe Henriksen portrait
Copenhagen with Kasper Riewe Henriksen.

Photography by Robiee Ziegler, unless otherwise noted. Interviews edited for flow and clarity.