Karl-Martin Edin

16 Nov. 2018
It's all about food for this Swedish bartender

At the 2018 Havana Club Grand Prix global finals, one of the most eye-catching drinks to make it to the last ten was undoubtedly Karl-Martin Edin’s Havana Club Sandwich, a cocktail tied together by a syrup made with dark toasted bread, homemade pickle brine, mustard and citrus zest, and precisely called… « sandwich syrup ». 

Karl-Martin’s love for food comes from far, very far: « I’ve been cooking since I was 5 years old. I had to cook once a week since I was six. That’s the rules of the house, you know… » At an older but still quite youthful age (15), he naturally started working in the hospitality industry, first in cafés and then in pubs, where he developed a taste for good beer. Cocktails entered the picture by accident: « In a way, cocktails were a banana skin I ran into — I fell into it by accident », he told us. Karl-Martin’s sister is a designer and, 5 years ago, she asked her brother to deliver a parcel to a bar she was doing some work for. There, he met famed Swedish bartender Emil Åreng who was about to leave for the global finals of a famous cocktail competition. They started to talk. « I had never made a cocktail in my life but I gave him some pointers from a food and beer perspective. He suggested I started to bartend at his bar. »

And that’s how Karl-Martin turned from a one-time delivery boy into a lifetime bartender. That he fell in love so hard with shakers and mixing glasses probably has to do with the bar he’s working at. Umeå’s Open/Closed indeed has a very special relationship with food in general and cooking in particular: most of the time it’s a deli; it only turns into a bar at night from Thursday to Sunday — « You’d never know it’s a bar and then we remove the pans, the bottles of sauce or oil and underneath we have a rack full of booze », said Karl-Martin. It’s not only the location, though, as the drinks use a lot of gastronomical techniques, ingredients and concepts. And part of the menu is set up to be matched with food in a sequence of (in that order) shim (low alcohol), stiff, fresh and dessert concoctions.

As a spur for creativity, Åreng has his team come up with themes for each menu, and it’s the stories linked to said theme that should inspire the cocktails. This allowed Karl-Martin to discover unexpected associations of flavours. « The best I’ve brought together was elderflower and parsnip. I had to make it work because the story the drink had to be inspired in featured both ingredients ». Interestingly, while competitions tend to be quite different from the day to day grind of a bar, for Karl-Martin both are actually very similar experiences. « Emil made me go into the world of cocktail competitions very early. They forced me to think about why I put stuff into the drinks. It’s OK to say apples and mint go well together, but in competitions you need to come up with a story so you think about the where and the when and the why of everything you do with your drink. And that’s what we do at the bar, every ingredient is there for a reason and I have to be able to tell a customer exactly why I used it or made the drink the way I made it. I love that, it’s a very creative way of making drinks »

So now you know that the Havana Club Sandwich is not a gimmicky cocktail: it really comes from the heart of a young bartender whose love for food inspires everything he does. Would he have loved cocktails and bartending as much as he does if his sister had been doing some design work for another style of bar? Maybe not but who cares, really… Bartender, put some bread in my drink, please!

François Monti